Damascus is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. During Roman times, it was enclosed by a series of walls and gates (bab), and shortly after the Muslim conquest in 635–6, it became the capital city of the Umayyad dynasty (661–750). In addition to being home to the renowned Umayyad Mosque (705–15), Damascus is celebrated for its domestic architecture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at which time Syria was ruled by the Ottoman empire (in Syria: 1517–1918). In recent years, approximately 600 homes, the majority of which date to the late Ottoman period (c. 1750–1900), have been surveyed in the city’s Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters (Weber 2009). Most were originally built for prominent merchants, religious figures and administrators, and many were later transformed into foreign consulates, research institutes, workshops, hotels, schools and restaurants.
Upperclass homes of late-Ottoman Damascus are generally described as “inward facing.” Instead of having a grandiose façade on the street, the home centers around an internal courtyard, or series of courtyards. From a narrow street, one passes through a nondescript door, walks down a circuitous corridor, and enters an open-air courtyard with marble flooring, bubbling fountains, scented trees and surrounding living spaces on two floors. The lower level typically consists of rectangular blocks of stone (basalt, limestone) sheathed in orange, white, or black plaster, a technique known as ablaq (Scharrahs, 2013). The upper level is often embellished with a more complex pastework technique, also known as ablaq. In this instance, a thin layer of plaster is first applied over stone. Designs are then carved out of this plaster substrate and filled with colored pastes, resulting in a polychromatic, mosaic-like effect. Beginning in the 1780s, this pastework typically alternated with stonework in elegant floral and vine patterns.
The most distinct living area in the courtyard is the iwan, a three-sided space that is framed by an arch, scales the home’s two stories, and includes a flat wood ceiling and faces the courtyard. Often (but not exclusively) located on the southern side of the courtyard, this cool space offers a welcome degree of protection from the sun and is used as a seating area.
Around the perimeter of the courtyard are a series of doors leading into closed interiors. The principal reception room of a Damascene home is known as a qa‘a (Arabic: hall). The room is divided into two zones: a lower entrance area (‘ataba) often including a central fountain and/or wall niche (masabb), and one or more raised seating areas (tazar), where individuals recline on low mattresses (generally called divans) positioned around the perimeter of the space. The two zones are separated by a large transverse arch, and each space is covered by its own flat wood ceiling decorated in a technique known as ‘ajami (in which a paste of gypsum and animal glue create a raised ornament that is embellished with metal leaf covered in translucent colored glazes, painted, and often inset with mirrors). The floor of the ‘ataba consists of multicolored stones in geometric patterns, while the walls are embellished with stonework and pastework (ablaq). In the upper seating area (tazar), carpets and mats cover the floor, and the surrounding walls—often composed of wood ‘ajami paneling—include cupboards for storing bedding and textiles and open-air niches for displaying collectibles (ceramics, metalwork, books). The upper walls feature cartouches with gold calligraphy, often of a religious nature.
Map of Damascus, c. 2000. From Brigid Keenan, Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City. (Courtesy of Ross Burns.)
The courtyard of Bayt Jacques Montluçon, Damascus, with two types of ablaq pastework. (Photo: Anke Scharrahs.)
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, “Late-Ottoman Syrian Interiors and Furnishings: Introduction,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012, www.shangrilahawaii.org.
Anke Scharrahs, Damascene ‘ajami Rooms: Forgotten Jewels of Interior Design (London: Archetype Publications, 2013).
Stefan Weber, Damascus: Ottoman Modernity and Urban Transformation, 1808–1918 (Århus: Aarhus University Press, 2009).
Ellen Kenney, “The Damascus Room,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2011.
Photographs of Damascus, c. 1900, Library of Congress.
View More in Late-Ottoman Syrian interiors and furnishings< Return to Late-Ottoman Syrian interiors and furnishings