Beit Sahour (Palestine)
Beit Sahour is located in Bethlehem Governorate in the Palestinian Territory. This governorate encompasses an area of about 607 square kilometers, and is bounded by Jerusalem to the north, and Hebron Governorate to the south, the Dead Sea to the east, and Mediterranean Coast to the west. It is located approximately 2km east of the city of Bethlehem and is bounded by Jerusalem and the Abu Ghneim (Har Homa) Israeli settlement to the north, Hindaza village to the south, Dar Salah and Shawawra villages to the east. Beit Sahour is situated at an approximate elevation of 650m above sea level and its annual rainfall measures about 450mm.
Beit Sahour is an important biblical and touristic city that has a special biblical and historical importance. It is the city in which the annunciation of the birth of Jesus Christ took place in the shepherds’ field. The origin of the name Beit Sahour (the house of vigilance) reputedly stems from the Canaanite words "Beit" meaning house, and "Sahour" meaning night watch, which reflects the importance of the area for shepherds.
Beit Sahour’s village council dates back to 1925 which was transformed to a municipality in 1952 Beit Sahour is a notable touristic town that is famous with its local handcrafts made from olivewood, mother of pearl and embroidery. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), the total population of Beit Sahour is around 15,000 with more than 2,775 households living in 3,517 housing units.
Economy & Culture
Beit Sahour heavily depends on tourism. It is a city with great biblical, historical and touristic significance and benefits from tourism in various ways, among which are the local handicrafts industries.
Handicrafts are not only considered as touristic income generating method, but also a way to preserve the identity and heritage that is passed down through generations to keep them tenacious to their history and roots.
Beit Sahour has all long been investing in, and enhancing the touristic character and facilities of the city, among which was enhancing the local industry by finding markets for it abroad and providing places for these workshops to operate away from residential areas.
Beit Sahour is now a middle class, thriving city with many industries. The locals have developed high-quality artisan craftsmanship, mainly mother-of-pearl, olive wood while manufacturing religious and nonreligious items. Embroidery, textile industries, chemical and stone manufacturing are also characteristics of the town.
The bi-millennium celebrations have stimulated a great deal of interest in the restoration of cultural heritage in Beit Sahour. The preservation and expansion of the Old City will enormously contribute to the development of the tourism sector. At present, tourists coming to Beit Sahour often limit their visit to the Shepherds’ Field and the souvenir shops around it. The Old City is rarely visited. Conservation, restoration and investment in the city means that its rich history can be better explored by visitors and residents alike, while providing the best possible services, including a variety of restaurants, cafes and hotels. Tourism, and its related enterprises, play a crucial role in boosting the city’s economy.
According to the figures published by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistic (PCBS) in 2017, the total population of Beit Sahour City is approximately 15,000, of whom 50.1% are male and 49.9% female.
Beit Sahour Handicraft Activities
We can define handicraft activities as crafts or industries which depend on natural raw materials, workers’ manual skills via employing primitive tools. These industries rely on transforming some raw material into marketable goods that reflect the local cultural heritage, with many having a religious significance as well.
Beit Sahour is one of the cities in Palestine which is very famous for such industries, which many families depend on for their living, especially olive-wood manufacturing.
Olive Wood Craft:
History and Traditions Pertaining to Olive Wood Handicraft
Souvenirs made from olive wood is a famous traditional handicraft. The manufacture of shaping, processing and carving the olive wood has been known in Palestine since ancient times. It is believed that it began in Bethlehem in the 4th century AD, following the arrival of Christian pilgrims to Palestine. The craft flourished due to its close association with the olive tree, which is famous in the area and is characterized by durability and edible fruits. This craft was passed on from generation to generation. Today, olive wood manufacturing is one of the most important touristic handicrafts in Beit Sahour and a large number of artisans work in this field. Wood is meticulously and skillfully carved in various forms and with extreme precision by using simple hand tools.
The craft of ornamental olive wood carving started only during the 14th century. One of the earliest documented manifestations of the olive wood tradition is the rosary-making that was set up by Franciscan monks who have been in Bethlehem area since 1340. In the early days, the monks requested local artisans to make rosaries from the seeds of olives for sale to tourists, but in the sixteenth century they brought specialized carvers from Italian cities such as Genoa and Venice to teach new techniques Bethlehemite artisans. Gradually this led to the evolution towards more sophisticated forms of olive wood carving like the ones we find today.
The olive wood workshops manufacture religious statues, frames, rosaries, pots and other artifacts inspired by local traditions. The olive wood is carved in various forms by using simple hand tools. Electrical machines are used to cut the olive wood at the beginning of the process, then the wood is transformed into statues while the preparation of accurate details are done manually using simple hand tools. Later comes the stage of varnishing with wax so that the object is ready to enter the marketing stage. There are many models of statues and other artifacts, such as statues of the Holy Family, shepherds, book covers, boxes, images along with other items.
The wood used for carving is not obtained by felling trees usually, for such a brutal practice would destroy whole groves of priceless trees. Instead, the necessary annual pruning of the olive branches provides enough material for carving so farmers and artisans enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship.
Olive wood products are commercialized in three main directions represented by the local market, the Arab markets and the international markets. Around 50% of these products are commercialized through stores that sell artistic items both as wholesale and as retail to pilgrims in the Bethlehem area. Almost 40% of the olive wood products are exported to the United States and Europe. The rest of those products is sold to the Arab market such as Jordan and some countries in the Arab Gulf countries.
Mother of Pearl Craft:
History and Traditions Pertaining to Mother of Pearl
The mother of pearl craft industry was introduced between the 14th and 16th century, by both Franciscan friars from Damascus and craftsmen from Genoa. Since then, generation after generation have produced beautiful products including crosses, frames, boxes, crucifixes and other items.
However, the mother of pearl is considered a genuine Palestinian handicraft and popular only in the Governorate of Bethlehem, because of the special way of its manufacturing and the special designs that mark those products from other mother of pearl items found in Syria, Turkey and other countries in the Middle East. Unfortunately, this craft is vanishing and very few artisans are still persistent to keep this art they have learned from their ancestors.
The Franciscan community played a key role, as they did with olive wood carving, introducing new techniques through artisans imported from Italy, and commissioning Bethlehemites to produce souvenirs and church models for European markets. We lack details on how this craft developed in Beit Sahour, but the town’s proximity to great centers of mother-of-pearl carving such as Damascus could provide a clue. Bethlehem’s links with Damascus were ensured over hundreds of years by the annual Christian pilgrimages from Syria to Jerusalem which included visits to the holy site in Bethlehem Area, as well as the much larger Muslim Hajj that set off each year from Damascus and passed close by Bethlehem, east of the River Jordan. These connections with Syrian cities have served as an important reminder that it was not only European pilgrims who shaped Bethlehem’s history and it is quite likely that mother-of-pearl carving took hold in Bethlehem through these influences.
The entire production process is based on cutting, designing, gluing and polishing. This is carried out in local workshops mostly in the Bethlehem area.
Nacre, the iridescent, strong, resilient substance known as mother of pearl comes from the inner shell layer of mollusks and abalone. Shells used in this craft were originally taken from the Red Sea, but are now imported from Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Brazil
Although the local demand is considerable, a big part of the mother of pearl production is exported abroad. The percentage of the exported mother of pearl items is 75%. The main destinations of export currently are to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries. The local demand for mother of pearl increased in the form of corporate giveaways.
Even though products made of mother of pearl are beautiful and attractive, it has become difficult to export them due to the spread of awareness in the Western world regarding the protection and preservation of the aquatic environment. This idea, however, is incorrect because shells used in the production of mother of pearl items are of dead snails. The sales abroad are handled either directly by the producers or through agents, and by means of exhibitions.
Traditional handicraft products are influenced by the personal taste of the artisan and by his Particular inclination. This production is accumulated over the years, each new generation adding its creative touches across the centuries. Thus, the preservation of traditional handicrafts is the protection of the heritage of a society’s ancestors, besides being a label of identity for each nation. All this makes the countries of the world, including Palestine, give great importance to this element of civilization. Economically, this sector has a great ability to absorb unemployment and create job opportunities.
Established handicraft enterprises in Palestine focus their work on developing marginalized producers by offering them trainings in various fields like product development, financial administration, fair trade training and much more to ensure high quality production, fair and ethical practices and most importantly safe working conditions.
Enterprises in Beit Sahour also implement workshop renovation projects to improve the wellbeing of handicraft workshops and to ensure a healthy and safe environment, which definitely aims towards the continuity of these traditional crafts.
Artisans have skillful and are able to produce any product upon as per order, especially if efforts are combined with quality improvement activities targeted to satisfy the tastes and preferences of tourists or abroad markers.
The wage levels for the craftsmen are better than other professions. This is why in Beit Sahour there are many people who depend of these crafts, creating more than 80% of work opportunities such as artisans (women and men) with low educational level, people with a high professional level (women and men) who work with this craft after finishing their principal work in the morning along with people with high professional level who work with this handicraft for a better income. Therefore, we emphasize on the necessity of the handicrafts’ sustainable education in various fields. As this industry depends heavily on handwork; craftsmen have high professional skills in carving, forming and producing products away from modern technology. Basically, such skills are usually passed on to younger generations within the same family.
One of the most pressing problems facing handicraft workshops in the Bethlehem Governorate is related to health and safety. Craftspeople in dilapidated workshops contend with poor ventilation conditions, poor lighting, exposed electrical wires, overcrowding, unfit or non-existent sanitary facilities, and exposure to extreme temperatures due to insufficient weatherproofing. These infrastructural challenges pose significant health hazards to employees, often resulting in chronic illness, otherwise preventable safety risks, and poor mental health due to stressful working conditions. Many of these factors may lead to forced early retirement, which, without a government-established safety net, leaves families struggling to make ends meet, and often also to deal with the costs of deteriorating health. Handicraft workers represent a longstanding local tradition, particularly in the Bethlehem area, where the tradition’s roots are deepest. These craftspeople deserve to work in safe and dignified conditions so they can continue to support their families and create meaningful works of art that reflect the history and character of Palestine and its people.
Relevance of Crafts to Local Tourism
The handicraft sector is considered as an integral part of tourism and a continuing source of funding for the tourism sector in Palestine. Usually, handicrafts products are sold locally to tourists and pilgrims. The success of the handicraft sector products is derived from its relevance to the Holy Land which gives it a comparative and competitive advantage. The latter justifies the high price of the Palestinian handicraft’s products compared to similar ones in other countries.
It is suggested that our protect carry our own logo to protect our production and preserve our international reputation. Indeed, many try to imitate our work and sell their goods at much lower price as if they are manufactured in Bethlehem, and the logo makes such an imitation almost impossible.
Tradition of Crafts
Most of the Olive Wood and Mother of Pearl workshops are family enterprises. They are often located in the lower storey of their house, and are usually run by people who have inherited the business from their father and Grandparents. In these cases, the manufacturing skills have been acquired through working in the family workshop since childhood.
When it comes to a family enterprise, people tend to work together as a family, and as it became a tradition people like to pass the tradition to the next generation. In fact, Olive wood and Mother of Pearl are not a male dominated craft, since artisans of both genders and all ages work in it.
We realized recently that handcrafters come from different backgrounds; some have inherited the profession by their father
As Olive Wood carving and Mother of Pearl production have existed in this land since the earliest centuries, they were always a point of attraction for tourists from all over the world. In fact, pilgrims have mentioned the local crafts in early centuries and in several occasions.
One example of the earliest documented manifestations of the Olive Wood tradition is the rosary-making that was set up by Franciscan monks living in the Bethlehem area. The Franciscans settled in Bethlehem in the 1340s, acquiring permission from the Mamluk authorities to inhabit part of the Church of the Nativity compound. Later they built their own convent and opened their own schools in the area, leading to an intimate and long-lasting relationship with the local population. One of the Franciscans’ main activities in Bethlehem was buying locally-made handicrafts in order to sell to the pilgrims who visited the Franciscans from Europe. Over time, this became a lucrative trade for the Franciscans.
Another example is when European travelers to Palestine described their impressions of Bethlehem, they almost always mentioned the trade in Olive Wood products. The earliest of these accounts go back to the fifteenth century but they became much more common from the seventeenth century onwards.