KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Ottoman empire, eighteenth-century Damascus, urban elite, daily life, furnishings, Islam, trade and exchange, calligraphy (thuluth script), architecture, wood, marble, stucco, ceramic, iron, brass, glass
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS CHAPTER
This reception room sheds light on the interests, aesthetics, and culture of members of the urban elite living in Damascus in the early eighteenth century.
The reception room served as a place to entertain guests or gather a family for festive meals. A visit to an eighteenth-century Syrian reception room engaged all of the senses. Upon entering the reception room (qa'a), visitors would remove their shoes, proceed into the main room, and ascend the high step under the archway to the seating area (tazar). Plush carpets covered the marble floor and guests could recline on the low sofa against cushions upholstered in patterned silks and velvets. In the background, one could hear the continuous sound of the gently splashing fountain and chirping birds. At mealtime, the reception room doubled as a dining area. Servants set large trays bearing platters of food on the floor or on low stands as the diners gathered around them. For a special occasion, the host might hire musicians and singers to provide entertainment. It was customary to sprinkle guests with perfumes; incense burners were used to diffuse aromatic smoke. These scents mingled with those of the fragrant blossoms floating in from the courtyard.
The display of objects was integral to the architectural design of a well-appointed reception room in Ottoman Damascus, which invariably included custom-made shelving, niches, and cupboards. From archival sources and historical descriptions by European visitors, we know that the shelves of the antechamber included functional possessions related to hospitality, such as wash basins and jugs, incense burners, and rosewater sprinklers (long-necked bottles with tiny openings to dispense drops of rose-scented water); coffee services (including a coffeepot, cups with holders, and a tray); sherbet services; water pipes; braziers; and candleholders.
In contrast, the shelves of the raised area displayed a range of prized possessions, heirlooms, and recent purchases according to the latest fashions. These reflected the owner's individual tastes and interests and often included ceramics, glass objects, and books. Inventories and descriptions provide evidence that the large cupboards stored textiles and cushions.
Like others of its kind, this room is divided into two areas: a small entry space on the courtyard level and a raised square seating area. The wall paneling incorporates built-in shelves, cupboards, and shuttered window bays.
The owner ordered woodwork with densely patterned and richly textured designs produced using a decorative technique characteristic of Ottoman Syria known as 'ajami. Craftsmen also included gilded muqarnas, architectural decorations known throughout the Islamic world (seen here in the upper sections of the woodwork). Craftsmen created some design elements in relief by applying a thick layer of gesso to the wood. They highlighted parts of this relief by applying tin or gold leaf, which they painted with tinted glazes to achieve a colorful and radiant glow. By contrast, they executed some elements of the decoration in egg tempera paint on the wood, which provided a matte surface.
In addition to decorative woodwork, calligraphic panels appear prominently on the cornices and wall panels. On the ceiling cornice, twelve verses of a poem complemented by surrounding floral imagery allude to a garden. On a nearby wall cornice, the next fourteen verses of the poem shift from images of nature to praise for the Prophet Muhammad. The final verses of the poem, on the walls of the room, praise the house and the nobility of its owner—"He who built you surpasses the planets and stars in glory."
Above the wood paneling and cornice, intricate stained-glass windows and densely carved woodwork on the ceiling complement white plastered walls.
The courtyards of Damascus houses typically contained a summer reception space (a three-sided hall that was open to the courtyard) and a winter reception space (an interior chamber built on the north side of the court). The location of the winter reception room was strategic; it provided optimal exposure to the sun, which helped heat the room. The Museum’s room functioned as a winter reception space.
The decorative designs on the painted woodwork of the room closely reflect the fashions popular in eighteenth-century Istanbul (in modern-day Turkey), the capital of the Ottoman empire. For example, craftsmen incorporated European-inspired elements into the painted woodwork reflecting Ottoman interconnections with Europe. These include motifs featuring flower-filled vases, overflowing fruit bowls, and small landscape vignettes that appear alongside more traditional Ottoman-style motifs, such as serrated leaf designs (saz), vegetal arabesques, geometric patterns, and calligraphy.
The calligraphic ornament, which plays an important role in Islamic architecture in general, also communicated the owner's literary taste, religious piety, and social affiliation in the context of eighteenth-century Damascus. Although the owner is unnamed, one verse states that the family "traces its root[s] to the most noble of men," a reference to the Prophet Muhammad. This indicates that the owner was probably a member of the local aristocracy, many of whom claimed descent from the Prophet.
RELATED AUDIO FROM THE GALLERY GUIDE
Walter Denny: This beautiful room was created originally for an upper-class dwelling in Damascus, Syria, in the eighteenth century. This is a reception room, a beautiful room that was designed to impress visitors and to provide the people who owned the house with a luxurious place where they could retreat from the outside world, enjoy music, enjoy good food and the company of their guests. As you can see, it's on two levels; the lower level, and the upper level, where the walls are lined with cushions, these low cushions from which we get our words "sofa" and "divan" in various Islamic languages. All the senses were engaged in this room—the sound of the water in the playing fountain, the smell, perhaps, of incense in an incense burner or vases of flowers that would have been kept in the built-in shelves in the walls. Flowers bloom on the walls of this room every month of the year. The poetry, represented in inscriptions in the room, not only calls on blessings on the owner but also recalls in the poem the gardens of Paradise, the flowers of Paradise, making this room, in effect, a metaphor for heaven on Earth. Living well has been an important part of every great civilization and, in this, Islam is no exception.