Syrian artist puts his soul into his work

Cedar Rapids church commissions piece for centennial celebration

Cindy Hadish
Published: December 10 2012 | 5:20 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 3:10 am in
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A rare art form — made even more challenging by the dangers in a war-torn country — has made its way to a Cedar Rapids church.

Piece by piece since mid-November, Soleiman Shalhoub, 48, has been installing a stone iconostasis, a room-wide screen separating the sanctuary from the nave, at St. George Orthodox Church, 3650 Cottage Grove Ave. SE.

Shalhoub, whose Shalhoub Trading Co. is based in Damascus, Syria, began the project with a crew of 15 employees in January, drawing designs by hand and meticulously carving the marble-like Syria stone, quarried from mountains in the Holy Land.

“There’s no one else who does this kind of work,” Shalhoub said through an interpreter Friday.

Other craftsmen create similar impressions on wood, he said, but not out of stone, an art form passed down through generations of his family.

Shalhoub began learning the trade at age 12 from his father and is teaching his own children, he said, speaking in Arabic at the church, which commissioned the iconostasis to celebrate its upcoming centennial in 2014.

“It’s sort of an art that’s lost in the Western world,” said project chairman Nick AbouAssaly, who communicated with Shalhoub for several years as the project developed.

Carving the Byzantine-style design of scrollwork, flowers and religious symbols takes five days for each square-block, Shalhoub said through AbouAssaly.

“It’s very difficult,” he said.

That work was complicated by Syria’s civil war, endangering the project as well as the lives of Shalhoub and his workers before it was moved to neighboring Lebanon.

Even then, the war prevented Shalhoub’s employees from leaving the country to accompany him to the United States.

Members of the St. George congregation stepped forward to assist in the project, said the Rev. Fred Shaheen, citing volunteers who have provided meals and labor.

“It’s like a puzzle and it has to be assembled in the right way,” Shaheen said, watching as Shalhoub climbed scaffolding to place a cross at the top of a massive stone arch.

The 6 tons of stone was transported in 1,700 pieces by ship to New York — arriving just as Superstorm Sandy hit — and brought to Chicago by train before arriving in Cedar Rapids via truck.

Shalhoub has worked on only two other projects in the United States — one in Michigan and one in Washington, D.C. — as well as in palaces in Lebanon and churches in Germany and Canada.

The project will be celebrated with an open house in the spring, after eight icons that will be set in the wall are completed, AbouAssaly said.

Members of the church raised the money for the project, though AbouAssaly could not say what the total cost will be.

The finished piece, which will include red oak doors also designed by Shalhoub, will be unlike any other piece of art in Iowa, he said.

Noting the sacredness of the piece, Shalhoub said the stone “speaks to him” in his work.

“He has an eternal connection to each of the projects,” AbouAssaly said, translating for Shalhoub. “His soul is connected to the project.”

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