The Damascus Room is a highlight of the Islamic art collection assembled by Doris Duke (1912–93) and is one of two Syrian interiors preserved at Shangri La. Its acquisition dates to 1952, when Duke placed an order for “1 Old Damascus Room made of old painted panels of wood” with Asfar & Sarkis, an antiquities firm based in both Damascus and Beirut, which she had worked with since the late 1930s. The purchased “Old Damascus Room” consisted of eighteenth-century wood paneling (four walls and a ceiling), which would have originally decorated a reception room (typically known as a qa‘a) of an affluent courtyard home in Syria. At the time, Syria was ruled by the Ottoman Turkish empire (in Syria: 1516–1918). Such rooms are therefore commonly described as late Ottoman–period Syrian interiors.
The wood paneling of the Damascus Room consists of both flat and raised painted surfaces. The latter are achieved through the ‘ajami technique, in which a paste-like mixture of animal glue and gypsum powder is applied to the wood substrate to create relief. In the Damascus Room, the raised ‘ajami surfaces, as well as the surrounding flat ones, are further embellished with metal leaf (gold, copper, tin) covered in multicolored translucent glazes (red, green, yellow, orange). These surfaces are shiny and stand in contrast to duller ones painted with pigments like smalt (blue), white lead and cochineal (pink). Gold leaf is also found on the most important surfaces, including the cartouches with beautiful calligraphy praising the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, which are located on the upper walls. The final effect is a visual play between flat and raised surfaces, and matte and glossy ones. Today, this effect is somewhat muted as much of the wood paneling has darkened due to corrosion of the metal leaf and multiple layers of varnish. Most late-Ottoman Syrian interiors, both in situ and abroad, have suffered a similar fate. It is in fact quite rare to encounter ‘ajami paneling that remains bright and colorful as originally intended.
The ‘ajami paneling purchased from Asfar & Sarkis in 1952 required considerable retrofitting to meet the dimensions of the preexisting guestroom located off Shangri La’s foyer. This retrofitting, which entailed the restoration of old panels and the creation of new ones, was done by the al-Khayyat workshop of Damascus. This workshop specialized in the creation and restoration of ‘ajami interiors and was led by the master artist Muhammad ‘Ali al-Khayyat (better known as Abu Suleyman). From the 1930s until his death in 1960, Abu Suleyman participated in the restoration and retrofitting of a number of ‘ajami interiors, including those preserved in the Robert Mouawad Private Museum in Beirut and the National Museum of Damascus. The Damascus Room at Shangri La therefore speaks to broader global trends in the preservation and appreciation of late-Ottoman Syrian interiors during the twentieth century. In this space, visitors can view exceptional eighteenth-century ‘ajami, as well as mid-twentieth-century workmanship by master Damascene artisans.
The Damascus Room opened to public tours for the first time in July, 2012. The room as it appears today is a new installation—one that enables visitors to enter the space, sit and enjoy the ‘ajami paneling, and peruse objects and textiles from the DDFIA collection.