Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative
Location: Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, West Bank
The handicraft industry in the Bethlehem area is in danger of disappearing. This is a direct result of three things: constant political unrest, the resulting decline in tourism, and more generalised economic hardship resulting from the Israeli military occupation. While some 3000 individuals were employed in the craft industry at its peak in the 1980s, this figure has decreased alarmingly. The number of workshops has also dropped dramatically, and the industry continues to be in steep decline.
The Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society was established in 1981 as a response to the deteriorating handicrafts industry in the occupied Palestinian territories and to preserve the ancient local craft traditions, such as olive wood carving. The Cooperative aims to preserve the centuries-old craft and design traditions of the Bethlehem area for the benefit of future generations of Palestinians. Through their 36 member shareholders the Cooperative supports some 900 families in the greater Bethlehem area.
Olive wood carving is an ancient heritage that dates back to as early as the 4th century with the start of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the 17th century, Franciscan monks introduced the art of mother-of-pearl carvings, which, together with olive wood, developed and flourished with the pilgrimage tourism in the Bethlehem area. Travelers' accounts and historical documents describe the beauty of olive wood rosaries and crucifixes and their popularity among pilgrims.
Olive trees are one of the mainstays of the Palestinian economy. There are over four hundred carvers in the Holy Land that rely on the olive trees as their source of income. The carvers pass down their talents to their children for generations. Usually the items are made by hand, without machines.
The craft of olive wood carving
Wood carvings are made from the branches of olive trees which are pruned at the completion of the olive-picking season. It takes a six-step-process and 45 days for a piece of wood to turn into a beautiful piece of art. It is a skilled trade that requires 6-7 years of training for one to become a professional craftsperson. In addition to the handmade quality of the item, the grain of the wood gives each piece a special, unique character.
All the olive wood figurines and arts are hand-carved from the trimmings (pruning) of the Bethlehem olive trees. This is an essential process for healthier growth of the trees and to generate environmental stability. No tree is damaged or destroyed in the process.
These products are certified Fair Trade: creating opportunities for disadvantaged producers, sustaining fair working conditions and wages, empowering women, and preserving traditional crafts and artisan skills.