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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Damascus Room

This period room re-creates a residential reception chamber (qa‘a) typical of the late Ottoman period in Damascus, Syria. The highlight of the room is the splendid decorated woodwork installed on its ceiling and walls (1970.170). Almost all of these wooden elements originally came from the same room. However, the exact residence to which this room belonged is unknown. Nevertheless, the panels themselves reveal a great deal of information about their original context. An inscription dates the woodwork to A.H. 1119/1707 A.D, and only a few replacement panels were added at later dates. The large scale of the room and the refinement of its decoration suggest that it belonged to the house of an important and affluent family.

At the time this room was decorated, Damascus was nearing its second century of Ottoman rule. With a population of 80–90,000, it served as the provincial capital of the administrative region of southern Syria, which included parts of present-day Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. While Istanbul exerted military and administrative control in the city, its social and cultural presence was more nuanced. For centuries, Damascus had functioned as an international nexus to which people traveled to study in its famous madrasas and worship in its renowned sanctuaries. The city also served as one of the main gathering places for the hajj caravans to Mecca, with an estimated 20,000 pilgrims congregating there annually. It was one of the most prosperous commercial centers in the empire, supported mainly by local agriculture and its role as a regional marketplace. In keeping with the globalizing trend of the times, wealthy Damascenes interested in the latest fashions looked not just to Istanbul, but beyond: they adopted select European styles and collected imports from both Europe and East Asia. Thus, eighteenth-century Damascus reflected a cosmopolitan zeitgeist against a backdrop firmly-rooted in tradition.

Within the city walls, Ottoman Damascus was densely built up. Palatial residences stood alongside more humble dwellings, bath houses, mausoleums, schools and places of worship, all within a grid of bustling market streets, narrow alleys, and cul-de-sacs. Usually the external facades of these buildings were contiguous with those adjacent to them. In Damascus, constructions consisted of a first story of masonry surmounted by upper stories of timber and sun-baked brick coated with plaster and white-wash, unlike many other towns in the region where the primary construction material was stone. From the street, even the most elegant of residences in Ottoman-period Damascus looked unassuming.

One entered the Damascene courtyard house from a plain door on the street into a narrow passage, often turning a corner. This bent-corridor arrangement (dihliz) provided privacy, by preventing passersby in the street from viewing the interior of the residence. The passage led to an internal open-air courtyard surrounded by living spaces, usually occupying two floors and covered with flat roofs. Most well-to-do residents had at least two courtyards: an outer court, referred to in historical sources as the barrani, and an inner court, known as the jawwani. An especially grand house might have had as many as four courtyards, with one dedicated as the servants’ quarters or designated by function as the kitchen yard. These courtyard houses traditionally housed an extended family, often consisting of three generations, as well as the owner’s domestic servants. To accommodate a growing household, an owner might enlarge the house by annexing a neighboring courtyard; in lean times, an extra courtyard could be sold off, contracting the area of the house.

Almost all courtyards included a fountain fed by the network of underground channels that had watered the city since antiquity. Traditionally, they were planted with fruit trees and rosebushes, and were often populated by caged song-birds. The interior position of these courtyards insulated them from the dust and noise of the street outside, while the splashing water inside cooled the air and provided a pleasant sound. The characteristic polychrome masonry of the walls of the courtyard’s first story and pavement, sometimes supplemented by panels of marble revetment or colorful paste-work designs inlaid into stone, provided a lively contrast to the understated building exteriors. The fenestration of Damascus courtyard houses was also inwardly focused: very few windows opened in the direction of the street; rather, windows and sometimes balconies were arranged around the walls of the courtyard (93.26.3). The transition from the relatively austere street facade, through the dark and narrow passage, into the sun-splashed and lushly planted courtyard made an impression on those foreign visitors fortunate enough to gain access to private homes—one nineteenth-century European visitor aptly described the juxtaposition as “a gold kernel in a husk of clay.”

The courtyards of Damascus houses typically contained two types of reception spaces: the iwan and the qa‘a. In the summer months, guests were invited into the iwan, a three-sided hall that was open to the courtyard. Usually this hall reached double-height with an arched profile on the courtyard facade and was situated on the south side of the court facing north, where it would remain relatively shaded. In the winter time, guests were received in the qa‘a, an interior chamber usually built on the north side of the court, where it would be warmed by its southern exposure.

Judging from the layout of the wooden elements, the museum’s room functioned as a qa‘a. Like most Ottoman-period qa‘ass in Damascus, the room is divided into two areas: a small antechamber (‘ataba), and a raised square seating area (tazar). Distributed around the room and integrated within the wall paneling are several niches with shelves, cupboards, shuttered window bays, a pair of entrance doors, and a large decorated niche (masab), all crowned by a concave cornice. The furnishing in these rooms was typically spare: the raised area was usually covered with carpets and lined with a low sofa and cushions. When visiting such a room, one left one’s shoes in the antechamber, and then ascended the step under the archway into the reception zone. Seated on the sofa, one was attended by household servants bearing trays of coffee and other refreshments, water pipes, incense burners, or braziers, items that were generally kept stored on shelves in the antechamber. Typically, the shelves of the raised area displayed a range of the owner’s prized possessions—such as ceramics, glass objects or books—while the cupboards traditionally contained textiles and cushions.

Ordinarily, the windows facing the courtyard were fitted with grills as they are here, but not glass. Shutters snugly mounted within the window niche could be adjusted to control the sunlight and airflow. The upper plastered wall is pierced with decorative clerestory windows of plaster with stained glass. At the corners, wooden muqarnas squinches transition from the plaster zone to the ceiling. The ‘ataba ceiling is composed of beams and coffers, and is framed by a muqarnas cornice. A wide arch separates it from the tazar ceiling, which consists of a central diagonal grid surrounded by a series of borders and framed by a concave cornice.

In a decorative technique very characteristic of Ottoman Syria known as ‘ajami, the woodwork is covered with elaborate designs that are not only densely patterned, but also richly textured. Some design elements were executed in relief, by applying a thick gesso to the wood. In some areas, the contours of this relief-work were highlighted by the application of tin leaf, upon which tinted glazes were painted, resulting in a colorful and radiant glow. For other elements, gold leaf was applied, creating even more brilliant passages. By contrast, some parts of the decoration were executed in egg tempera paint on the wood, resulting in a matte surface. The character of these surfaces would have constantly shifted with the movement of light, by day streaming in from the courtyard windows and filtering through the stained glass above, and by night flickering from candles or lamps.

The decorative program of the designs depicted in this ‘ajami technique closely reflects the fashions popular in eighteenth-century Istanbul interiors, with an emphasis on motifs such as flower-filled vases and overflowing fruit-bowls. Prominently displayed along the wall panels, their cornice, and the tazar ceiling cornice are calligraphic panels. These panels bear poetry verses based on an extended garden metaphor—especially apt in conjunction with the surrounding floral imagery—that leads into praises of the prophet Muhammad, the strength of the house, and the virtues of its anonymous owner, and concludes in an inscription panel above the masab, containing the date of the woodwork.

Although most of the woodwork elements date to the early eighteenth century, some elements reflect changes over time in its original historical context, as well as adaptations to its museum setting. The most dramatic change has been the darkening of the layers of varnish that were applied periodically while the room was in situ, which now obscure the brilliance of the original palette and the nuance of the decoration. It was customary for wealthy Damascene home-owners to refurbish important reception rooms periodically, and some parts of the room belong to restorations of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, reflecting 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 cornucopia motifs and large, heavily gilded calligraphic medallions.

Other elements in the room relate to the pastiche of its museum installation. The square marble panels with red and white geometric patterns on the tazar floor as well as the opus sectile riser of the step leading up to the seating area actually originate from another Damascus residence, and date to the late eighteenth or nineteenth century. On the other hand, the ‘ataba fountain may pre-date the woodwork, and the whether it came from the same reception room as the woodwork is uncertain. The tile ensemble on the back of the masab niche was selected from the Museum collection and incorporated in the 1970s installation of the room. In 2008, the room was dismantled from its previous location near the entrance of the Islamic art galleries, so that it could be re-installed in a zone within the suite of new galleries devoted to Ottoman art. De-installation presented an opportunity for in-depth study and conservation of its elements. The 1970s installation was known as the “Nur al-Din” room, because that name appeared in some of the documents related to its sale. Research indicates that “Nur al-Din” probably referred not to a former owner but to a building near the house that was named after the famous twelfth-century ruler, Nur al-Din Zengi, or his tomb. This name has been replaced by “Damascus Room”—a title that better reflects the room’s unspecified provenance.