As Number of Deaths in Syria Rises, Headstone Carvers Have More Work But Make Little Profit

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October 2014
Old Damascus, Syria

Text by Youssef Zbib

In the tombstone masonries of Bab al-Jabiya souk in Old Damascus, smooth white marble blocks are stacked against the walls, waiting to go under skilled craftsmen’s hammers and chisels to become headstones engraved with scripture from the Quran.
Headstone carvers in this old souk say that demand for their products has increased since the start of the war in Syria.
“Before the events, we had an average amount of work. Clients asked for headstones for people who died of natural causes,” said Ziad, a headstone craftsman in Bab al-Jabiya. “Now, due to the events, our work has increased because there are martyrs. There have been more deaths here in Damascus, so we have had more work.” The number of deaths has indeed been very high. As the conflict nears its fourth year, the United Nations has estimated that at least 191,000 civilians and fighters have been killed in Syria between March 2011 and the end of April 2014.
Between 100 and 200 people, both civilians and military, are killed every day, according to reports by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other local monitoring groups. In a single attack, more than 1,300 people were killed in August 2013 when government forces used chemical weapons against rebel-controlled areas in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. Deadly battles are still raging in this area, as government forces advance on rebel-held towns.
The battles following the blitz attack by ISIS in Syria’s east and northeast in June 2014 have also been very bloody. At least 400 people were killed in the battle over the city of Kobani from mid-September to early October 2014.
But the increasing demand for headstones does not necessarily mean that headstone carvers are making more profit. Due to the economic crisis, customers are asking for cheaper headstones.
“In the old days, people used long headstones. They considered them to be more beautiful and presentable. Today, people have different requirements,” said Samer, another headstone carver in the Bab al-Jabiya souk. According to Samer, people ask for shorter headstones because of their poor financial situation, and also ask for less engraving in order to pay less.
“Of course, prices differ,” said Samer. “High-relief carving costs more [than low-relief carving] because it takes more time to be done. The design at the top of the headstone – we call it “The Crown” – also affects the price. Some designs take two days to finish, others two hours, so the prices necessarily differ.” Moataz, who owns a tombstone masonry in the same souk, also says that although the demand for headstones has increased, it is not as high as he would expect it to be, given the high number of killings as a result of the fighting. Moataz believes that families of the deceased are not offering their beloved departed what they deserve.
“Some people postpone buying a headstone because, at the time of the burial, they are unable to afford it,” said Moataz. “Smaller headstones now replace large ones. Sometimes a single headstone is used to cover four or five graves.” In the areas most affected by the war, such as Deir Ezzor and eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, the dead are even “less fortunate” than those in Damascus. People use any available space to hastily bury the victims of daily bombing and gun battles, due to the high number of killings and fears that large gatherings of mourners might be killed in airstrikes themselves. Public parks and private gardens have become sites for unmarked graves.
A war economy
The emergent war economy has also fostered some professions that did not exist or were not developed before the war, like illegal money changing. The fluctuation of the Syrian pound’s exchange rate offered the opportunity for a currency black market in Damascus and Aleppo.
The government lost control over most the oil fields in Deir Ezzor and Hassaka provinces in the east and northeast, which allowed oil smugglers affiliated with armed groups to extract crude oil that is refined in makeshift distilleries and then sold in opposition-controlled areas or smuggled across the border to Turkey.
But many industries have been weakened by the conflict. Shops near the headstone workshops in Old Damascus have lost a many of their clients as the war has divided Syria’s territories and economy.