Wood (poplar) with gesso relief, gold and tin leaf, glazes and paint; wood (cypress, poplar, and mulberry), mother-of-pearl, marble and other stones, stucco with glass, plaster ceramic tiles, iron, brass
H. 22 ft. 1/2 in. x 16 ft. 8 1/2 in. (671.6 x 509.2 cm), D. from inside front entrance to back wall 26 ft. 4 3/4 in. (804.2 cm)
The Damascus Room is a residential winter reception chamber (qa'a) typical of the late Ottoman period in Damascus, Syria. Among the earliest extant, nearly complete interiors of its kind, the room’s large scale and refined decoration suggest that it was part of the house of an important, affluent family. Poetry inscribed on its walls indicates that the patron was Muslim and possibly a member of the religious elite who claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad.
The Damascus Room, like most winter reception rooms (qa'as) of its time, is divided into two areas: a raised, square seating area (tazar) and a small antechamber ('ataba) entered through a doorway from a courtyard. The opening from which visitors view the room today would originally have been a wall with a cupboard. (The cupboard doors are now mounted in the passageway leading to the room.)
Wealthy Damascene homeowners periodically refurbished reception rooms in accordance with shifting trends and tastes in interior decoration. Therefore, houses in the old city of Damascus as well as their interiors rarely date to a single building phase. Although the inscription dates most of the woodwork elements in the room to A.D. 1707, alterations were made to the room in the subsequent three centuries.
The woodwork’s relief decoration is made of gesso covered with gold leaf, tin leaf with tinted glazes, and bright egg tempera paint. Known as 'ajami, this characteristic Ottoman-Syrian technique and style creates a rich texture with varied surfaces that are responsive to changes in light.
The palette of the 'ajami decoration was originally much more colorful and more varied than it appears today. Periodically the surfaces were coated with a layer of varnish as a form of maintenance. Over time, subsequent coats of varnish have darkened, muting the colorful surfaces in the Damascus Room.
The Damascus Room is decorated with forty stanzas of poetry.
This interior, a splendid example of a wood-paneled reception chamber (qa‘a) from a private house in Damascus, is among the earliest extant, nearly complete interiors of its kind, dated by an inscription to A.H. 1119/1707 A.D. Its refined decoration and large size indicate that it was once part of a house belonging to an important and affluent family. The exact residence from which this room came is unknown, but archival sources suggest that it was located within the walled city of Damascus, southwest of the Umayyad Mosque. Judging from the layout of the room, it functioned as a winter reception salon, located on the north side of the building’s internal courtyard, where it would have been warmed by its southern exposure.
In the early 1930s the room was removed from its setting and, along with another interior from a house in Damascus said to be owned by the Quwatli family, sold to Hagop Kevorkian. Both interiors were shipped to New York in 1934, but neither was installed until the 1970s, when the Hagop Kevorkian Fund donated one to the Metropolitan Museum and the other to New York University’s Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. When the Museum installed the room in the new Islamic galleries in the mid-1970s, some of the features from the Quwatli house interior were incorporated. A few further architectural components from both interiors—including two vertical wall panels and the riser of the seating area originally belonging to the room’s interior—were obtained by Doris Duke and installed at Shangri La, her villa in Honolulu.
Characteristic of Ottoman-period reception rooms in Damascus, the space is divided by an imposing arch into two areas: a small antechamber (‘ataba) with a fountain, accessed from the courtyard of the house, and a raised square seating area (tazar). Integrated within the wall paneling are several display niches with shelves, cupboards, shuttered window niches, the entryway with a pair of doors, and a large decorated niche (masab). The wall paneling is crowned by a concave cornice, above which is a plaster wall that incorporates pierced-stucco windows with colored glass. The rectangular ceiling in the ‘ataba is composed of exposed beams and coffers, framed by a cornice with a three-tiered muqarnas (honeycomb-like) frieze. The tazar ceiling comprises concentric squares of varied patterns, framed by a concave cornice. Carved and painted squinches extend down from the four corners of both ceilings.
As is typical for Syrian reception rooms, the woodwork is elaborately decorated in gesso relief, called ‘ajami, incorporating gold and tin leaf, transparent colored glazes, and bright egg tempera paints to create variously textured and richly patterned surfaces—most of which appear darkened today by layers of later varnish. All the elements decorated in this ‘ajami technique are made of poplar wood, while the unpainted framework of the wall paneling is composed of cypress. The ornamentation consists mainly of floral designs, fruit arrangements, geometric patterns, and calligraphy. Tulips, carnations, hyacinths, roses, and other flowers are gathered in vases within cartouches or strewn over brightly colored backgrounds; bowls overflow with fruit and vegetables; and astral motifs and geometric patterns serve as frames and borders. An oversize fruit bowl flanked by small architectural vignettes appears on the panel above the entrance. On the tazar ceiling, the wall cornice, and the wall panels are poetic verses. Those on the two cornices contain an extended garden metaphor—especially apt in conjunction with the surrounding floral imagery—that leads into praises to the Prophet Muhammed. Aside from an independent couplet on the east side, the verses on the wall panels praise the strength of the house and the virtues of its anonymous owner and conclude with an inscription panel above the masab containing the date of the woodwork. The presence of fruit-bowl and flower-vase motifs in this room clearly demonstrates the rapid appropriation in Damascus of iconography popular in early eighteenth-century Istanbul, while the execution of these motifs in the local ‘ajami technique gives it a distinctly Syrian character.
Like many period rooms, this interior reflects changes that it underwent over time in its original historical context as well as adaptations to its museum setting, though the overall dimensions have been retained. Two sets of photographs taken in the early 1930s document the appearance of the room in its original house prior to its dismantling. The most dramatic change has been the gradual darkening of the layers of varnish that were applied periodically while the room was in situ; these now obscure the coloristic brilliance of the original palette and the exquisite nuance of the decoration. Some elements of the room belong to restorations of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and reflect the shifting tastes of Damascene interior decoration: for example, the cupboard doors on the south wall of the tazar bear architectural vignettes in the Turkish Rococo style along with large central calligraphic medallions characterized by heavy gilding. The opus sectile riser and ‘ataba dado documented in a historical photograph of the room in Damascus in the 1930s probably represent a modernization of the space in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. It was customary for wealthy Damascene homeowners to refurbish important reception rooms periodically, sometimes in honor of a special event. The ‘ataba fountain, which also appears in the early 1930s photograph, may predate the woodwork, and the question of whether it came from the same reception room has been posed. Comparable fountains from Syria and Egypt date to the sixteenth to seventeenth century and earlier.
Other elements in the room relate to the pastiche of its installation in the 1970s. The square marble panels with red-and-white geometric patterns now placed orthogonally in the tazar floor actually come from the flooring of an iwan, or hall, in the Quwatli house courtyard, where they were arranged diagonally. Sections of two stone risers from the Quwatli interior were combined to replace the previous tazar riser, which was obtained by Doris Duke. The two opus sectile marble panels flanking the fountain in the ‘ataba floor once decorated the dado zone of the ‘ataba walls. The tile ensemble on the back of the masab niche was selected from the Museum collection, while the lateral ceramic tiles in the niche appear to have come in with the Kevorkian Fund donation. The rectangular stained-glass windows on the north wall resemble those captured in the 1930s photograph but are not identical and come, like the other stained-glass windows, from an unidentified setting.
In 2008 the room was dismantled to be moved from its previous location off the introductory gallery to a new space adjoining the galleries devoted to Ottoman art. Its deinstallation presented an opportunity for in-depth study and conservation. Investigation of the individual components of the dismantled room revealed aspects of the original joinery of the wooden elements, a painted numbering system applied in the 1930s that confirmed the historic arrangement of the architectural sections, and eighteenth-century notations that indicated the correct sequence of the calligraphic panels. This evidence, together with study of the two sets of photographs from the early 1930s, has allowed the layout in the new installation to be adjusted to better reflect the historic arrangement of the architectural elements and to correct the order of the calligraphy. The two missing panels now installed in Honolulu were photographically reproduced, printed on fabric, and mounted in the new installation on boards of the original size and shape. One more missing element came to light during this investigation: a series of flat cornice boards, originally attached to the top of the entire wall cornice. These boards, which projected into the room with polychrome decoration on the visible underside, served both as shelves for the display of objects and as a visual framing element for the ‘ataba and tazar ceilings. They were recently discovered at the Kevorkian Center at New York University, where they now adorn the steel framework of the library’s mezzanines. Although this reception room has undergone many changes, it still conveys the richness and profusion of decorative detail intended to welcome and impress guests of one of the grand residences of eighteenth-century Damascus.
For the reading and translation of this inscription, we thank Dr. Abdullah Ghouchani and Dr. W. M. Thackston, respectively. A full translation was published for the first time in Daskalakis-Mathews 1997.
Ellen Kenney and Mechthild Baumeister in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. This room is published in Daskalakis-Mathews 1997 and in a chapter by Daskalakis-Mathews in Peck et al. 1996 ( pp. 287–95). It is discussed extensively in her dissertation, Daskalakis-Mathews, Annie-Christine. "Damascus Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Houses in the Ablaq-‘Ajami Style of Decoration: Local and International Significance." Ph.D. diss., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2004.
2. The sales contract stated that the "Nourredin House" was located "in Soukel Harir and Soukel Kayatin, in the ancient quarters of the City of Damascus." The Arabic words Nur al-Din jihat al-shamal (Nur al-Din north side) are written on the reverse of one of a set of photographs taken of the room in the early 1930s, before it was disassembled (Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu). Since recent research reveals no house of this name in the old city, it most likely refers to the nearby tomb of Nur al-Din, the famous twelfth-century ruler. Previously called the Nur al-Din Room in the Museum’s 1970s installation, the space is now referred to as the Damascus Room, better reflecting its unspecified provenance.
3. The two wall panels and the opus sectile stone riser of the elevated tazar of the Museum’s room were installed in the late 1970s in the Baby Turkish Room, an architectural pastiche at Shangri La. The present riser in the Metropolitan Museum’s room is composed of inlaid stone elements from the risers of the Quwatli house interior. One of the window grilles in the Museum installation is documented to have come from this interior as well (the others are matching reproductions).
4. On this technique and its conservation, see Scharrahs, Anke. "Ajami Rooms—Polychrome Wooden Interior Decorations from Syria of the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Centuries: A View into Art Technology and Conservation Problems." ICOM Committee for Conservation 2 (2008), pp. 918 – 23; Scharrahs, Anke. Ajami Interiors: Forgotten Jewels of Interior Design. London, 2011, and Baumeister, Mechthild, et al. "A Splendid Welcome to the ‘House of Praises, Glorious Deeds and Magnanimity.’" In Conservation and the Eastern Mediterranean: Contributions to the 2010 IIC Congress, Istanbul, pp. 126–33. [London, 2010]..
5. The independent couplet in the center of the eastern wall was composed by the fourteenth-century Moroccan poet Lisan al-Din ibn al-Khatib (identification made by Dr. Abdullah Ghouchani). The authorship of the other poetry has not yet been identified. It is possible that a large niche (yuk) used for the storage of bedding was originally present in the center of the east wall and that the current display niche with the couplet above and two flanking panels on each side were added during a modernization campaign.
6. For a study of Turkish and Syrian interiors, see Renda, Gunsel. "The Decorative Program of the Ottoman House and Reflections of the Provinces: The Aleppo Room." In Angels, Peonies, and Fabulous Creatures: The Aleppo Room in Berlin, edited by Julia Gonella and Jens Kroger, pp. 119–26. Berlin, 2008..
7. Varnish was traditionally applied to treat the ‘ajami-decorated woodwork in Damascus. Although removing or reducing the varnish layers would be desirable, the technical challenge presented by the interaction of the original materials with the varnish layers, especially as they affected the colored glazes applied to the tin-leafed surfaces, requires further investigation before any steps are taken. However, given that the surface appearance of the decoration has been compromised by these was to identify the original materials and techniques to understand better the original appearance of the decorated woodwork (see Baumeister et al. 2010 [footnote 4] and Rizzo, Adriana, et al. "A Rediscovered Opulence: The Surface Decoration of an Early Eighteenth Century Damascene Reception Room at The Metropolitan Museum of Art." In Post Prints of the 4th International Architectural Paint Research Conference, Sharing Information, Sharing Decisions [August 3–6, 2010], forthcoming). Aspects of the scientific analysis of the surface decoration applied in the room are discussed in Arslanoglu, Julie, and Julia Schultz. "Immunology and Art: Using Antibody-based Techniques to Identify Proteins and Gums in Binding Media and Adhesives." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 67, no. 1 [Scientific Research in The Metropolitan Museum of Art] (Summer 2009), pp. 40–48, and Rizzo, Adriana, et al. "A Multi-Analytical Approach for the Identification of Aloe as a Colorant in Oil- Resin Varnishes." Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry 399 (March 2011), pp. 3093–107.
8. On the tastes that developed in later Ottoman Damascus, see Weber, Stefan. "Images of Imagined Worlds: Self-Image and Worldview in Late Ottoman Wall Painting." In The Empire in the City: Arab Provincial Capitals in the Late Ottoman Empire, edited by J. Hanssen, T. Philipp, and S. Weber, pp. 145–71. Beirut, 2002. For the broader context of these residences, Weber, Stefan. Damascus: Ottoman Modernity and Urban Transformation, 1801–1918. Proceedings of the Danish Institute in Damascus, 5. [Aarhus and Copenhagen, 2009].
9. Daskalakis-Mathews 1997, p. 133.
10. The fountain probably belonged to an earlier phase of the same room or residence from which the interior came. However, analysis of the ca. 1930 photograph raised speculation that the fountain in the ‘ataba may have been moved from another location, and a slightly earlier photograph of the fountain shows it with a different surround (Department of Islamic Art files).
11. For example, see Duda, Dorothea. Innenarchitektur syrischer Stadthäuser des 16. bis 18. Jahrhunderts: Die Sammlung Henri Pharaon in Beirut. Beiruter Texte und Studien, 12. Beirut, 1971, pl. 75, discussed pp. 63–65. See also Daskalakis-Mathews in Peck et al. 2006.
12. The white marble lining the walls of the dado zone and surrounding the historic floor panels and fountain as well as the red marble strips forming the grid pattern on the floor are new.
13. See Baumeister et al. 2010 (footnote 4) and Rizzo et al. forthcoming (footnote 7).
Inscription: Tazar Ceiling and Wall Cornice Text in Arabic:
رآی البرق تعبیس الدجا فتبسما / وصافح ازهار الربا فتنسما / ولاح جبین الصبح في طرة الدجی / فخلت بیاض الثغر في ثمرة السلما / ورف لواء البرق لما تلاعبت / سوابق خیل الریح في حلبة السما / واوتر رامي الجو قوس سحابة / وارسل نحو الارض بالقطر اسهما / وقد بلّ اردان الثری دمع مزنه / تناثر في اسلاکها فتنظما / وجرّ علی هام الرُبا ذیل ویله / فدبّج اثواب الربوع وسهما / وشاب لجین الظل عسجد بارق / فدثر ازهار الربیع ودرهما / وشمّر کف الروض اکمام نوره / ووشح اعطاف الغصون وعمما / وقبل ثغر الزهر وجنة ورده / فاحسن به خداً واحبب به فما / ودار بساق الغصن خلخال جدول / کما سوّر التجعید للنهر معصما / ومال قوام البان یرقص نشطة / لبرق تراءی او حمام ترنما / وعانق من خوط الاراکة معطفاَ / وقبل من زهر الاقاحة مبسما / وخط بظرس الجو سطراً مذهباً / ففضّضه قطر الغمام واعجما / وکحّل بالیاقوت جفناً و ناظراً / وخضّب بالحنا کفاً ومعصما / ولا حاجة في النفس إلا امتداحها / ابا القاسم الهادي النبي المعظما / بشیراً نذیراً صادق القول مرسلاً / حبیباً خلیلاً هاشمیاً مقدما / تقیاً نقیاً ابطحیاً مبجلاً / سراجاً منیراً زمزمیاً مکرّما / نبي ترد المجد والبأس حلیة / مفوّفة فیها الکمال مجسما / نبي هدی لولاه ما استبرق الدجی / ولا ازهد الداجي ولا اعشب الحما / هو المجتبی المبعوث للناس رحمة / فلله ما احیا واحمی وارحما / هو الذروة العلیا التي لا ترتقی / هو العروة الوثقة التي لن تفصما / ایا خاتم ارسال یا فاتح العلا / حنانیک قد وافیت بابک مجرما / فیا رب یا الله کن لي ولا تکن / عليّ فقد ضاق الفلا واظلما / سألتک بالهادي اجب دعوتي وجد / بما ارتجی یا مالک الارض والسما / وسامح ونعم والديّ تطولا / ولا تحرق اللهم بالنار مسلما / وصل علی المختار والصحب کلما / رأی البرق تعبیس الدجی فتبسما
English translation of the Tazar Ceiling and Wall Cornice Text:
The lightning saw the darkness frown and smiled. It skimmed and wafted over the flowers of the hills./ Dawn’s forehead shone through the forelock of darkness, and it pierced the whiteness of the teeth in the fruit of red lips./ Lightning’s banner fluttered when racing horses of the wind dallied in the sky./ The archer of the air loosened the bow of his cloud and sent toward the earth a downpour of sun rays./ The tears of the rain cloud have moistened the cuffs of the earth’s sleeves — [the pearly tears] that were scattered on their threads were restrung./ [The rain] dragged the skirt between its legs over the head of the hills and adorned the garments of spring encampments with stripes./ And the silver of the shade mixed with the gold of lightning, and it covered the spring flowers with a blanket and produced round leaves./ And the hand of the garden gathered up the sleeves of its blooms and embellished the shoulders of the branches and wrapped them in turbans./ The mouth of the flowers kissed the cheek of its rose. What a beautiful cheek! what a lovely mouth!/ . . . as the curling put bracelets on the river’s wrist/ Does the willow tree dance gaily because of lighting that became visible or because of warbling doves?/ It embraced a cloak of the thorn tree’s green branches and kissed a mouth made of the blossoms of chamomile./ And it wrote on a palimpsest of air a gilded line and then drops of clouds dotted it with silver./ It lined with ruby an eyelid and an eye, and it daubed with henna a hand and a wrist./ The soul has no need but to praise him, Abu’l-Qasim, who guides aright, magnificent prophet./ Bringer of glad tidings, warner of the hereafter, true in his words, emissary, beloved and friend [of God], of Hashimite descent, preferred by all./ Pious, pure, Abtahi [Meccan], revered, a shining lamp from Zamzam, honored./ A prophet who dons glory and power as striped finery in which beauty is embodied./ A prophet who has guided aright. Were it not for him, the dark would not be illuminated, night would not blossom, and slime would not bring forth greenery./ He is the elect mercifully sent to the people. By God, how many are the lives he has given, how protective is he, and how merciful!/ He is the highest summit that cannot become higher. He is the firm bond that will never break./ O seal of prophecy, O opener of highest heaven, I beg mercy, coming to thy gate as a sinner./ O Lord, O God, be for me, and be not against me, for the world has become narrow and dark./ I ask Thee by him who guides aright, answer my prayer and be generous with what I hope for, O master of the earth and sky./ And be tolerant, respond favorably, and he who . . ., and, O God, do not burn any Muslims in hellfire./ And pray for the Chosen One and his companions whenever lightning sees. the darkness frown and smiles./
These poems are part of 329 lines of a poem composed by Shihab al-Din Ibn al-Khalluf (D. 1494). There are some differences between the poems inscribed in this room and the ones known from manuscripts, see: http://www.poetsgate.com/poem_117103.html .
Wall Panels Text in Arabic:
بیت المحامد والمفاخر والندی / دامت بک الافراح تهتف سرمدا / شادتک اید المجد في شرف العلی / للائذین حمي یصون من الردی / وترنمت ورق الحمائم بالهناء / بعلاک والداعي المثوب غرّدا / بشراک بالعلیاء فبانیک الذي / سامی الکواکب والدرار سؤددا / تدب به فی کل صعب راحة / تأتي لها الاُسد الضراغم سُجّدا / وید تمد السائلین بسیبها / ما البحر عند نوالها إن ازبدا / فرع نماه الی الاکارم عصبة / نالت من المجد المؤثل مقصدا / من کل من لبس المعالي بردة / وبکل عزّ في الانام قد ارتدا / جعلوا الوزارة والصدارة خادماً / والوقت قناً والمفاخر اعبدا / دُم بالمسرة یا فرید زمانه / واهنأ بما لک بالعنایة شیدا / متنعماً في ظل عیش ارغد / تقتاد ما تبتغي علی رغم العدی / ما جاءنا تاریخ ما احکمته / بیتاً یصیخ له النهی إن انشدا / نادی الیها والجود في ابراجه / بمحمد ربع المکارم اطدا / سنة 1119
Translation of the Wall Panels Text:
House of praiseworthy and glorious deeds and generosity, may rejoicing in you be praised eternally./ Hands of nobility erected you in the highest dignity. Those seeking refuge have an abode that protects them from destruction./ Turtledoves sing congratulations on your sublimity, and the well rewarded summoner (?) warbles./ Rejoice in your loftiness, for he who built you surpasses the planets and stars in glory./ For it comfort is given in every difficulty: ferocious lions come to it prostrate./ A hand that assists with gifts those who implore, as the sea yields when it froths./ A family branch which traces its root to the most noble of men derives more significance from high-born glory./ Than anyone who wears nobility as a cloak and is clothed in all splendor among mankind./ They have made the office of vizier and that of the comptroller subservient, time a slave, and the proud has been enslaved./ Remain in happiness, O unique one of your time, and enjoy what has been erected with such care for you./ Luxuriating in the shadow of a life of easy, you achieve what you desire in spite of enemies./ What has come to us is the date of what you have built so strongly as a house for which wisdom cries out, “Recite!”/ In its towers are assembled splendor and generosity. Through Muhammad, the abode of noble qualities was established./ Year 1119 [A.D. 1707–8].
"According to the last line, the name of the poet must be “محمد ربع المکارم” Muhammad Rabhʻ al-Makārim and this person was the sheikh of al-Azhar in the 10th century, this person built a mosque near Cairo at a city called FAWAH and the mosque still till now at that place, see http://www.kenanaonline.com/page/4859 No.10.
Independent Couplets in Arabic:
یا مصطفی من قبل نشأة آدم / والکون لم تفتح له اغلاق / ایروم مخلوق ثناؤک بعدما / اثنی علی اخلاقک الخلاق
Translation of Independant Couplets:
O you who were chosen before Adam sprouted, before the locks of existence were opened./ Can a creature desire to praise you, after that Creator had praise your behavior./
These two lines are from Lisān al-Dīn Ibn al-Khatīb, the famous poet and minster of Morocco during the 14th c. and appear in: Diwān Lisān al-Dīn Ibn al-Khatīb al-Salmānī, ed. Muhmmad Miftāh, 2 vols., Dr al-thaqāfa li al-Nashr wa al-Tawzī‘, al-Dār al-Bayḍā’, 1989. Vol.2 p.715. These two lines were used in the 18th c. by Musā al-Mahāsinī (d. 1173 A.H) within a TAKHMĪS as mentioned in: Hulyat al-Bashar fī ’A‘yān al-Qarn al-Thānī ‘Ashar, by Bihjat al-‘Attār, 4 vols., vol.4., p.224.
[ Asfar and Sarkis, Damascus, Syria, until early 1930s; sold to Kevorkian]; Hagop Kevorkian, New York (early 1930s–d. 1962); Kevorkian Foundation, New York (1962–70; gifted to MMA)
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