• Inspired by books Islamic Design

    Inspired by books Islamic Design

    INSPIRED 
    BY BOOKS

The museum’s daily work is only possible with the help and teamwork of various professionals; most of them staying invisible for the visitor. Here you can meet them and learn about their specific tasks – all of them being essential to make a project happen like the Damascus Room conservation and installation.

During the research and conservation process various discoveries happened. Stay tuned and see what the specialist exclusively share with you!

For centuries Damascus was a vibrant urban centre, positioned at the crossroads of major trade routes, and with the advantage of a fertile oasis environment. The famous city hosted religious and scientific scholars, and contains significant holy places: mosques, religious schools, shrines, and graves. The rhythm of city life was also determined by the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca because Damascus was one of the main departure points where the pilgrims gathered together to form the caravans heading southwards through the desert. The goods and artefacts traded then, as well as the people from near and far who met in the city and along the travel routes, afforded a rich variety of artistic influences and materials that together produced the refined interior decoration of Damascene homes, and continued to influence the development of this urban decorative style over time.

During the 17th and 18th century the Damascus saw a new bloom of mercantile activities as still documented today by the large number of bazaars (suqs) and caravanserais (khans) built during that period. The wealth of the merchants provided the financial power to erect opulent private residences in the city for which they were praised by many visitors. Link to citations of descriptions in travel accounts

Courtyard houses – construction and function

The plain and insignificant exteriors of the houses provide few hints of the beauty that lies within. Until the mid-19th century, Damascene private homes show very little in the way of exterior decoration, with unembellished, whitewashed walls facing the street. The historic entrance door to a traditional courtyard house is usually small, slightly less than a metre wide, made from wood in a characteristic frame construction and decorated with carving and numerous hand-wrought nails. Upon entering a private house, the visitor first must pass through a small secondary courtyard (barrani) or a narrow dark corridor (dihliz), often turning one or two corners before reaching the inner courtyard (juwwani). Both entry types prevent a direct view from the street into the private inner space of the house. But soon the richly decorated inner courtyard is reached, replete with multi-coloured stone pavement, a sparkling central fountain, and lush greenery. Captivated, the visitor listens to the relaxing sound of the fountain, breathes the scented air, and feels an overwhelming sense of peace. A great soaring hall on the southern side of the courtyard draws the visitor into its cool shadows. This open space, called the iwan, often rises as high as 10 metre, encompassing the entire height of the house and effectively retaining the night air to cool the space in readiness for the next day. The iwan serves most of the year as the main living room. Here the guests will be received and welcomed with coffee, tea, sweets or water pipe. On all sides of the courtyard, numerous windows with metal grilles open into the rooms used in daily family life, arranged in one or two floors surrounding the courtyard. The rooms are usually accessible directly from the courtyard, either through doors or via inner or outer stairs. The largest of these rooms, called al-qāʻah (hall), was also used for the reception of guests, for example, if it was already too hot in the iwan during the day or in the intense heat of midsummer. The house may contain one or more courtyards, depending on the wealth of the owner-builder.

Activities in the rooms

The private homes were semi-public spaces and fulfilled multiple functions. They were not only private living spaces; in the interior various activities happened: negotiations with business partners, family visits, arranging marriages, holding funeral services, solving minor lawsuits, festivities with banquets, performing music and dances, reciting poems, devotion and religious activities – all depending on the specific needs of the families. The families lived with a large number of family members and servants.

Furnishing of the rooms– historic descriptions in travel accounts

In the 19th century, the customs and traditions surrounding the use and furnishing of the ʿajami rooms began to change significantly. Among other new habits, Damascenes adopted the European fashion of sitting on chairs or benches, rather than the traditional mattresses and cushions. To accommodate this new style, many of the raised seating areas were covered with coloured stone pavements or tiles, as we often see them today. However, an illuminating and delightful glimpse into the earlier world of ʿajami rooms is provided by written accounts of travellers to Damascus in the 18th and 19th centuries. This selection of texts is by no means exhaustive but it helps us to understand how these houses were decorated and how their rooms were used.

In 1805 the German traveller Otto Richter visited the famous house of Raphael Farhi in Damascus and described a large reception room for guests with three raised seating areas:

The house of the very important man announces itself very modestly from outside but surprises greatly with its splendour inside. A spacious courtyard paved with coloured marble, decorated with water basin, orange trees, and flowers, is surrounded by beautiful covered Diwans and leads to the living rooms, which are already richly decorated from outside. I was well received and accompanied by the host to the salon, in the centre of which a chandelier was hanging, and around were three higher estrades [platforms], which gave the room nearly a cross shape. This raised part was decorated below with mother of pearl, [and] covered with beautiful mats, carpets and cushions. The walls were shining with gilded decoration on marble or azure, and partly covered with wooden panels similar to the ceilings, which were inlaid with mother of pearl, gold and mirrors.

John Gardiner Kinnear, who travelled to Cairo, Petra and Damascus in 1839, wrote a detailed description of a Christian house in Damascus including the iwan, the courtyard, and the reception room. About the latter, he wrote:

About one-third of the room in which we sit and receive visitors is paved with black and white marble, and has a small fountain in the middle. Two arched niches contain crystal and china cups for sherbet, fingans and zurfs for coffee, and bottles for sprinkling rose-water; and, in another, there is a rack for pipes and sheeshas. The servants either stand in this lower compartment, which is called doorckaah, or are within the court; and the mode of calling them is by clapping the hands. The floor of the leewan, the upper part of the room, is about a foot higher than the pavement of the doorckaah, and is covered with a fine mat, and furnished with deewans and cushions; these are covered with scarlet cloth trimmed with gold lace, over which there is a loose cover of thin, sprigged muslin.

The walls are painted in separate panels, each containing a different pattern, formed by curious and intricate combination of colours and lines. The roof is carved, and painted and gilded in the old Saracenic Style, and sentences from the Quran are inscribed round the cornice. No one steps on the leewan without taking off his shoes; but I should mention that it is the custom to wear a pair of thin yellow morocco slippers, which are not taken off, and over them a pair of red shoes.

The German scholar Alfred von Kremer also delivered a detailed description of the furnishing in such a Damascene interior in 1849–51: 

in the raised area along the walls run the divans, not like European settees, but instead flat-lying mattresses covered with nice fabrics or carpets, with cushions and pillows in place of a backrest. In winter the qaʿa floor is covered with carpets, mostly Persian, which are readily available in Damascus, the finest of which are coming from Chorasan; in summer the carpets are removed and cool straw mats were extended, which were well made in various sizes in Damascus.

Smalt, cochineal, indigo, aloe, vermilion, lapis lazuli, orpiment, verdigris: the names of these historic pigments and dyes are no longer familiar to most of us today. The same may be said for the media used to mix the paints and glazes: animal glue, made from skin or bones of animals, or natural resins such as sandarac, olibanum, myrrh, mastic and dammar. Materials and techniques used for the production and decoration of the traditional Damascene homes and interiors will be introduced here.

Timberwork and mudbricks – construction of the houses

Damascus buildings in the 18th and early 19th century were basically made from a timberwork construction filled with sun-dried mudbricks. The main wood for construction was poplar, a variety of trees that grew widely in the forest and garden belt, which surrounded the Old City of Damascus for hundreds of years. The construction material was mainly sourced right in front of the door: wood, mud and a rather minor amount of stones. The stones were only superimposed I order to create the impression of solid walls, but in fact the true structure of the houses is the timberwork which is hidden behind plaster layers, decorative stone facades and elaborate wood panelling. The roofs were traditionally made be an approximately 40 cm thick layer of compressed mud that was applied on the roof construction made by wooden beams and cover boards. Such houses need a thorough maintenance to make sure that the roof is not leaking. When being abandoned or neglected the danger of collapse rises quite fast. Modern renovation with layers of concrete on the roof often increases problems because the roof becomes too heavy and the concrete is not as flexible enough to tolerate movements of the timberwork skeleton as the traditional building materials do.

Stone as building and decorative material

When visiting Damascene homes the guests were (and continue to be) impressed by the elaborately patterned multi-coloured stone creations that abound. Floor pavements, fountains, borders for the beds of courtyard greenery, thresholds of rooms, the raised seating platforms, niche interiors and windowsills may all be produced or partly adorned in opus sectile, a technique in which cut stone pieces of various colours are assembled to form geometric or floral patterns. Overall patterns are formed with stone pieces embedded into a mortar bed, while smaller inlay patterns are formed by setting cut stone pieces into larger marble panels. The finely textured stones, mostly marble varieties, appear in white, red, yellow, bluish-grey and black creating magnificent ornamental effects – as it can be seen in the panels of the fountain of MIA’s Damascus Room.

Pinkish or yellowish limestone and white marble were used to carve stone reliefs, which were often partly painted and gilded to achieve a three-dimensional effect. The subtle play of light between the matte stone surface and the matte texture of the paint layers in contrast with the glossy gilding creates a gorgeous overall appearance. In a few houses, raised gilded ʿajami motifs adorn marble slabs, a feature that is extraordinarily rare.

Sponge-like basalt and brittle limestone of lower quality, often with cracks and holes, were used as the base materials to create the ablaq stripes and paste-work decorations executed with thin plaster layers and mortar pastes. Many of the preserved ablaq mosaic façades appear today as if they were cut into the stone surface. But close examination of 18th- and 19th-century private houses reveal a different technique. In these houses – the largest and wealthiest houses – each stone was first coated with an overall 3–6 mm-thick plaster layer. Usually, these plaster layers are white or orange, but occasionally also black. Into this layer the geometric or floral pattern was cut, creating shallow recesses, mostly down to the level of the stone beneath. The recesses were then filled with variously coloured fine plaster pastes to create the delicate pattern.

Gilded and painted wood (wall panelling, ceiling) – ajami technique

Damascene buildings of the 18th and 19th century are equipped with a significant amount of decorated wooden elements: ceilings, wall panels, closets, doors, window shutters. Most of these elements are beautifully adorned with elaborate decoration executed in a specific technique called ajami. It is raised ornaments made from a thick-flowing paste of gypsum and glue, which were overlaid with tin foil, copper alloy or gold leaf. The spaces between the ornaments were then partially painted with flowers, landscapes and fruit bowls in vibrant but finely balanced colours. The metal leafs were accentuated with tinted transparent lacquers in yellow, orange, green and dark red. Many patterns found in these panels evoke precious textiles as for example embroideries, carpets, cotton prints or brocades. The surface decoration appears as if the walls were made from soft textiles. To achieve this effect paints with various textures were used. For example, matt blue paints were made with crushed blue cobalt glass creating subtly sparkling sand-like appearances, which contrasts nicely with the glossy lacquered metal surfaces. Satiny paints were used that contain mixtures of egg and glue and pigments as for example lead white, vermillion, verdigris, cochineal or indigo. A further characteristic effect was achieved by using sparkling mineral particles as for example orpiment, today a forgotten pigment that was used since antiquity because of its favoured bright golden-yellow colour.

Glass and mirrors (stained glass windows, mirrors, new windows)

Glass production in Damascus is proven through 5000 years of history. Thus it is not surprising that glass also plays a significant role as a decorative feature in people’s homes. Multi-coloured glass pieces were set into windows made by cutting a pattern in a freshly casted gypsum panel. Such windows were popular through centuries in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Most of these windows that once were found in the upper walls of Damascene homes were replaced since the mid-19th century when larger pieces of industrial glass came on the market. Glass was also used to manufacture mirrors, a significant decorative element that became an integral part of the interior decoration in the early 19th century. MIA’s Damascus Room shows over 120 mirrors set into the overall decoration of the room. These mirrors were not intended to show reflections, instead they were used to reflect light and sparkle. It is fascinating to observe the play of light on the wavy old mirrors altogether with the colours and textures of the ajami panels and carvings surrounding them.

The input of various professionals is needed to make the actual installation of a disassembled large-scale object like a room. Stay tuned to learn more about the teamwork of various specialists behind the scenes!