The Fertile Crescent
At risk of sounding overly dramatic, I’m beginning this article with a brief look to the very dawn of civilization. The fertile crescent lay nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and in its rich soil the seeds for the future grandeur of the Middle East were planted. ancient Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran all emerged from the early societies between those rivers. Others did as well of course, but I will only be writing about those three. Each provides a part of the story. Although each has unique artistic and cultural characteristics many practices, techniques, and tools were shared across the Middle East.
Through the lens of woodworking we can learn a great deal about everyday life, the lives of the wealthy and powerful, religion, art, and trade at the very heart of the ancient world. It’s a complicated story, but I’ve narrowed it down to the essentials: geography and types of wood used, the objects that were made, who made them, and the influences of culture and religion in Ancient Iran, Egypt, and Lebanon.
Trading in Ideas and Timber
The development of woodworking and hand tools is inextricably influenced by and connected to its cultural surroundings. Consider the guild system of ancient Rome, the artisan engineers of ancient China, and even the surge of American garage shops in 1950’s suburbia. Geography, culture, and politics shape woodworking. It adds an important context to the history of woodworking and hand tools.
The mathematical and artistic advances of the ancient civilizations of ancient Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran gave rise to a rich history of woodworking with hand tools. Most everyday objects were made out of wood due to the available timber resources. Religious items and beautifully fabricated furniture and works of art were also in high demand.
Wood was accessible either locally or through trade with heavily forested countries like Lebanon, whose famous cedar tree dons their flag even today. Many types of timber were traded between different places, and there was a great attention and care paid to the different types of wood and how best to use them.
The Middle East allowed for a great deal of cultural exchange facilitated by trade, religion, and even war. While I will be far from able to untangle the rich and complicated relationships between the civilizations that have graced this region, I will do my best to tell the story of woodworking. So I have tried to include context wherever possible throughout this article, without losing focus on the history of woodworking.
Egypt: Beauty in The Desert
Woodworking Without Trees
Egypt thrived despite its vast, arid deserts largely due to the fertile soil at the shores of the Nile. It’s periodic flooding created the perfect conditions for the rise of one of the greatest and most influential ancient Middle Eastern civilizations. The artistic, mathematic, and scientific achievements of the ancient Egyptians continue to fascinate the modern world.
The ancient Egyptians were also skilled woodworkers, and invented hand tools and simple machines such as the two-person lathe. Though it’s mentioned less than their statues and burial rituals, ancient Egyptian wooden objects are quite beautiful and would have been in common use for thousands of years. An important stepping stone in the history of woodworking. But there’s one thing about Egypt that makes their history of woodworking quite curious: they had no forests.
Their wood was almost entirely imported. But in the ancient world wood was a vital resource—wooden objects and structures were necessary. And so, a great effort was made to import wood from more forested countries. Mainly Lebanon.
Science Fiction? A Forest in The Desert
A quick jump to the present—scientists are actually developing forests that can grow in the Egyptian desert. Due to climate change and pollution the fertile land in Egypt is shrinking, so scientists from around the world are coming together to develop an irrigated forest that can survive in the desert. The goals are to revitalize the dwindling fertile land and combat the pollution.
Cedars From Across The Sea
Now where were we? Right: Imported timber. The timber native to Egypt, such as acacia, tamarisk, date palm, and sycamore fig. While some of these bore fruit, their timber was weak and low quality. Palm fibers could be used for certain crafts. For strong timber they sought out a trade relationship with Phoenicia: modern-day Lebanon and parts of Israel and Syria.
Lebanese people have always claimed to trace their lineage back to the Phoenicians, but a recent study confirmed that Lebanese people shared 93% of their DNA with the ancient Phoenicians. As a Lebanese American I grew up hearing this tale from my mom—but hey, she was right! I’ll try not to dwell too long on Lebanon here as I cover it in the article. The Phoenicians were a maritime nation of merchants with a strong resource at their backs: the majestic Lebanese Cedar.
The cedars were old even to the ancient Phoenicians. It built their ships and carried them across the Mediterranean. The early Egyptians had a method of building boats by tying together the weak planks of their local timbers, but their fleet grew powerful when they began trading with the Phoenicians, and building their ships out of Lebanese Cedar.
Advanced Woodworking: The Proof is in The Painting
In addition to all of the wooden furniture, objects, and tools left by the ancient Egyptians, there is pretty solid evidence that they worked wood. Actually, they told us themselves in their art. A great deal of ancient art depicts craftsmen working wood with tools. Some of the tools are instantly recognizable and still in use today. One particularly vivid image depicts two men hard at work using what are clearly saws and chisels.
Thousands of years have passed, and yet for woodworkers not too much has changed, really. That’s the fun part about working with hand tools. Looking at an image thousands of years old and seeing someone who does what you do, almost the same way that you do it.
Tools and Techniques
The ancient Egyptians used pull saws, chisels, bow drills, axes, and adzes. Their tools were first made using copper, which was replaced with bronze around 2,000 BCE. Ironworking was still a long way off. Fine-grained sandstone was used in place of planes. Egyptians also developed a two-person lathe around 1300 BCE. There is evidence they were making mortise and tenon joinery since the earliest human settlements along the shores of the Nile, before 3100 BCE. Some also credit the Egyptians with inventing the technique of varnishing wood. Their exact formula is not known, but it would have been a mix of resins such as sap and solvents. In the New Kingdom period (1550-1077 BCE) they made a wood glue out of animal skin and fat.
Furniture For The Dead
Many examples of furniture have survived in good condition due to Egypt’s dry climate. In most of the world, wooden objects are lost to rot and wear over time. Few examples exist from ancient times, and historians and archeologists have to rely on metal tools and accounts from the time. The ancient Egyptians buried their dead, (at least the rich and powerful dead) with many earthly trappings for the afterlife. And it’s hard to spend an eternity without a good, sturdy chair. So of course, tombs were well-furnished.
Stools came before chairs. The earliest records of chairs with a back come from paintings on the walls of the tomb of chief doctor and dentist to the King in the Third Dynasty (around 2686 – 2613 BCE). He was very proud indeed of his collection of fine wooden furniture, and the
Fit For a Queen / King
One of the most beautiful examples of tomb furniture is that of Queen Hetepheres of the early Fourth Dynasty (2613-2589 BCE). Archaeologists have reconstructed her furniture based on the remnants found and extensive painted records. Her furniture was truly designed and crafted, featuring details like carved lion’s feet and papyrus reeds. Her furniture exhibits both mitering and dovetailing, hidden neatly and coated in gold, as well as the use of dowels which were tipped with gold to disguise them as nails.
Furniture from the later and more famous tomb of Tut-ankh-Amun used actual gold and silver nails, and seven different types of mitering, and tongue-and groove and butterfly joints. This pharaoh’s tomb was an absolute treasure-trove of skilled woodworking, and remains the largest collection of wooden furniture found from ancient Egypt. Woodworking examples discovered in other tombs displayed inlay work, though not quite as intricate as that of the Islamic world, and veneering of fine woods over common ones.
A Shop In The Afterlife
Tools remained simple, but Egyptian carpenters became highly skilled. They worked in groups shops, which we know from a beautiful miniature of a carpenter’s shop discovered in the tomb of Meketre, who ruled around 2,000 BCE. The intricate little miniature, itself made of wood, contains twelve tiny carpenters hard at work chiseling, sanding, and cutting mortises. A tiny chest in the corner even contained more tools. So to be given the honor of accompanying a high ranking official to the afterlife, woodworking must have been considered a respected and invaluable craft indeed.
Lebanon: Trees of God
The Cedar of Lebanon is an evergreen conifer native to the mountains of the Eastern Mediterranean basin. They can live a very long time and grow to be up to 130 feet tall. Lebanon is very, very proud of their cedar tree. It’s image is even at the center of the Lebanese flag, flanked only by two red stripes.
A quick aside, I’m Lebanese American and the image of the cedar tree is never far from daily life. It’s on everything from yogurt and bread packaging to jewelry. Even those around me who had never left Brooklyn recalled tales from their parents or grandparents of the strength and beauty of the cedars growing in the mountains. And Maronite Catholics are quick to remind you of its appearances in the Old Testament. Moses apparently ordered priests to use its bark to treat leprosy. The Phoenician King Hiram of Tyre sent Lebanese cedar and skilled carpenters to Jerusalem to build King David’s palace, and in Psalm 92 it is hailed as a symbol of the righteous.
The trees have large trunks that fork into large, raised branches as they age. Its ideal habitat is a climate with dry, warm summers and cool, moist winters. Unlike some parts of the Middle East Lebanon has a real winter and it snows heavily up in the mountains, where the tallest and grandest cedars grew plentifully.
The wood of the cedar tree has a very fine grain, an attractive warm, yellow color and a pleasant fragrance. It is uniquely durable and immune to many types of rot and insects. It also has minimal shrinkage and decay in salt water, hence its extensive use in ship building. The Lebanese cedar was sought out in every corner of the ancient world, and made the finest furniture for pharaohs, kings, and the rich.
Ancient Trees, Modern Threats
The Cedars of God is one of the remaining forested areas of Lebanese cedars on Mount Lebanon. In 1998 it was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in an effort to conserve the cedars, some of which are a thousand years old. Thousands of years of chopping them down to build and furnish the great civilizations of the Middle East took its toll. Climate change has become the biggest threat to the ancient trees. Rising temperatures has driven them higher and higher up the mountains where the winters remain the coldest.
Iran: Intricate Inlay, Ancient Trees, and Bench-less Woodworkers
(Historical Note: I am using the term “Persian” in this article to refer to those who are referred to by historians and scholars as being of the Persian ethnic group, and lived and worked in either what is modern-day Iran or under what was then Persian rule.)
Native Wood and Imports
The landscape of ancient Iran was once quite different than it is now. Unfortunately, present-day Iran has for the most part been stripped of its natural forests. Over a thousand years ago, before the dawn of the Common Era, great forests stood in what is now desert and empty plains.
The Caspian Provinces was and continues to be the most forested region of Iran. It is a lush, mountainous region near the Caspian Sea’s southern shores, and is a part of modern-day Iran and Azerbaijan. Also referred to as the Hyrcanian Forest, this region benefited from biological diversity and is home to unique ecosystems. It has many species of trees such as, beech, several species of oak and maple, chestnut, and many more. Not all of these species have survived urbanization and the clearing of land for agricultural purposes. However, thousands, even hundreds of years ago it was thick with diverse species of flora and fauna.
In the 19th century the timber from this region began to be largely exported. Before this it was not often used. This is because the region was difficult to get to due to the mountains and a lack of roads. So it was used locally and transported to rural and urban areas nearby by woodcutters. So despite its many native tree species, Iran still relied heavily on imported woods.
Silent Witnesses: The Tree That Knew The Ancient World
One of the most notable trees native to Iran is the plane tree, also known as the Old World sycamore or the chinar. It is known for its legendary longevity and beauty. The oldest chinar in the world is in Kashmir and is about 700 years old! The chinar tree is an important symbol in Hinduism, and makes appearances in Islamic texts as well. If only trees could talk, I’m sure historians would chat in the forests all day. Perhaps the chinar are like the Ents of Middle Earth, and have simply become more tree-like and quiet over the centuries. I digress.
The timber of the chinar was used mostly for construction purposes, such as doors and struts. Today it is rare and valued for artisanal furniture. Today they line the boulevards of major cities like Tehran, but are disappearing due to pollution and increased urban expansion.
Another local species is the Persian walnut tree, which was highly valued for its hardness and deep color. It was mostly used by turners to make large wooden platters, a common item in ancient Iran. Walnuts are also a primary ingredient in traditional Persian cuisine.
Religion and Beautiful Inlay
Woodworking has often flourished in eras of great mathematical and scientific progress. In the ancient world, working wood by hand and constructing with only simple tools was as much a feat of the brain as the hand. Particularly in the Islamic world, where representative and figurative art is restricted, woodworkers developed the art of intricate geometric design. The beautiful meeting of math and art appeared in all manner of woodworking, notably inlay and carving.
The ancient Persian technique of inlaying wood or marquetry is called, Khatam. Pieces of wood are painstakingly cut and carved into small geometric pieces and placed into wooden surfaces to form beautifully elaborate patterns. Different types of wood are used side by side to create an array of textures and tones. Doors and other panels in mosques were often ornamented with khatam. This ancient artform is still practiced by artisan craftsmen in Iran. Furniture and jewelry boxes decorated with khatam remain common sights throughout the Arab world even today.
Now that you have been introduced to the rich history of woodworking in Iran, I’m sure you are wondering about the people behind the wood. The working habits of woodworkers around the world is a worthy subject. How did they live? Were they organized? What did their shops look like? Did they even have shops? Let’s get into it.
As Iran was and is only forested in certain areas, the timber was transported to both urban and rural markets by woodcutters. The trade and process of woodcutting was not very organized, and it was recorded by observers that it was often wasteful. Woodworkers even felled their own trees in areas within reach of forests. This occurred even within urban areas where trees could be common sights along the streets. Now, those who sawed wood also cut it and worked it.
The Nomadic Shop
Interestingly enough, Persian woodworkers often did not work in a shop. Persian woodworkers took their tools on the road and worked where they were needed. Up until the 20th century woodworkers were observed working outside cutting planks and boards on site. Persian woodworkers even made furniture inside a client’s house! It was common practice for the client to have their fine tables or benches being made in place, under their supervision.
Imagine having to work on a project for a client in their own dining room! The pressure would certainly be on! I’m sure many modern professionals are happy that’s not in common practice today.
And I can assure you there weren’t any power tools lying around. So for anyone out there tries to tell you that something simply “cannot be done without power tools”— history has spoken!
The ancient Persian woodworkers used tools common throughout the Middle East at the time: two-handed saws, sawyer’s jacks, chisels, planes, and hammers.
Hands and Feet: Who Needs a Workbench?
That brings us to the next interesting practice among Persian woodworkers: they generally did not have a workbench. Particularly when working on joinery, Persian woodworkers sat on the ground to work. They placed their work in their lap and held it in place using their feet as a vice.
The seated position was sort of a butterfly pose if you’re familiar with yoga. The knees are bent and point right and left away from the body. The soles of the feet face each other in the middle. The piece of wood is held here between the soles of the feet while the arms are free to work it with tools. Now that’s connecting to the wood—and an incentive to focus on your work!
Those of you who are flexible or yoga-inclined might want to give it a try sometime. Something you definitely shouldn’t try with power tools! It certainly looks like a challenge, though I’m sure it was second nature to the ancient Persian craftsmen.
Perhaps the woodworkers of ancient Iran initially did away with the workbench because they were so often required to work on site. Workbenches are often less than portable to say the very least. Or perhaps this is simply the way that woodworking developed there. Either way, it was observed as a practice up until the 20th century, and is still in use for the traditional wooden arts.
Wooden Platters and Technological Progress
One of the main types of woodworking in ancient Persia was turning. Round objects such as bowls and large wooden platters were in high demand. Like the carpenters, turners used their hands and feet to make rounded wooden pieces. Persian turners used a bow lathe. It is a little unclear precisely where and when the bow lathe was invented.
The ancient Egyptians invented a two-person lathe around 1300 BCE. The bow lathe is a clear improvement on this as it only required one person to work. The bow is often credited to the Romans, but considering the Persians seemed to be early users of it as well, I have to put it down as one of those technologies that likely benefited from trade and travel between the two empires and most of the Middle East and North African areas.
The One-Person Bow Lathe
The bow frame consists of a rectangular box frame that sits on the ground and a spindle that can be placed in different positions using a set of holes on each side of the frame. Sort of like adjusting a recliner. Turners use a bow tool to move or “turn” the object being worked on, leaving one hand to hold the sharp tool that cut the wood. So an additional foot or two was often used to support the tool.
This bow lathe is still used today by Iranian artisan turners, and much of what scholars know about how it was used is just from observing its living history!
Iran’s ancient forests and of course a large timber trade with other Middle Eastern and Asian countries, allowed a rich and varied culture of woodworking to evolve. From carpentry and furniture-making to elaborate marquetry work—the art of woodworking was thriving in ancient Iran. Its legacy has remained to tell the tale and is a testament to the deep cultural significance that woodworking with hand tools holds for Iran.
A Rich Legacy
The mathematical and artistic advances of the ancient civilizations of ancient Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran gave rise to a rich history of woodworking with hand tools. Not to mention the unique conditions created by diverse climates, ecosystems, and landscapes. The ancient civilizations of the middle east were in many ways as diverse as their environments, but they shared, traded, fought, prayed, and broke bread with one another for thousands of years. The fruits of this complicated and intricate exchange of knowledge, culture, and technology can be found through the lens of woodworking. In the furniture, art, and tools that were left behind (or even remain in common use), lay the stories of civilizations that rose and fell.