Many of us love mulberries; freshly picked white mulberries, black juicy mulberries, mulberry syrup, mulberry ice cream, mulberry jam. So does the silkworm, for another reason. The silkworm loves to eat the leaves of the mulberry tree. (Who doesn’t remember as a child getting smacked by grandma for picking at her favorite mulberry tree and getting stains all over their clothes?)
The silk worm is a caterpillar born out of the mating of a male and a female moth. As it nourishes itself from the mulberry leaves, it grows. In the process, it creates a home around itself, called the Larva, or the cocoon, made up of intertwined white threads. Once the caterpillar is large enough, it turns into a pupa and then another moth, which flies away, leaving in the process the self-made hideout.
The cocoon is a precious natural commodity to humans. It is the raw material that formed almost 80% of the economy of Lebanon in the 19th and the early 20th century. We call it silk.
George Asseily mentions in the book, “In the Time of the Mulberry” by Desmond Astley-Cooper: “There was a time when the mulberry tree could have easily surpassed the cedar tree as a symbol of Lebanon”.
Due to the high demands in silk production, this tree had an unsurpassed economic impact on rural communities, until the 1940’s, when silk began to be imported from the Far East, leading to the rise of the first subsidies from the government. However, the civil war broke out in 1975 and the factories began to close and their owners immigrated out of the country.
Today, many of the silk factories are still found on the mountain slopes, hidden inside villages, often behind large oak trees, or attached to restored houses, reminding their visitor of the heyday of silk in Lebanon’s history.
Some of the ruined factories are found along the hiking paths of the Lebanon Mountain Trail. Qubayat and Andqet, 2 villages on section 0 and 1, have more than five, whose halls and walls are clear witnesses of this unique and ancient vital source of economic wealth, which supported so many families two centuries ago. Mtein, another village along the LMT and the capital of the Abillamaa dynasty, also saw an increase in silk production. Seven factories were built in the 1850’s, of which today only one survives.
In the year 1968, the guardian angel of Lebanon’s cultural heritage and famous archaeologist, Dr. El-Mir Maurice Chehab, had announced that in 1893, the mountains of Lebanon had ca. 194 Lebanese-owned silk factories. He saw the importance of preserving the cultural heritage of this industry 50 years ago, and so does the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association today. Maurice Chehab also mentioned in his studies that by 1911 Lebanon and Syria were producing around 524,000 kilos of raw silk, most of which was going to be exported to the silk sister city of Lyon, in France. The Jesuits of the University of St. Joseph encouraged in the first half of the 19th c. the import of experts and machines for silk production from Lyon’s university, carrying them across the Mediterranean. This, in turn, created a boost in the economic status of Lebanon’s mountainous regions. Furthermore, the book of Albert Hourani, “Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age”, mentions that the port of Beirut profited from the silk production, thus becoming a trade hub for the region.
The Lebanon Mountain Trail Association
is a firm believer that the preservation and rehabilitation of the silk factories can and should be coupled with the support of rural communities. It is worth mentioning here that for the first time in Lebanon’s history, women were allowed and encouraged in the 19th c. to work beside men specifically in silk factories, as their subtle hands were more capable of handling the delicate fabric. Therefore, reviving the silk industry in remote areas will also benefit women on both the economic and social level, as it did 2 centuries ago. In this process, the LMTA has come up with a project to survey the cultural heritage along its trail, including the silk factories, for the sake of preserving their memory for future generations and hoping to assist in their revival. We dream of a day when fine Lebanese silk will return to our wardrobes again.