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The Rise & Fall of The Olive Wood Industry in Palestine at the End of 20th Century


Palestine, the Holy Land, is visited by people of different faith - Jews, Christians and Muslims. Bethlehem is been a pilgrim center for Christians. Bethlehem and olive wood handmade sculptures are meant to save humanity. The Olive branch signifies love, good health and peace. The Bible mentions the olive branch in Noah's Ark. Olive Wood Articles Olive wood is ideal for carving works and lends itself easy to work accurately with simple hand tools. It is available in natural colors. Its tonal depth due to annular structure renders complex artistic carvings possible. Religious articles, crosses, picture frames, cute boxes, paper knives, ink stands and crucifixes are some of the olive wood handicrafts made by the dexterous fingers of men and women of Bethlehem. Tourists from Europe taught the art of carving olive wood to the native people of Palestine. In turn there was transfer of wisdom to the workmen who eventually setup their own shops for these artistic items.


During the World Wars, Palestine was brought under British regime wherein a small industrial revolution stormed through the quiet cottage industry of olive wood carvings. Electric saws replaced hand saws. General purpose lathes and motorized drills replaced simple manual gadgets. Revolutionary copying machines were deployed to produce multiple designs from the master pattern operated by single workmen within a short time. This resulted in enormous increase in volume of production at a faster rate with high degree of accuracy. New products such as chandeliers, beads were also added to the array of sculptural works. In essence the market was flooded with articles at affordable prices beckoning tourists from all over the world. Owners of business houses made high profits due to reduced cost of mass production. The high volume of production enabled export of artworks to countries all over the world.

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Effects of Mass Production

Mechanization had its own adverse effects - high degree of unemployment and lack of job satisfaction amongst artisans. Original hand carved masterpieces became things of the past. Precious creativity of artisans was killed virtually. Workmen were utilized as mere assembly mechanics and machinists. To cut short the process time, irrigated olive wood was used as raw material which was inferior in quality as it contained moisture. This resulted in cracking and disfiguring of the artworks despite careful handling. This quality dilution resulted in sudden rejection of souvenirs by tourists.

Other Problems

The perennial struggle between the ethnic groups in Palestine resulted in political uncertainty and economic imbalance. Israel imposed strict restrictions in respect of tourist guides and bus operators of West Bank and Gaza Strip. This had a negative effect on tourists visiting East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Tourists postponed or cancelled their trips fearing trouble. Pilgrims made trips in organized tours wherein they were taken to specific shops only for short duration. In some tour programs shopping facility might not be available. Small business houses and individual artisans were unable to compete with the big business houses as they were not able to cut production costs owing to small volumes and hence their products were priced out. On the whole, the overall situation was grim for olive wood industry at the end of the twentieth century.

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