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A close-up of a room from Damascus decorated with gilded dark wood paneling, low dark red velvet covered cushions; open windows on the left illuminate the room with light

Damascus Room

The Damascus Room, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue in gallery 461, is a residential reception chamber (qaʿa) 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 were believed to have descended from the Prophet Muhammad.

The Damascus Room is a gift of the Hagop Kevorkian Fund, 1970.

A room from Damascus decorated with gilded dark wood paneling, low dark red velvet covered cushions; open windows on the left illuminate the room with light

Damascus Room, Syria, Damascus, A.H. 1119/A.D. 1707. Poplar wood with gesso relief, gold and tin leaf, glazes and paint; cypress, poplar, mulberry, mother-of-pearl, marble and other stones, stucco with glass, plaster, ceramic tiles, iron, brass. Height 22ft (ataba), 19ft 11 in. (tazar), Length 26 ft 2in, Width 16 ft 8 in. Gift of The Hagop Kevorkian Fund, 1970 (1970.170)

The Damascus Room, like most winter reception rooms (qaʿas) of its time, is divided into two areas: a raised, square seating area (tazar) and a small antechamber (ʿataba) that is entered through a courtyard doorway. 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. 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.

Reception rooms in Ottoman-period Damascus homes were accented with both functional and purely decorative objects. The shelves of the antechamber typically held practical items related to receiving guests, while the shelves of the raised area were reserved for the display of prized possessions—that reflected the sophistication and taste of the owner from treasured heirlooms to newer East Asian ceramic imports or Bohemian glass.

See the objects in the Damascus Room >

Decoration of the Woodwork

Reconstruction of a cupboard

Left: Detail of green cupboard on the right side of the room. Right: Reconstruction of green cupboard door with its original appearance.

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 ʿajami, 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 ʿajami decoration was originally much more colorful and varied than it appears today. Periodically the surfaces were coated with a layer of varnish as a form of maintenance. Over time, successive coats of varnish have darkened, muting the colorful surfaces in the Damascus Room.


Calligraphy has always been an integral element of Islamic architecture, both for its decorative and symbolic value. The Damascus Room is decorated with forty stanzas of poetry.

Calligraphy in the Damascus Room

Ceiling cornice: The poem begins at the upper right corner of the far wall with an extended garden metaphor that complements the floral imagery decorating the woodwork: “The lightning saw the darkness frown and smiled. It skimmed and wafted over the flowers of the hills.”

Calligraphy in the Damascus Room

Wall cornice: The second section of the poem praises the Prophet Muhammad, including verses that ask God to protect the Prophet and pray for him “whenever the lightning sees the darkness frown and smiles.”

Calligraphy in the Damascus Room

Wall panels: The poem concludes by describing the strength of the house and extolling the nobility of its owner, who “surpasses the planets and stars in glory.” One verse traces the owner's family to the Prophet Muhammad and, therefore, to the religious elite in Damascus that vied for prestige with the ruling and mercantile classes.

Courtyard in Bait Nizam, Damascus

For many centuries, courtyard houses in Damascus adhered to a general design: an understated exterior with a first story of masonry and one or more upper stories of timber and sun-dried brick coated with plaster and whitewash. Even the most elegant residences appeared unassuming from the street. Inside, however, many houses featured sumptuous private courtyards surrounded by living spaces, usually on two floors.

Traditionally, three or more generations lived together in a courtyard house, along with the family’s domestic servants. Well-to-do owners enjoyed at least two courtyards.

Inside a House

Generally, a short, narrow passage from a plain door on the street led into the house. This bent-axis entryway provided privacy and insulated the interior from the dust and noise. Most courtyards included a fountain, whose splashing water cooled the air, and an iwan, a shaded, three-sided hall facing north where guests were received in the summer.

In the winter, guests were received in the qa‘a, an interior chamber usually built on the north side of the courtyard that would be warmed by southern exposure. The wooden elements of the Museum’s room indicate that it functioned as a qa‘a.

Domestic Life

Left: During the day, a qaʾa like the Damascus Room might have been used to receive visitors. Art and Architecture Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Tilden, and Lennox Foundations. Right: Trays and stands could have been brought in to transform the qaʾa into a dining room. Illustration from An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians by E.W. Lane, 1871.

The function of domestic rooms and courtyards in eighteenth-century Damascus varied according to season, time of day, and, most important, who was present. Minimal, lightweight furnishings could be rearranged easily according to necessity.

Women and children of a household probably had access to the outer court when no outside visitors were expected.  When unrelated male callers came to see the men of the house, the movement of the women was more restricted.


Party at dinner, illustration from The Land and the Book by W. M. Thomson, 1888.

A visit to an eighteenth-century Syrian reception room fully engaged the senses. Guests were invited to remove their shoes and to sit on low couches in the raised area of the room. Water was trickled over their hands by a servant carrying a pitcher and basin. Sprinkled perfumes and aromatic incense mingled with the scents of fragrant blossoms floating in from the courtyard. A meal with company might include meat, rice, bread, seasonal vegetables, assorted pickles, fresh and preserved fruits, sweet and savory pastries, and sherbets. Coffee was routinely served during visits and the novel luxury of tobacco became increasingly popular during the eighteenth century. For a special occasion, a host might also hire musicians to entertain guests.

Left: Reception view, illustration from The Natural History of Aleppo: Containing a Description of the City and the Principle Natural Productions in its Neighborhood by Alexander Russell, 1794. Right: Washing hands, illustration from The Land and the Book by W. M. Thomson, 1888.

Map of the city of Damascus

Map showing Ottoman Damascus in 1707

During the Ottoman period, the civic identity of Damascus—one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world—was firmly rooted in tradition. The city rose to prominence as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate from A.D. 661 to 750 and became known internationally as a place of Islamic scholarship and worship. By the eighteenth century, however, it had decreased in political importance and served as the provincial capital within the Ottoman administrative region of southern Syria, which included parts of present-day Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.

The city was a prosperous commercial center, drawing wealth from local agriculture, from trade routes to the Ottoman empire and beyond, and from Muslim pilgrims who congregated in Damascus on their way to Mecca. Wealthy, cosmopolitan Damascenes looked to Istanbul for the latest fashions, adopted styles set in Europe, and collected imports from East Asia.


Black and white photograph of Damascus by Francis Frith

Francis Frith (British, Chesterfield, Derbyshire 1822–1898 Cannes, France), Image of Damascus from Egypt, Sinai and Palestine. Supplementary Volume, 1860s. Albumen silver print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1908, transferred from the Library (1991.1073.88)

Within the city walls, eighteenth-century Damascus was densely developed. Palatial residences stood alongside commercial buildings, schools, places of worship, and humble dwellings, all within a grid of bustling market streets and narrow alleys.


Map of the city of Damascus highlighting heritage and water

The city's urban design dates back to the Roman era, when planners established the city walls and the grid of axial streets. The walled city was divided along religious lines into three neighborhoods.The waters of the Barada River irrigated the lush gardens and orchards of the suburbs surrounding Damascus.

Ottoman census records from the eighteenth century indicate that about eighty to ninety thousand people lived in Damascus; most were Muslim, twelve percent were Christian, and six percent were Jewish. The walled city was divided along religious lines into three neighborhoods, but was integrated socioeconomically, with wealthy, middle-class, and poor residents living side by side. The architectural identity of Damascus is strongly colored by its ancient past. The city's urban design dates back to the Roman era, when planners established the city walls and the grid of axial streets.

Waters of the Barada River

A coffeehouse in Damascus on the banks of the Barada River

A coffeehouse in Damascus on the banks of the Barada River, 1839. Photo: akg-images / Gerard Degeorge

The waters of the Barada River irrigated the lush gardens and orchards of the suburbs surrounding Damascus and fed courtyard pools and fountains within the city. The banks of the Barada also provided the backdrop for a cosmopolitan social life, where men and women sat in coffeehouses, listened to traditional storytellers, and smoked tobacco, a pastime that had only recently become acceptable in Ottoman society.

Architectural Identity

Interior of the Umayyad Mosque, ca 1867–69

Interior of the Umayyad Mosque, ca. 1867-69.

Vestiges of late antique monuments can be seen in the fabric of later buildings. The eighth-century Umayyad Mosque, built on the site of a Roman temple, incorporates columns and capitals from the Roman and Byzantine periods.

Original Location of the Room

Map of the city of Damascus showing the location of the Damascus Room

Map indicating the neighborhood where the room most likely originated from

Records from the early 1930s indicate that the Damascus Room came from a private house in the area southwest of the Umayyad Mosque. In 1925, part of this neighborhood was destroyed in a French aerial bombardment aimed at suppressing a Syrian resistance movement. It is likely that the room was salvaged from the wreckage of the airstrike or from a subsequent street-widening campaign.

Three quarter view of the Damascus Room installed at The Met

By the early 1930s, the Damascus Room had been removed from its original setting and was sold, along with another interior from a house owned by the Quwatli family, to the Armenian-American dealer and collector Hagop Kevorkian. Both interiors were shipped to New York in 1934. In the 1970s, the Hagop Kevorkian Fund donated one to the Metropolitan Museum and the other to New York University's Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.

The room installed at the Museum in the 1970s incorporated some inlaid marble elements from the Quwatli house and was configured with the doorway in a different location. That installation was known as the “Nur al-Din” room because that name appeared in some of the documents related to its sale. “Nur al-Din” probably referred not to a former owner but to buildings near the house that were named after the famous twelfth-century ruler, Nur al-Din Zengi. The name “Damascus Room” is used for the new installation to reflect the room's unspecified provenance.

Riser and Panels

Details from the Damascus Room at The Met

Doris Duke acquired the original marble riser from this room (above left) and two panels from the window wall. They are now installed in Shangri La, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art in Honolulu, Hawai'i (above right). For this installation, the panels were photographed and digitally altered to match the appearance of the varnished decoration.


Details from the Damascus Room installation at The Met

A ledge that originally projected above the wall cornices in order to display objects is now installed as a decorative element at New York University's Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies (above right).

Numbering Systems

Details from the Damascus Room installation at The Met

Markings circled in blue are original to the cornice; markings circled in yellow are from the 1930s.

A painted numbering system originally applied to the back of the cornices with inscriptions and an additional marking system applied in the 1930s confirmed the historic arrangement of the architectural sections. This evidence, together with the study of historic photographs from the early 1930s, has allowed the layout in the new installation to be adjusted to reflect the historic arrangement of the architectural elements and to correct the order of the calligraphy.

Original Notations

Details from the Damascus Room installation at The Met

Eighteenth-century notations indicated the correct sequence of the calligraphic wall panels and cornices with inscriptions.


Details from the Damascus Room installation at The Met

The wooden paneling and ceilings of these rooms were elaborately decorated with gesso relief work, called ʿajami incorporating reflective gold and tin leaf, transparent colored glazes and bright egg tempera paints to create a variety of surface effects. These surfaces are now largely muted by darkened varnish layers that were applied periodically while the room was in its original location. They are clearly evident under UV illumination (above right). Since the varnish layers dissolved the original colored glazes in some areas, the original surfaces have been irreversibly changed.


Details from the Damascus Room installation at The Met

To better demonstrate the original appearance of this opulent ʿajami room, panels of the Damascus Room were reconstructed using the techniques and materials identified during the examination of the surface decoration. The reconstruction (bottom) shows the sequence of steps that was followed in creating the ʿajami decoration, and it dramatically illustrates how the darkened varnishes have altered the appearance of the original surfaces.

Conserving the Damascus Room


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.

Research was provided by Ellen Kenney, associate professor of Islamic art and architecture in the Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations at The American University in Cairo, and former research associate in the Department of Islamic Art.

Research assistance was provided by:

The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art
Deborah Pope, Sharon Littlefield, and Maja Clark

Hagop Kevorkian Fund
Ralph Minassian

The Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, New York University
Michael Gilsenan

Annie-Christine Daskalakis-Mathews
Abdullah Ghouchani
Claudia Ott
Anke Scharrahs
Wheeler Thackston
Stefan Weber
Traditional Line

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Conserving the Damascus Room

Outside In

Discoveries: New Research on the Collections of the Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This two-day symposium celebrated the opening of the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. Internationally renowned scholars and curators presented recent scholarship in themed sessions.

Recorded April 13–14, 2012

Part Four of Six

"Hands of Nobility": Reflections of Social Identity and Decorative Tradition in the Damascus Room
Ellen Kenney, The American University in Cairo

The Damascus Room at the Convergence of Two Worlds
Annie-Christine Daskalakis Mathews, Louvre Museum and Agence France-Muséums

"Remain in happiness, O unique one of your time": The Damascus Room Then and Now
Mechthild Baumeister, Beth Edelstein, and Adriana Rizzo, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Aleppo Room and Its Heirs: Real and Fantastic Worlds in Ottoman Syria
Stefan Weber, Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

This symposium was made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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