Datable to the early eighteenth century, the Art Museum’s Damascus room ranks among the earliest of period settings from Syria, second only to the celebrated Nur al-Din Room at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its painted walls offer a distinctive insight into the decorative tastes current in Damascus, then under Ottoman rule.
The room’s lavish painted decoration reveals that it served as a principal parlor in the villa of an affluent eighteenth-century Syrian family. Surviving houses from the period provide an accurate picture of the room’s original setting. It probably served as an upstairs entertainment room for its owner, an adherent of the Rifa’i brotherhood of Sufism, an ancient Islamic mystic practice. In characteristic style the parlor features a mihrab, or prayer niche, on its main wall, which had windows that overlooked the adjoining street or alleyway. The opposite side of the room would have opened onto an interior courtyard.
The room’s ornate decoration has been painted on a raised ground of gesso (a mixture of gypsum and gum arabic) enhanced with applied gold leaf. Its subjects are typical of the Ottoman decorative style: vases of flowers and dishes of fruit (apples, pears, strawberries, grapes, and pomegranates) framed by stylized leaves and blossoms in elaborate patterns. All show the influence of contemporary Ottoman textile work infused with elements of European Baroque art.
The decorative style of the room’s wall panels, which are dated by inscription to 1711–12, is contemporary for the period. The elaborate coffered ceiling, however, follows a traditional plan that dates back at least to the thirteenth century. Its imaginative floral and geometric patterns are based on a strict sequence of repeated designs that are unified within a network of four-pointed stars. The four coffers situated at the ends of the horizontal rows contain elaborate arabesques in stylized Arabic script repeating a passage from the Koran: “Each does according to his own disposition.”
The room originally formed part of a multistoried house in Damascus that apparently was dismantled during the city’s renovation in the early twentieth century. Cincinnati philanthropist and art patron Andrew Jergens purchased the components of the room, along with its contemporary furnishings, on a trip to the Middle East in 1932. Subsequently he had the room’s decorative wood paneling installed on the upper floor of his Gothic-style home in Cincinnati’s Northside district. In 1968 the Jergens family donated the room and its furnishings to the Art Museum for the enjoyment of the people of Cincinnati.