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Volume 44, Number 3May/June 1993

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Room for Tradition

Written by Rami G. Khouri
Photographed by Bill Lyons

The fire that raged through the Sulaymaniyyah quarter of old Damascus in the 1920's was so intense that people ever since have called that area of the city Hariqah, which means "fire" in colloquial Arabic. Among the many buildings that burned was the 18th-century Mardam-Bey family home.

The house was abandoned, but some parts of its most important room - its magnificent madafah, or reception hall - were only slightly charred, and the family had them dismantled and stored. In 1958, former Syrian Prime Minister Jamil Mardam-Bey donated the remains of the room to the National Museum of Damascus to display as a permanent showcase of an important craft tradition, the Damascene room.

The museum decided to recreate the Mardam-Bey room in its conference hall, at the end of the long main gallery which houses spectacular antiquities from the last 5000 years of civilization. Thus today, after many years, the madafah has been brought back to its original splendor, restored phoenix-like from its own ashes, and given fresh life and form in a new, permanent setting.

However, the conference hall was about three times the size of the original madafah, and only a corner of it would have been covered by the donated pieces. The museum management made an audacious and ambitious decision: The Mardam-Bey wood panels and stonework would be re-erected in their original 18th-century configuration, and the entire rest of the conference hall would be decorated anew using the same materials and the same style and quality of craftsmanship. In other words, the mid-18th-century madafah of the Mardam-Bey home would be not only painstakingly and accurately recreated, but enlarged.

The man chosen by the museum to do the work was Muhammad Ali al-Khayyat, Syria's most outstanding craftsman in designing and building this kind of Damascene room.

Building a traditional Damascene room (qa'ah shamiyyah, in Arabic) was unlike any other handicraft or artistic tradition because it required a complex combination of skills rather than mastery of just one art form. The few master craftsmen in the field had to work in wood, metal, glass, cloth, marble, stone and several kinds of paint, and needed a certain architectural sense as well for the overall design of the room and the placement of its component elements. In the 18th and 19th centuries, several Syrian families specialized in making Damascene rooms, and their skills were avidly sought after throughout the region - usually by public figures or wealthy merchant families, for the construction of a Damascene room was not an inexpensive matter.

Muhammad 'Ali al-Khayyat, known by his teknonym, Abu Sulayman, came from this tradition: His family had specialized in making Damascene rooms for over 150 years. Born in Damascus in 1880, Abu Sulayman started working alongside his father as a teenager, learning the techniques of the trade and slowly mastering every aspect of the art, the craft, and the business. By 1912 he was skilled in most decorative stonework and woodwork, and in 1924 he was asked by the French mandatory rulers of Syria to help restore the 'Azm residence in old Damascus - now a splendid example of the traditional Damascene home, and one that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Abu Sulayman's skills also took him to Lebanon, where he restored Bayt al-Din Palace in 1930, and from 1947 to 1955 he worked on what was perhaps his masterpiece: the parliament building in Damascus.

It was natural, that he would be entrusted with the complex task of reconstructing the Mardam-Bey madafah and simultaneously expanding it, in its original style, to cover the entire conference room of the National Museum. He was aided by existing photographs of the Mardam-Bey home before the fire destroyed it, and by his own knowledge of the Arabian, Turkish and Persian traditions that lay behind most of the designs and styles used in the room. These, along with the surviving pieces of the original, allowed him to reconstruct the madafah in his own mind, and then to bring it to reality in the museum.

All the work was done in the room itself. Among his skilled assistants and apprentices were his son Bashir and grandson Walid, both of whom still carry on the family tradition today from their workshop in the Bab Tuma district of old Damascus. The work took four years, with the marble imported from Turkey and Italy, the wood and some stone coming from Syria.

Abu Sulayman died in May 1960, halfway through the project, and Bashir took over from him. Nevertheless, the new Damascene Room was inaugurated on April 29,1962

The result is a cultural monument that can be apeciated at several different levels. It is at once a testament to contemporary Syrian craftsmanship, a living example of 18th-century Damascene urban splendor, and a cumulative repository of Islamic decorative art that has developed during the last 14 centuries. The room's location at the end of the main gallery of the National Museum is appropriately symbolic, for it is something of a storehouse of designs, art forms, and cultural traditions that have evolved in Syria and its Arab/Islamic hinterland during the last 10,000 years.

In its present form, the Damascene Room includes several elements from the original madafah of the Mardam-Bey house: the central stone fountain and its surrounding floor tiles, the east wall with its two large lateral niches flanking a doorway (now rebuilt as a marble basin), the stone fireplace in the north wall, the wooden ceiling in the raised central section above the fountain, several wooden panels and marble slabs in the four walls, and the painted wooden double-panel on the south wall. The rest of the room comprises modern reconstructions that faithfully reflect the style and craftsmanship of the original work.

The dazzling and majestic new room is an almost timeless celebration of the two forces that have defined Syrian Arab culture for well over a millennium: a penchant to dazzle, born of the world's oldest urban cultural legacy, and a firm foundation in the rich geometric and decorative traditions of Arab and Islamic art.

Visitors to the room immediately feel this sense of timelessness, which can be slightly disorienting at first. Is this an old or a new place, the visitor wonders? Are these the works of artists who have died and left us their masterpieces, or of craftsmen who still live among us and create their marvels today?

These questions are all the more perplexing to those visitors to the Damascene Room who have seen some of Damascus's other great architectural monuments, such as the Umayyad Mosque or the 'Azm Palace in the heart of the old city. They have encountered the same architectural language and enjoyed the same artistic flourishes that they see again here; they have seen these orderly patterns and shapes, walked through this landscape of bursting stars, multi-colored octagons, and neatly interlaced floral scrolls.

After a few moments, the full meaning and value of the Damascene Room become clearer: This is not a cultural statement about achievements of the past; rather, it is about the continuity of art, creativity, and faith in an Arab/Islamic culture that has been perpetually inspired by its own gregarious humanity. It is also about the interplay between utility and beauty that has always defined the great urban achievements of Arab/Islamic culture.

For despite its splendor, this room was designed to express and serve certain Arab values that center on the importance of human contact, companionship and camaraderie. The original Mardam-Bey madafah was the family meeting place and reception hall, open all day and all night to family, friends, neighbors, official guests or visitors from farther afield. As the conference hall of the museum, it continues to carry out its traditional cultural mandate: It remains a gathering place whose material splendor is matched by its aura of hospitality and warmth - a room where people meet, talk, exchange ideas and depart slightly wiser, perhaps also slightly more awed by humankind's ability to create and enjoy beauty.

Upon entering the Damascene Room through a small door in its south-east corner, visitors are instantly struck by the enveloping, even overwhelming, totality of the decorative work that surrounds them: The four walls, ceiling, floor, doors, windows and light fixtures are all completely covered with fine decorative work in a variety of media. Stone and wood are the two dominant materials, interspersed with some smaller items of copper, brass, and glass.

The current configuration of the Damascene Room and its location in the museum do not fully reflect the intimacy of the original Mardam-Bey madafah, which would have been enlivened by the chatter of friends and associates for much of the day. The Damascene Room in the museum is not always well lit, and usually has only few visitors at a time. The original madafah, in contrast, had bench-like seats, called tawatah, on three of its sides, on which people sat for hours, talking business or politics, chatting about friends and family, negotiating business deals and partnerships, or simply enjoying the quiet, cool shade, running water and perpetual coffee that were mainstays of madafah culture. Indeed, the word madafah derives from a root meaning "to serve a guest" or "to be hospitable." It was considered a matter of honor that a family madafah would be open at any time for any visitor, whether friend or stranger. Family ceremonies also took place here, including the gathering of the men for important meals and the famous Damascene sweets and Arab coffee that followed them. When it was originally built, the women of the household did not use the madafah, but today men and women alike use these rooms.

The fireplace, or muqedi in colloquial Syrian Arabic, accommodated a small charcoal fire all day, perpetually ready to brew a cup of coffee for whoever might drop into the madafah. The carved wooden walls featured small shelves on which the family displayed some of its best porcelain and vases. Most madafahs included a small fountain, or bahrah, in the middle to provide a cooling effect in summer, and the soothing sound of running water throughout the year.

Most Syrian family homes had a madafah of some sort, though not all were as ornate or as large as this one. Some were ordinary rooms furnished with cushions or seats and set aside as reception halls, while others were decorated with traditional Syrian workmanship, but less elaborately than this room. The Mardam-Bey madafah was large and lavishly decorated, in keeping with the wealth and the political and social stature of the family, and also with the traditional role of leading Syrian families as patrons of the arts and guardians of the highest cultural traditions of the land.

After a few moments of wandering through the room looking up, down and in all directions, the visitor begins to sort out the separate strands of decorative work that are so neatly woven into this often dazzling architectural tapestry. The eye settles on one section of the room, and then on a single panel of woodwork or colored stonework, and finally on a solitary geometric shape - but that soon weaves its way into an adjoining panel, and from there to adjacent sections of the room, until the eye once more moves back and forth throughout the whole room, trying to take in a totality that is both difficult to grasp as a single work of art and impossible to isolate into its separate strands of craftsmanship.

One soon recognizes, however, that this is not the way to appreciate this room. It was not conceived or designed to be stared at by strangers, or to be analyzed like an alien object. Rather, it was themost welcoming room in a family home, and as such its aim was not to awe the visitor, but to make him comfortable and let him feel at home.

Nevertheless, the visitor today cannot help but look at the room as a piece of art, and at this level the Damascene Room becomes a living testament to a tradition of Syrian craftsmanship that can be measured in thousands of years. This tradition is most evident in the stone and wood that dominate the room. The two blend together throughout the room, particularly in the wide, brightly colored stone frieze that runs all along the top of the finely worked wooden walls. The central section of the room is almost totally done in marble and stone, including the central water fountain and the stone wall with two large niches facing it from the east.

The rest of the room is dominated by the slightly darker earth colors of the four walls and ceiling, mostly browns, yellows, tans and reds that temper the impact of an opulent decorative style that would be flashy were it brighter. The subdued colors contrast but also blend with the more lively whites, yellows and blues of the marble frieze and the central stone section. The result is a little like being immersed in a vat of dark and white chocolate-hard to take in all at once, but equally lhard to resist.

The woodwork includes a variety of carved and inlaid wood pieces, but the dominant decorative technique is called khatt 'arabi, or Arabic script. This is a traditional Damascene method that involves a series of separate steps. First come perforation and pouncing: The decorative pattern is drawn on paper, and a pin is used to make small perforations along the drawn lines. The perforated paper is placed on the wood like a stencil, and a piece of charcoal is passed over the paper, leaving a dotted outline of the design on the wood. The design can then be carved out or painted straight onto the wooden surface, or - as is more common in the Damascene Room - a layer of near-liquid gesso is painted onto the lines or into the areas of the design, leaving them raised above the surrounding wood surface. Once it is dry, this raised gesso is painted. The result is a relief look made all the more striking by the variety of colors and designs used. Different kinds of paint are made from mixtures of ground stone — such as blue lapis lazuli - with pistachio oil, glue and varnish, depending on whether a shiny or dull finish is required.

The many different designs and patterns that make the room such a challenge to take in all at once reflect the rich legacy of geometric and floral shapes so characteristic of Islamic culture, which traditionally shunned human or animal depictions. Here, individual artists and craftsmen did not vie for recognition for their own creativity; rather, successive generations built up a cumulative tradition of patterns and designs in an evolutionary way, using an array of basic shapes - hexagons, octagons, stars, leaf scrolls and florets, rosettes, squares, circles, rectangles, and interlocking variations of all of these - as well as such processes as repetition, rotation and reflection.

The variety of geometric patterns is visible anywhere in the Damascene Room, but is perhaps easiest to decipher in the stone water fountain and floor in the center. Here, a patient eye can pick out octagons, triangles, rectangles, squares, six-sided stars, diamonds, spades, interlocking elongated hexagons, and probably a few other shapes. The fountain basin itself is a veritable explosion of stars: Viewed from close-up, it reveals itself to be composed of three triangles within a six-sided star within a hexagon, within a double star, within another hexagon, within a six-sided star - and between the points of the last star are shapes composed of three triangles within a hexagon within another elongated hexagon.

The wooden panels that line the walls mirror many of these geometric patterns, but tend more toward floral designs that include a few fruits, flowers and rosettes, and some short inscriptions that are mostly Qur'anic verses. One lighthearted inscription in the north part of the east wall reads hadiyyah jamilah, ahdaha jamil - "a beautiful gift given by Jamil" - referring to the gift of the room to the museum by Jamil Mardam-Bey; his picture and that of Muhammad 'Ali al-Khayyat both hang in the room. The decoration of the ceiling includes more octagons, stars and swirling floral patterns; the section in the center above the water fountain is the original ceiling from the 18th-century madafah, and is considered by many to be the finest part of the whole room.

On the south wall is a small panel with two drawings depicting a country scene of houses and trees; this work from the 18th-century madafah represents Qasr Shadirwan, a resort outside the city where wealthy Damascenes spent summer weekends enjoying an argilah, a water-pipe, along the shores of the Barada River (See Aramco World, March-April 1991). The large fireplace in the north wall is one of the most intriguing elements in the room; nearly four meters (13 feet) high, it boasts fine white marble carvings, gold-colored outlines, a conical canopy of red, black and white stone and a row of tiny triple-keystone crenellations.

The ancient design traditions encapsulated in this room are best seen in comparison with the decoration of the eighth-century Umayyad Mosque in old Damascus. The swirling rosettes in the central ceiling of the room, for example, are virtually identical to the decorative metal of the mosque's western door. The three marble lozenges in the east wall of the room recall the marble panels of the mosque's east gate, while the alternating large and small hexagons on the marble cornice above the door of the room are almost identical to the design on the minbar door in the mosque. But similar parallels can be picked out with almost any other Islamic-era monument in Damascus, and most other parts of the Islamic world. Because of its location on the silk, spice and frankincense routes - the greatest trading and communication highways of the ancient world - Damascus interacted with every other Islamic city, and art and ideas were certainly among the trade goods exchanged.

The Khayyat family is among the few left in Syria whose members master the full range of crafts skills required to make a traditional Damascene room, which can be built and decorated by a team of 10 workers in four to five years. Bashir Khayyat started working with his father, Abu Sulayraan, at the age of 12. Now 73 and in good health, he stands at his large wooden workbench six days a week, painstakingly drawing patterns on wood and carving them out with a chisel and awl. To his masterly eye, every slight variation in technique has its own name and appropriate use. Lines carved close to one another are called hafr 'abbasi (Abbasid engraving), while hafr fatimi (Fatimid engraving) leaves wider spaces. A ceiling design arranged in long columns, like the north and south sections of the Damascene Room, is known as saqf 'ajami (Persian ceiling); a ceiling without columns, like the central section of the Damascene Room above the fountain, is known as saqf'arabi (Arabian ceiling).

As the demand for traditional Damascene rooms has declined in recent years, Bashir Khayyat and his family have tended to do more furniture pieces, decorative wall panels and other such work. Today, the government is the most frequent client for entire rooms, which are usually used as ceremonial meeting rooms or parts of major public buildings. Until just a few years ago, there was a demand for craftsmen who could dismantle an entire room, pack it for shipping, and reassemble it in another country, but this export of Damascene rooms has now been banned.

Bashir's son Walid, now 52, started working in the family business as a teenager, and spent two years as a painter in the museum's Damascene Room. He now supervises the young apprentices who work with him and his father, but fears nonetheless that the traditional skills required to build a Damascene Room may not survive his generation. Few young men today seem interested in putting in the long hours - and the years - required to learn the skills, even as demand declines.

Should the worst happen, however, and Syria one day lose the skilled craftsmen who have maintained these traditions for thousands of years, future generations will still be able to enjoy this part of their national heritage by visiting the Damascene Room of the National Museum of Damascus, and perhaps even, by studying its wonders carefully, rediscover those skills.

Author and publisher Kami G. Khouri writes frequently forAramco World on the history, archeology and culture of the Arab World. His book on modern Middle Eastern history and Arab relations with the West will be published next year by Lawrence Hill Books, New York.

This article appeared on pages 10-17 of the May/June 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1993 images.