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Damascus Room

The Damascus Room’s four walls and ceiling are comprised of predominantly eighteenth-century wood ‘ajami paneling of the type common to late-Ottoman Syrian interiors. This historic paneling is punctuated by five shelved vitrines for the display of precious items, four closed cupboards for the storage of household belongings, two sets of doors (one serving as the entrance, the other leading to a closet and bathroom; both sets of doors functioned as window shutters in the historic Damascene house), and two large openings leading out to a small lanai (south) and the Jali Pavilion (west). The upper walls feature cartouches enclosing exquisite gold calligraphy in praise of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions. The ceiling’s design resembles a carpet, with a central rectangular field enclosed by a series of borders. In the middle of the ceiling, an elaborate gold finial projects downwards from a large cartouche embellished with gilded wooden carvings and painted floral patterning evoking Indo-Persian textiles.

Although the Damascus Room’s ‘ajami paneling was purchased, prepared and installed between 1952 and 1955, the room’s history can be traced to 15 years earlier, when Doris Duke (1912–93) first visited Syria and was exposed to the upperclass residential architecture of the late Ottoman period. In the spring of 1938, Duke and her husband James Cromwell embarked on a six-week tour of the Middle East, which included visits to Iran, Syria and Egypt. Detailed arrangements for this trip were made by Arthur Upham Pope (1881–1969), an American dealer, collector and scholar of Persian art. Among other things, Pope provided introductions to individuals who would assist with the Cromwells' travels and research. One such individual was the dealer Georges Asfar (d. 1995) who, along with Jean Sarkis (d. 1955), led the then Damascus-based antiquities firm of Asfar & Sarkis. As anticipated, the Cromwells encountered Asfar & Sarkis during their visits to Damascus in March and April 1938. On one occasion, Duke shopped for early-twentieth-century bureaus sheathed in mother-of-pearl within the courtyard of a late Ottoman home that was being rented by the Sarkises and was hence known as “Sarkis Palace.” According to descendants of Jean Sarkis, “Sarkis Palace” served not only as the Sarkis family home but also as a site for conducting Asfar & Sarkis business (Overton 2012). In this beautiful space, the dealers would welcome foreign clients and market their wares, including the bureaus (65.46) that Duke would soon purchase.

Originally built in the mid-nineteenth century and located on Bab Tuma Street in the Christian quarter of Damascus, “Sarkis Palace” is today more commonly known as the “House of the Spanish Crown,” for it served as the Spanish Consulate just prior to the First World War (Weber 2009). In the 1938 photograph of Duke shopping for chests, she faces the north side of the courtyard with two doors. Based on a floor plan published in 1924 by German scholars who, for one year in 1917/18, used the home as their offices, it is clear that the two doors once led into closed interiors, each with four courtyard-facing windows (Wulzinger and Watzinger 1924). The one on the left was a qa‘a of the typical configuration: lower entry area (‘ataba) and single upper seating area (tazar) (map in Wulzinger and Watzinger 1924). Most likely Duke would have entered these rooms, or others like them, during her visit to “Sarkis Palace” in 1938. This experience must have left quite an impression on the young collector, who early on exhibited an interest in historic interiors. She would wait another 15 years, however, to purchase her first Syrian interior from Asfar & Sarkis.

At the time of Duke’s visit to “Sarkis Palace” in 1938, Asfar & Sarkis were deeply involved in the preparation of late Ottoman–period Syrian interiors for sale, whether to Middle Eastern, European or American clients. They had recently sold the “Nur al-Din” interior (a qa‘a with a single tazar; now the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Damascus Room”) and elements from the so-called “Quwatli” courtyard house to Hagop Kevorkian (1872–1962), a dealer based in New York. The “Nur al-Din” and “Quwatli” architectural elements were shipped to the United States in 1934, just four years prior to Duke’s visit to Syria. In preparing them for sale, the dealers were assisted by Damascene craftsmen—specifically, the al-Khayyat workshop led by Muhammad ‘Ali al-Khayyat, better known as Abu Suleyman (Baumeister et al. forthcoming). In the 1930s, Abu Suleyman and his workshop restored and retrofitted a number of Damascene late-Ottoman ‘ajami interiors, for example, in Damascus’s al-ʿAzm palace (Duda 1971); in the Beirut home of Henri Pharaon (d. 1993), now known as the Robert Mouawad Private Museum (Carswell 2004; Duda 1971; Khoury 1993); and  most likely the interiors today displayed at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Cincinnati Art Museum (Scharrahs 2013).

When Duke returned to Syria and Lebanon in the early 1950s, the worlds of Asfar & Sarkis, the al-Khayyat workshop, and the “House of the Spanish Crown” intersected once more. After a visit to Damascus in 1953, she placed an order with Asfar & Sarkis for “1 old Damascus Room made of old painted panels of wood,” which they had acquired in 1938 through the broker “Mohamad Khayat.” This individual was Muhammad ‘Ali al-Khayyat (Abu Suleyman), the master artisan mentioned above (Overton 2012). In the early 1950s, Abu Suleyman was in the midst of yet another major retrofitting project, the preparation of an interior from Bayt Mardam-Bey for integration into the National Museum of Damascus (Khoury 1993). This project entailed not only the preservation of the historic room but also its considerable expansion to satisfy its new home in the museum. Of equal interest to the Shangri La narrative is the fact that Abu Suleyman’s workshop had by 1953 moved into the “House of the Spanish Crown,” which Duke had visited as a 26-year-old in 1938 (the al-Khayyat workshop moved into the home shortly after the Sarkises returned to Beirut and established a new store in the St. Georges Hotel). The workshop remained active in the Bab Tuma house until quite recently (c. 2011).

The room that Asfar & Sarkis acquired through Abu Suleyman in 1938 required considerable retrofitting for its incarnation in a preexisting guestroom located off the foyer at Shangri La. Indeed, nearly a sixth of the interior’s total cost was spent on “fixing and repairs,” which were carried out by the al-Khayyat workshop. This retrofitting entailed the expansion and reduction of panels, the overpainting of surfaces, and even the creation of new wood elements, such as a red cartouche in the ceiling and long panels that are distinguished today by their lighter backgrounds. To ensure the room’s successful completion, the workshop mocked-up the room to size in Damascus, perhaps in a space within the “House of the Spanish Crown.” Over a dozen photographs of the mocked-up room were taken in Damascus in August 1954 and sent to Duke just prior to its shipment in nine cases. In these images, some of which include Georges Asfar, we can see that Asfar & Sarkis were not just selling Duke the wood perimeter of a room but also the objects and textiles that could furnish it, including hanging lamps, braziers, water pipes, small tables, and various textiles. Duke purchased many of these items (including a set of four enameled lamps, 44.3.2), and ultimately displayed them in a manner echoing the multi-sensory, multi-media experience proposed by the dealers.

The Damascus Room paneling arrived in Honolulu in January 1955. Shortly thereafter, it was installed with the aid of Asfar & Sarkis’s “instructions for rebuilding the panelled room,” along with detailed drawings indicating the arrangement of numbered panels. These drawings reveal that the east (Koko Head) wall, for example, is comprised of 35 distinct panels.

The Damascus Room is a quintessential example of late-Ottoman Syrian architectural decoration reconstituted to meet the needs of a twentieth-century environment and collector. It belongs to a lengthy tradition of retrofitting Syrian interiors for sale to collectors and dealers and can be compared to interiors now in public collections in New York, Beirut, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and even Damascus itself. Although the room and its experience were custom-made for Shangri La, its mid-to-late-eighteenth-century ‘ajami surfaces remain exceptional products of their day. Analysis of the paneling by experts has confirmed its sophistication, integrity and importance (Scharrahs 2012). The raised pastework, floral designs, and calligraphy are of the highest quality, and areas of fine gilding (in the beveled doors of wall 64.23.4) and once vibrant glazes (green) and paint (smalt) can still be discerned. The majority of the paneling is today characterized by a brown leathery hue resulting from multiple layers of varnish and corroding metal leaf (McGinn 2012). This fate is not unique; rather, it typifies most late-Ottoman Syrian interiors in situ and abroad (Khalil 2011).

The DDFIA thanks the following individuals for sharing information and insights that improved understanding of the Damascus Room: Anke Scharrahs, Mecka Baumeister, Beth Edelstein, Johnny Sarkis, Naji Asfar, and Stefan Weber.

Doris Duke inspecting mother-of-pearl inlaid bureaus in the courtyard of the "House of the Spanish Crown," 1938. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Doris Duke inspecting mother-of-pearl inlaid bureaus in the courtyard of the "House of the Spanish Crown," 1938. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Photograph taken in Damascus in c. August 1954 of Georges Asfar seated in the retrofitted interior. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

Photograph taken in Damascus in c. August 1954 of Georges Asfar seated in the retrofitted interior. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.)

Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.)

Recommended Citation expand icon

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (Overton), “Late-Ottoman Syrian Interiors and Furnishings: Damascus Room,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012, www.shangrilahawaii.org.

Works Cited expand icon

Mecka Baumeister, Beth Edelstein, Anke Scharrahs and Keelan Overton, co-authored article (forthcoming).

John Carswell et al., The Future of the Past: the Robert Mouawad Private Museum (Beirut: The Robert Mouawad Private Museum, 2004).

Dorothea Duda, Innenarchitektur syrischer stadthauser (Beirut: Orient-Institut der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 1971).

Shadi Khalil, “Polychrome Syrian Ottoman ‘ajamī Interiors,” News in Conservation 24 (June 2011).

Rami G. Khoury, “Room for Tradition,” Saudi Aramco World (1993).

Mary McGinn, From Damascus to Honolulu: How Context and Environment Shape Conservation Decisions, The Damascus Room in Context: Acquisition, Furnishings and Conservation, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, June 27–28, 2012.

Keelan Overton, Damascene Intersections, 1938-1955: Doris Duke, Asfar & Sarkis, House of the Spanish Crown, and Retrofitting an 'ajami interior for Shangri LaThe Damascus Room in Context: Acquisition, Furnishings and Conservation, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, June 27–28, 2012.

Anke Scharrahs, Rare treasures of 18th - early 19th century Damascus: Discoveries of originally preserved 'ajami interiors and glimpses into recent conservation projects, The Damascus Room in Context: Acquisition, Furnishings and Conservation, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, June 27–28, 2012.

Stefan Weber, Damascus: Ottoman Modernity and Urban Transformation, 1808–1918(Århus: Aarhus University Press, 2009).

Karl Wulzinger and Carl Watzinger, Damaskus: Die Islamische Stadt (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1924).

Further Reading and Resources expand icon

Online:

Anke Scharrahs, “DDFIA 64.23.4 (‘Ajami wood paneling in the Damascus Room),” Scholar Favorites, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, July 2012.

Print:

Anke Scharrahs, Damascene ‘ajami Rooms: Forgotten Jewels of Interior Design (London: Archetype Publications, 2013).

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