A three-century-old bell making tradition
Craftsman Naffah Naffah single handedly continues the ancient family tradition of bell making in Beit Shabab
On a countryside road that winds through stunning landscapes in the Metn region, lies Beit Shabab, a typically Lebanese mountainside village with a history deeply intertwined with bell making. It’s Lebanon’s oldest bell foundry where craftsmen from the village have long designed and crafted bells. Down an isolated tree-lined road, hides the workshop of Naffah Naffah, whose family has been making bells for over 300 years, he is continuing this ancient tradition into the modern age.
For Naffah, who learnt the trade from his father and has been making bells for the past 27 years, the craft is his life’s passion and he’s also aware of the long family heritage that he’s continuing. With his brother following the path of priesthood, Naffah is now the only remaining family member to still work in the same workshop used by the family for generations. Even his family name is linked to the bell-making heritage of his distant relative. “Russians came to Beit Shabab at the beginning of 1700 when it was a center for industry, there were lots of craftsmen here,” Naffah says inside his vast workshop where several bell casts lay setting, and tables are lined with tools for finishing metal work. “A local man, Youssef Gabriel, worked as an apprentice in bell-making for the Russians. When he made his first bell they gave him the name Naffah as he had “done well” for the community, then the name continued through the family.” The story of the Naffah family history is part of Lebanon’s heritage, documented in the archives of the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik.
The Naffah family are renowned for their skills as bell craftsmen and Beit Shabab has become the regional center for the trade, with Naffah-made bells ending up in churches all across the country, and exported to Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Palestine.
I was very happy to continue the family tradition
The art of bell making is a long and delicate process and even though Naffah now runs the family business solo he still produces around 30-35 per year, for which there is plenty of demand. He works long days, a strict routine from 5am-5pm every day, only stopping to collect his kids from the nearby school. When a priest orders a church bell, Naffah finds out the size of the village and the area they want the sound of the bells to reach, from that he knows the size and weight of the bell needed. Naffah creates four or five molds at the same time from clay, which take 40 days to make and set. Afterwards a mixture of bronze, copper and tin is melted at 1000 degrees Celsius and poured into the mold. Once set the mold is broken from the inside and out and the finishing touches are made to the bell.
Over the years Naffah has worked within the field he has noticed it evolve. “The industry was primitive before. The bell was set in a very simple oven made from wood, now we have a brick oven. My relatives used to only make molds in the summer so they would dry under the sun, now we can make them all year around.”
The Naffah family home above the workshop is starkly furnished; simple but comforting with a log fire stove, like the humble living quarters of a monk. His two kids eat from a freshly prepared broth, cooked in a huge pan on the stove. “I was very happy to continue the family tradition,” Naffah says. “I don’t work because I have to, I work because I love it.” He hopes that when his kids grow older one of them will choose to continue the family tradition and learn from him as he learned from his relatives. Then the long bell making tradition of Beit Shabab will continue.
Photos courtesy of Myriam Shuman