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Collection Highlight: The Damascus Room

4 April 2023

By Aiman Rizvi & Loubna Zeidan

The permanent collection galleries of the Museum of Islamic Art feature a fully restored and reassembled 19th-century reception room from Damascus, Syria.

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During the summer of 2016, in a remote storage area in Doha, a team of art handlers, collection managers, curators and conservators found themselves in the presence of 25 crates. Housed within were 427 individual pieces: 178 made of wood and 249 crafted in stone. After years of complex research, restoration and conservation treatment, the teams have reassembled the pieces to create a portal through time and history, opening into the Damascus of the late Ottoman period – which you can now visit at the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA).

The Damascus Room, a recent addition to the permanent collection at MIA, is part of a residential reception room dating to a period of cultural prosperity for the city.

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Frontal view of MIA Damascus Room. Photo © Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

For centuries, the city of Damascus was a vibrant urban centre, positioned at the crossroads of major trade routes. The Damascus Room was completed in 1232 AH (1816/1817 CE), a time when the rhythm of exchange in the city was largely determined by the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca. Damascus was one of the main departure points for pilgrims, who would gather in the city to form caravans heading southwards through the desert.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Damascus saw a boom in mercantile activities, providing merchants with the financial capital to build opulent private residences. These homes were also semipublic spaces, used to facilitate various economic activities: such as the arrangement of marriages, negotiations amongst business partners and the resolution of lawsuits. They served a more communal purpose as well: sites of grieving during funerals, and sites for celebration during banquets, with dance, music and poetry recitals.

The trading of goods and artefacts amongst people from across the region created rich conditions for cultural exchange, resulting in the emergence of new artistic techniques, which influenced the interior decoration of Damascene homes, and enabled the development of an urban interior design aesthetic unique to the city.

Damascus Rooms in museums around the world, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York toShangri La in Honolulu, reflect the artistic richness of their time. The one at MIA, however, is unique in its presentation of the original ceiling. During the research phase, conservation expert Dr. Anke Scharrahs discovered that some of the original panels had been turned over and redecorated – a common practice at the time and a resourceful way to modernise homes. The backs of these panels feature paintings from the 11th century AH/17th century CE.

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View of MIA Damascus Room and its ceiling. Photo © Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

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Photo © Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

The room comprises a raised seating area (tazar), furnished with low mattresses and cushions along the walls, with a carpet placed in the middle. The walls have niches and compartments built into them for purposes of display. The room is embellished with calligraphic inscriptions featuring poetry and a selection of the Beautiful Names of Allah (asma’Allah al-husna).

Various materials such as gold leaf, tinfoil, precious pigments, lacquers and mirrors have been applied on to the wood, to form floral and geometric decorations. The majority of the motifs were made in this technique, known as ajami, which combines Ottoman traditional patterns, Indo-Persian influences and the introduction of European Rococo motifs.

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Detailed view of MIA Damascus Room. Photo © Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

Inscribed on the walls is a poem, opening a window into the lives of the people who once inhabited this room. An excerpt, which can be read here, reveals the tastes and preferences of a people who adorned their walls with poems and welcomed guests with warmth and generosity:

From the safety of the hills the friendly nightingales sang in blessing
Heralding glad tidings of happiness and bliss
As music to our ears, they announced
While approaching our neighbourhood, for us they chanted
They amazed us with a sound of melody and eloquence
In the safety of the branches high above, we made their acquaintance
It is said there is a Qa’a where well-being was beaten
Up to a tall tree of tranquillity or Garden of Eden
Herein happiness brushing off in the middle of its courtyard
And alongside peace, for an eternity it resided

Located in a gallery celebrating the arts of Ottoman provinces, the Damascus Room is on view as part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Islamic Art. Plan your trip now to learn more about MIA’s exciting collection of historic Islamic artefacts.

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