Traditional Libyan jewelry hangs on a silver thread

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Tripoli (AFP) – In Tripoli’s Old City, young Libyans weave delicate designs with silver and gold threads to create traditional filigree jewelry – reviving an art nearly lost to decades of dictatorship and war.

Abdelmajid Zeglam is just 12 years old, but his painstakingly detailed designs are already selling fast on the streets around a Roman-era archway dedicated to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

“I hesitated at first for fear of failing because I’m young, but my mother encouraged me,” Zeglam said.

He is the youngest of about 20 students, about half of whom are women, studying at the Libyan Academy of Traditional Gold and Silver Crafts, in a building that once served as the French consulate. to the Ottoman Empire.

Beads and threads of precious materials are woven into intricate patterns and then soldered together Mahmoud TURKIA AFP

Trainees learn about precious metal alloys before studying the art of filigree, in which beads and threads of precious materials are woven into intricate patterns and then soldered together to create jewelry.

“I love it,” Zeglam said. “I want to be a petroleum engineer in the morning and a jeweler in the afternoon.”

Muammar Gaddafi's policies have led to an abrupt halt to generations of traditions being revived in Libya
Muammar Gaddafi’s policies have led to an abrupt halt to generations of traditions being revived in Libya Mahmoud TurkiaAFP

Mohamed al-Miloudi, a 22-year-old civil engineering student wearing a baseball cap, said he had not missed a class since enrolling in September.

“It’s a hobby, but I would like to make it my job,” he said.

The institute’s founder, Abdelnasser Aboughress, said filigree jewelry was an ancient tradition in the North African country.

“The craftsmen of the medina of Tripoli were trained by Jewish masters and later by Arabs, at the prestigious School of Arts and Crafts” founded at the end of the 19th century, he said.

Secret jewelers

But generations of tradition were abruptly cut short after Muammar Gaddafi seized power in a 1969 coup.

The capricious ruler abandoned the constitution and established his “jamahiriya” – a mixture of socialism, Arab nationalism and tribal patronage.

It also scrapped the private sector, seizing businesses and confiscating their assets.

Young Libyans study art
Young Libyans study art Mahmoud TurkiaAFP

Overnight, independent artisans lost everything: their workshops, their livelihoods and their students.

“The state wiped out Libyan craftsmanship and forced a generation of young apprentices, who should have taken over, to leave traditional craftsmanship instead and join the army” or become civil servants, Aboughress said.

The 55-year-old was born a few blocks away in the medina, and despite Gaddafi’s ban, he started the trade at the age of 15.

With his father, for decades he secretly worked on jewelry for trusted clients.

Today, he hopes to pass on the craft to younger generations, while battling a wave of “lesser quality jewelry imported from Egypt and China (which) has flooded the market.”

Aboughress is working on a project to document and preserve as much of this cultural heritage as possible.

“Passionate people”

Student Fatima Boussoua denounced the practice of selling old Libyan silver jewelry at low prices to export and then recast.

“It’s part of the Libyan artisanal heritage that is disappearing!” she says.

A dentist in his forties who also teaches at the University of Tripoli, Boussoua has been training at the center for a year, hoping to master the profession.

“We should train artists to preserve our heritage,” she said. “All it takes is passionate people.”

Substandard imports have flooded the market, but this is an authentic handcrafted filigree piece
Substandard imports have flooded the market, but this is an authentic handcrafted filigree piece Mahmoud TurkiaAFP

Although becoming a true expert takes years of training, Aboughress students are already producing work for sale online or at the center itself.

That said, he admits the project needs financial help to buy the expensive raw materials, as well as “moral support”.

He hopes that with enough resources, he can one day set up a series of other workshops across Libya.

“It’s time to bring this craft back to life,” he said.

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