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Volume 26, Number 4July/August 1975

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The Hidden Palaces

Written by Genevieve Maxwell
Photographed by Kay Brennan

The noncommittal walls and rows of anonymous shops that line the narrow streets of an Arab city give little inkling of what lies beyond. Arab buildings have no outsides, it is sometimes said, meaning that they often merge with their neighbors and do not appear as distinct and isolated forms. The architectural interest is concentrated on the interior, including the enclosed courtyards that are an integral part of the traditional Arab residence.

The streets of Damascus conceal many an old house or palace, some still lived in, others abandoned and boarded up, still others restored and brought back to a new and more public life. Many of them contain a rich compendium of the Arab decorative arts: walls of horizontal stone stripes in subdued natural colors, inlaid marble floors of symmetrical patterns, ceilings of natural logs painted and gilded, polychrome wood and stucco panels, hanging translucent glass lanterns or metal mosque lamps which throw their filigree across worn pavements. There are ceramic tile fireplaces, prayer niches in golden mosaics, Koranic texts carved or painted, medallions, arabesques, stalactites, rosettes, carved stone or marble columns, arches, and fountains.

Above all, fountains. For Damascus is an oasis town, created and made livable by an abundance of underground water. The enclosed courtyards are refreshed with basins and jets and channels of running water, dappled by the leaves of trees and climbing plants, and sparked by colored flowers—secret gardens with all the enchantment of the unexpected.

Nobody knows how many old palaces lurk behind the reticent walls of Damascus. In 1953, the Damascus National Museum published a list of 50 privately owned palaces dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, but some of these no longer exist. The Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions maintains a current list of 75 palaces, 49 of which are said to be within the oval walls of the Old City, the rest in the historical quarters beyond the walls. The Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums has acquired by purchase or legal will 15 palaces and madrasahs (traditional Koranic schools), which it is restoring and converting into museums or artisans' schools. Meanwhile, the destruction of ancient buildings has been prohibited by a law passed in 1963 to preserve all monuments of historical interest of whatever era.

Two of the finest 18th century Damascene palaces are easy to find and open to the public, while parts of two others are also on display in public institutions. The two in situ were built by members of the al-Azm family, who governed Damascus from 1732 to 1808. Khalid al-Azm built the earliest al-Azm palace in 1723, with its five courtyards and its magnificent painted ceilings, just north of the Old City, and now an artisans' school. The Assad al-Azm palace, built by the third of the line in 1749, occupies the site of the palace of the Umayyad Caliphs who ruled the entire Islamic world from their capital of Damascus. It now houses the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions.

The main reception rooms of two other palaces have been removed and reinstalled in two modern public buildings. That of Jamil Mardum, 1737, is now on display in the National Museum of Damascus, while that of Saqqa Amini, 1796, has been set up in the Fijeh Water Authority Building. Other palaces are still in private hands, some of them having been purchased and restored by wealthy families within the last three generations. Several are currently used as antique shops and are therefore of easy access to shoppers in the great bazaar of Damascus.

There is no substitute for seeing the Damascus palaces in their original locations. For Americans, however, there will soon be two fine examples of Damascene palatial architecture to be seen in New York City, one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one at New York University. Both are the gift of the Hagop Kevorkian Foundation. Mr. Kevorkian, an antiquarian of Middle Eastern art who died ten years ago at the age of 90, acquired these artifacts in 1933. They consist of the interiors of two palaces of the al-Qouatly family, which has resided in Damascus for the last seven centuries. The older of the two palaces, that of Noureddine al-Qouatly (1703) has been presented to the Metropolitan for its projected Islamic wing. The other, of Said al-Qouatly (1797), is currently being installed in the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University.

In his 1970 annual report, Director Thomas Hoving of the Metropolitan Museum called the Syrian palace interior "undoubtedly the most spectacular acquisition in the last decade," adding that it is "a museum in a museum." Experts in Islamic art are now busy assembling the parts of the two palaces, guided only by a few old photographs and some incomplete instructions in Arabic. When the work is completed, however, New Yorkers and other visitors will be able to step inside those reticent Damascus walls and, as it were, enter a once-hidden world of luxury and beauty.

Genevieve Maxwell, a former columnist for Beirut's Daily Star, is currently writing several guide books on the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 10-17 of the July/August 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1975 images.