Islamic Art

‘Ajami Rooms: A Syrian Treasure

In the 19th and 20th Centuries, many of Syria’s beautiful ‘Ajami rooms were removed in favour of more European designs, with a handful ending up in Western museums. What are they, and how were they used?

Damascus Room, dated A.H. 1119/A.D. 1707. The MetMuseum

‘Ajami is a typically Ottoman-Syrian technique used to decorate the winter reception chamber, or qa’a, of an affluent Syrian courtyard home. ‘Ajami rooms are thus named after this decorative style.

Creation of the raised surfaces | Aliya Alnuaimi
Application of metal foil on the ‘Ajami decoration | Anke Scharrahs

The wooden panels of ‘Ajami rooms are highly decorated with flat and raised surfaces. The raised surfaces are made from a paste-like mixture of animal glue and gypsum powder, which are then further decorated with metal leaf and matte and glossy transparent multi-coloured glazes.

Poetry and calligraphy praising the prophet adorn the upper walls, and gold is used on the most important surfaces. Unfortunately, the vibrancy of the original designs has been muted by multiple layers of varnish over the years.

The production of traditional ‘Ajami rooms declined in the 19th Century as the European style became more fashionable in Syria. In addition, the historic blue glass pigment Smal and bright yellow orpiment pigments were superseded by modern European pigments such that the knowledge of the traditional pigments and painting techniques was lost. Furthermore, many ‘Ajami rooms were rearranged, renovated, re-varnished or repainted, so few original rooms are available for academics, art historians and enthusiasts to study.

The Damascus room at the Met Museum (shown above) retains this historically accurate ‘ataba-tazar layout, whereas the Damascus room at Shangri-La is a single level throughout (below). In addition, the ‘ajami design of the Met Museum’s room stresses the horizontal axis, whereas the ‘ajami design in the Shangri La has a vertical axis, as well as floor-to-ceiling ‘ajami.

The Damascus Room at the Shangri-La. hisour.com

Architecture

‘Ajami rooms are split into two main sections — the ‘ataba (lower paved entrance area), and tazar (higher carpeted seating area). The tazar is raised approximately 35–50cm above the ‘ataba, and in larger houses there may be several tazar surrounding a central ‘ataba with a central fountain. The ceiling is fully decorated and also often marked at the transition point between ‘ataba and tazar with a decorative arch. The walls are covered with ‘ajami-decorated wooden panelling, with built-in cupboards and niches used to display books or valuable objects.

Model of the original setting of the reception room of the Aleppo Room. Museum für Islamische Kunst der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin | Photo: Georg Niedermeiser

The ‘ataba was where one could place their shoes, and where coffee was prepared by domestics. Bedding could be laid out to transform a reception room into a bedroom at night. However, with the adoption of the European fashion of sitting on chairs in the mid 19th Century, the tazar changed from being carpeted to paved or tiled.

Looking forward

Craftsmen like Aliya Alnuaimi (shown above) and Ziad Baydoun (below) continue to practice traditional ‘ajami techniques both in Syria and abroad. Artisans continue to develop the craft to ensure its survival and to be able to pass it forward to future generations.

Modern painted panel with ‘Ajami decoration in Ziad Baydoun´s workshop | Ziad Baydoun from Baydoun Creation

References

1 Damascus Room, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1970.170/

2 Damascus Room, Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture and Design, https://www.shangrilahawaii.org/visit/Virtual-Tour/Damascus-Room/

3 Annie-Christine Daskalakis Mathews. “A Room of ‘Splendor and Generosity’ from Ottoman Damascus”, Metropolitan Museum Journal, Volume 32 (1997)

4 Anke Scharrahs, ‘Preface; Introduction to the domestic architecture of Damascus.’ In Damascene ‘Ajami Rooms: Forgotten jewels of interior design (2013)

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Rosalind is an Australia-based doctor and Fellow of the RACGP. She is currently studying for her Masters in Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic.

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Rosalind Noor

Rosalind Noor

Rosalind is an Australia-based doctor and Fellow of the RACGP. She is currently studying for her Masters in Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic.

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