A three-cen­tury-old bell mak­ing tra­di­tion

Lebanon Traveler - - CONTENTS -

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

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