The flickering dinner fires began to die down, and darkness slowly covered the Syrian coast. A party of Phoenician traders, who landed earlier on the deserted beach, now gathered to sit on the warm sands and spend the evening telling of their adventures. One of the sailors rose and stirred the coals in the hope of bringing the fire to life once more. Suddenly at the center of the coals, a sparkling greenish-blue substance caught his eye. He called excitedly to the others, who quickly sprang to their feet and helped retrieve the shiny material from the glowing coals.
Because the Phoenicians had used blocks of soda taken from their ships' cargoes, near their campfires, explains Pliny, famous Roman historian of the first century A.D., the heat of the fire had combined the soda and sand to form mankind's first glass.
It's a romantic story, but Pliny is wrong. The Phoenicians were not the first to discover glass, but then Pliny did not have the benefit of modern research techniques, which have proven glass to be at least 14,000 years old. What is true, however, is that the story of glass unfolds almost entirely in the countries of the Middle East. And as Pliny suggests, the stage is set in the land of Syria, as well as Persia and Mesopotamia. It begins, perhaps, in the desert of ancient Egypt. From the very first, artisans found glass an ideal medium in which to express their art.
About 12,000 B.C. the Egyptians perfected a green glass glaze and with it coated pebbles and stones to make jewelry. It took another 5,000 years for the jewelers to discover that a pure glass bead could be formed by building up layers of the glaze. The necklaces made in those lost ages were not unlike the strands of inexpensive, gaily colored glass beads so common today.
The first glass bottles and jars were created during that same period. The process was so slow and tedious, however, that only kings and queens or people of immense wealth could afford them. Thin threads of molten glass were skillfully wound around a mold of wet sand which was later removed. These coveted jars served as containers for perfumes, cosmetics and ointments. Some of the glassware was used as tear vases. When a king or important official died, mourners shed their tears in the little bottles, which were then sealed in the tomb. The deceased would see these tokens of grief when he reached the next world.
A dramatic advance in the art of glassmaking occurred in Syria about 250 B.C. when the "blown" method of making glass replaced "wound" glassware. How the discovery was made no one is quite sure. Perhaps an artisan was stirring a batch of molten glass with a hollow rod and decided to clear the end by blowing through the rod. Or perhaps a glassmaker blew through a hollow glass rod which had been closed by heat at one end. At any rate, a much more practical means of producing glass had arrived. With one puff the glassblower could obtain a finished shape. No longer was glass made by the slow and expensive "wound" process suitable only for royalty's purse.
A further refinement came with the discovery that molten glass blown into a mold would give a uniform, distinct shape. With the two new processes, bowls, vases, glasses, and cruets were produced in countless numbers. Even some "frivolous" objects could be afforded for the first time—toys, finger rings and twisted glass bangles.
Glass became the property of the average man, and people who used it in those days liked it for the very same reasons glass is useful today. It was leakproof, evaporation was slowed, it did not leave a taste—especially when oils, wines and honeys were kept in the containers for any length of time. Men of science adopted glass jars for their chemicals and medicines, and traders preferred glass containers for carrying certain cargoes on long voyages. But, best of all, the glass vessels could be used over and over again.
Color, or lack of color, then became an area of experimentation, especially in glassware intended to please the eye as well as being practical. Artisans in Syria, Persia and Arabia added chemicals such as cobalt, manganese and copper to give color to glass, and were constantly on the lookout for new means of obtaining colors.
Advances were often made by trial and error or perhaps accident. One story tells of a glassmaker who, while bending over his mixture of molten glass, lost a silver button from his coat. The mixture instantly turned a bright yellow, much to the amazement of the glassmaker. Another story tells of silver coins thrown into a mixture with the hope that a sparkling silver glass would appear. Instead, the mixture turned a dull black. However, when gold dust was tried, the particles were imprisoned in the glass. The result was not yellow or gold but a deep ruby red!
Completely transparent glass was also much sought-after. Pliny mentions that "The highest value is placed upon glass that is entirely colorless and transparent as possible, resembling crystal." For centuries the iron deposits in the sand had kept the glass from being clear. Finally about 200 A.D. the Romans discovered the right ingredients to render glass entirely transparent—so clear, in fact, that they called it "cristallo" because it reminded them of rock crystal.
The art of glassmaking was greatly refined by the Romans, but when Rome declined, the skills were all but lost to Europe. In the Middle East, however, craftsmen were busy working in the traditions associated with typically Islamic art. The traditional Islamic motifs were celebrated—elaborate scrollwork, animals, arabesques and inscriptions.
A new enamel process was invented during the Fatamid Dynasty which brought new beauty to Middle Eastern glassmaking. Although the process is a thousand years old, it is still in use. It is not enamel used today to paint household objects, but a special preparation of finely ground glass combined with metallic oxides for coloring. Gum arabic is then added so that the mixture may be brushed onto the vase or bottle before the object is placed in a kiln to bake slowly. The oven's heat fuses the two glass mixtures.
Glass centers at Damascus and Aleppo spread the fame of Islamic glass. Glass from Syria was exported throughout the known world—even to the far reaches of Asia Minor and China. Travelers wrote with great praise of their visits to the glass centers. One such person was al-Kazwani who, in the thirteenth century, referred to the magnificent ware to be found in the glass bazaars of Aleppo. Another traveler who wrote of glass was the Persian geographer Hafiz-I-Abru, who in his memoirs noted that the glass of Aleppo was "decorated with elegance and taste."
In Persia, glassmaking became an important craft during the reign of Shah Abbas in the seventeenth century. Persian glassware kept the traditional decorative designs, but in later centuries equally beautiful glassware with jewel-like colors and unusual shapes became popular.
Indeed, all over the Middle East the old, old craft of glassmaking was firmly established as an industry that would, in coming centuries, keep an eye on both utility and beauty.