Syria’s last traditional boat makers keep ancient craft afloat

Khaled Bahlawan drives nails into a traditional wooden boat he built by hand, toiling in the scorching Syrian Mediterranean sun coast to preserve an ancient know-how that is endangered.

“We are the last family making wooden ships and boats in Syria,” the 39-year-old said on the shores of Arwad Island, near the city of Tartous.

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

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

Hundreds of workers, locals and visitors travel there every day in wooden boats, mostly built by the Bahlawan family.

But demand for a craft that dates back to ancient Phoenician times has pretty much plummeted.

The eight members of the Bahlawan family now share the work, 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 makers keep ancient craft afloat
Syrian craftsman Khaled Bahlawan (right) builds a wooden boat in his shipyard on the Syrian Mediterranean island of Arwad on July 24, 2022. (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

Long power outages from years of conflict prevent Bahlawan from using his electrical equipment.

Instead, he works with his grandfather’s hand tools, smoothing the wood by hand rather than an electric plane.

“It’s a tough job,” I said, standing inside the hull of a boat and carefully tapping each nail.

He heads every day to his small open-air workshop 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 sporadic woodchips.

– ‘Historical responsibility’ –

Boat building has been a village tradition since Phoenician times, said Noureddine Suleiman, who heads the municipality of Arwad.

In the past, the majority of residents of Arwad were boat builders, he said.

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

Thousands of years ago, the Phoenicians, renowned for their construction of ships and boats, laid the foundations of maritime navigation.

Skilled sailors and traders roamed the seas, bringing their knowledge, skills and alphabet to other parts of the Mediterranean.

But traditional boat-making is now in danger of disappearing altogether, Suleiman warned, as young people emigrate or seek easier, more profitable work.

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

“We mainly make ships from eucalyptus and mulberry wood from the forests of Tartous,” says the 54-year-old, a skilled carpenter.

Young children played hide and seek in the hulls of the workshop boats, while an old man smoked in the shade of a large ship.

Nearby, more than 40 wooden boats were moored at the port of Arwad.

“We were manufacturing four large ships and several boats every year which we exported to Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon,” said Farouk Bahlawan.

“This year we have only worked on one ship, and there is still a lot of work to do before that is done.”

I looked at the beach where the children were running in the sand.

“We have to continue this journey,” he said, his voice full of emotion. “We carry a historic responsibility on our shoulders.”