Syria’s last traditional boat builders keep ancient ship afloat

Khaled Bahlawan hammers nails into a traditional wooden boat he hand-built while working under the hot sun on the Mediterranean Sea in Syria. Coast save the vanishing ancient skill.

“We are the last family that makes wooden ships and boats in Syria,” said a 39-year-old man on the shore of Arvad Island, near the city of Tartus.

“This is the heritage of our ancestors… We fight to preserve it every day.”

Located about three kilometers (less than two miles) from the coast, Arvad is Syria’s only inhabited island and a haven of peace in a country torn apart by 11 years of war.

Hundreds of workers, residents and visitors travel back and forth every day in wooden boats, mostly built by the Bahlawan family.

But demand for a craft that dates back to ancient Phoenician times has dropped to near zero.

Eight members of the Bahlawan family now share the work of making boats for fishermen, resorts and passenger transport.

The tradition of building and repairing wooden boats has been in their family for hundreds of years.

Syria's last traditional boat builders keep ancient ship afloat
Syrian craftsman Khaled Bahlawan (right) builds a wooden boat at his shipyard on Syria’s Mediterranean island of Arwad on July 24, 2022. (Photo: LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

Extended power outages due to years of conflict mean Bahlawan is unable to use his electrical equipment.

Instead, he works with his grandfather’s hand tools, sanding wood by hand rather than with an electric planer.

“It’s a difficult task,” he said, standing inside the hull of the boat and carefully tapping each nail.

He walks every day to his narrow open-air studio near the beach, despite low demand and modest means.

“We are doing our best to overcome the difficulties,” Bahlawan said, his face covered in sweat and the occasional shavings.

– “Historical responsibility” –

Boat building has been a village tradition since Phoenician times, Nureddin Suleiman, head of Arwad municipality, said.

According to him, in the past, most of the inhabitants of Arvad were engaged in the manufacture of boats.

“Today, only the Bahlawan family remains,” he said.

Thousands of years ago, the Phoenicians, famous for their shipbuilding and shipbuilding, laid the foundations of maritime navigation.

Experienced sailors and merchants sailed the seas, bringing their knowledge, skills and their alphabet to other parts of the Mediterranean.

But traditional shipbuilding is now in danger of disappearing entirely, Suleiman warned, as young people emigrate or look for easier, more lucrative jobs.

Farooq Bahlawan, Khaled’s uncle, said his family retained the original shape and structure of ancient Phoenician boats with some modifications.

“We mainly make ships from eucalyptus and mulberry wood from the Tartu forests,” said the 54-year-old experienced carpenter.

Small children played hide-and-seek in the hulls of the boats in the workshop, and an elderly man smoked in the shade of the big ship.

More than 40 wooden boats were moored nearby in the port of Arwad.

“We used to produce four large ships and several boats every year, which we exported to Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon,” Farooq Bahlawan said.

“We’ve only been working on one ship this year and there’s still a lot of work to be done before it’s ready.”

He looked at the beach, where children were running on the sand.

“We must continue this journey,” he said, his voice filled with emotion. “A historic responsibility rests on our shoulders.”