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Art of the Islamic world 640 to now

Qa'a: The Damascus room

Reception Room (Qa'a), Ottoman period, 1119 a.h. / 1707 a.d., Damascus, Syria, poplar, gesso relief with gold and tin leaf, glazes and paint; cypress, poplar, walnut, black mulberry, mother-of pearl, marble and other stones, stucco with glass, plaster, ceramic tiles, iron, brass, 22 feet and a 1/2 inch high x 16 feet, 8-1/2 inches deep x 26 feet, 4-3/4 inches long, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A conversation between Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis and Dr. Steven Zucker by the Damascus Room.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(trickling water) Voiceover: There's this fabulous sound of water on this low fountain in this lush beautiful room. Voiceover: And that's one of the sounds that would have welcomed anyone into a Damascene house, the sound of the fountain. It would escort you in to one of the reception rooms. So, we're standing in a Qa'a, which is one of the winter reception rooms from a house from Damascus from the early 18th century that is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Voiceover: It is filled with cut stone and wooden panels, which are decoratively carved in complex patterns. There are cushions, and the room's shelves are filled with ceramics and books. It feels as if we're in a very prosperous environment. Voiceover: We are in a very prosperous environment actually. This was a house that probably belonged to somebody who was affluent. This is where a merchant or a local political figure would be meeting and greeting his guests. Voiceover: So, I love this, because so often when we think about history, when we think about religious spaces, historical spaces, but this is allowing us into the private life of a person in Damascus in the early 1700's. Voiceover: Well, and that's what makes it so extraordinary. We get the sense of how people lived. So, you have to imagine that you are coming to call on the great man of this house. So, you come in. Hopefully, you're important enough that as you are ushered in from the courtyard and you come into this Qa'a, you enter the space around the fountain, called the ataba, like a threshold. And if you're important, you take off your shoes, and you are escorted to sit on the diwan in the other part of the room that is called the tazar. This is this kind of raised platform. If you're not so important, you get stuck in the ataba, which while it's beautiful, it has inlaid stone, it's a big insult to be left there. You're with people's shoes. Voiceover: (laughs) All right, we don't want to stay down here, so we ascend up this step, and we sit on the cushions, and perhaps the servants come in. They might serve us some fruit. They might serve us some refreshing drinks. Voiceover: They might serve us coffee. One of the Arab saints called coffee a gift from God. Voiceover: I'm there. Voiceover: You could also be given a water pipe, a narguila or a hookah, as they're often called, so you could smoke apple tobacco. If they were in season, pomegranate juice is something you'd get in September in Damascus. So, you'd be seated, depending on how important you were, towards the central part of the rear wall, and from there you'd be able to really admire the glory of this room, which is decorated in the Ajami style. Ajami means foreign or Persian in Arabic. We don't know where this type of technique comes from, but it was around in Egypt and other parts of the Central Arab lands before it came to Damascus, but what it means and what it is, is this gorgeous technique that we see on the walls. It was a treatment for wood panels. What you do is you take your bit of wood. You would put a gypsum mixture down on it. You would- Voiceover: So, that's kind of like plaster. Voiceover: Yeah, you create a raised and textured surface, which you would then stencil, giving yourself a pattern. On top of that, you would put down a type of metal leaf. You could put down gold leaf, or you could put down silver leaf. We even get examples of tin leaf, where the tin seems to be from England and was imported. On top of that, it would then be painted. Voiceover: So, originally this room was not as dim as it is now, but pretty vibrant. Voiceover: Incredibly vibrant. You have to think in full technicolor. Now, many of the different houses in Damascus that are still [extent] today, we have pink, we have light green, we have vibrant blues, fuchsias, purples. We have every gorgeous vibrant color you can think of, but a lot of these rooms have been re-varnished, and that varnish then cannot always be removed. Voiceover: There's really an attempt to create a sense of liveliness for the eye, just like the fountain creates liveliness for the ear. Voiceover: I think that's exactly right. And you really can also see that in one of the most dominant features in the room, the masab, the niche. This is not a prayer niche, it's just a decorative niche. Voiceover: And I noticed that it's aligned on the axis of the entry, so that this would have been the first thing you would have seen. Elizabeth; Exactly, and while you have to imagine out the Turkish tiles that are there in the center, it really would have been a spectacular structure. So, you can see at the top, you see the hood and the muqarnas. Voiceover: Now, those are the little fragments of a dome that create this geometric multiplication, beautifully complex. Voiceover: They are a fundamental element of Islamic art. We see them not only in decorative capacities, but they also are great ways to get from a square base to a dome. So, we see them in a lot of mosques. Wherever you see a muqarnas, you know you are somewhere where Islam has been. Voiceover: Within those shelves, within that niche, I see some precious objects. In fact, I see that throughout the room. This was really a way of showing off. Voiceover: You would show fantastic [yewers], carved metal work, bowls, ceramics, so people could see your affluence. It was a place in which you could show off your knowledge, your wealth, and you can see the learning and the knowledge in your culture also in the walls when we look at the inscriptions. That calligraphy is the other thing that dominates in this room. We can see that the cornice, both of the ceiling and of the top of the [wings coating of this wooden hole piece] has got cartouches with calligraphy, and then we can see them over most of the niches on the walls. There are three poems here. Poetry is a dominant art form in the- Voiceover: So, there really is this aesthetic quality that exists not only in an auditory sense, not only visually, but also linguistically here. Voiceover: You were meant to be able to look and understand and engage on different levels. All of your senses are being stimulated. Voiceover: I'm interested in the fact that the room doesn't have any fixed furniture and that it was also seasonal. This would have been off the north side of the courtyard, so that it could have taken advantage of the sun's direct rays during the winter. Voiceover: We're in the world before air conditioning. You need to move to where it's either warmest or coolest, depending on the weather. So, the Qa'a might be your winter reception room, because it gets the most sun, it's in the interior, but in the summer, you would go to the iwan, which was usually located on the south side, so it was north-facing, which would be much more pleasant in the summer. Originally on the rear wall here, this small niche wasn't there. It was a larger niche, and in there would have been bedding rolls, carpets, things that you would use for sleeping, and you would bring them down and put them and sleep in here. Voiceover: So, you wouldn't have had a dedicated bedroom, like we have now. This would have been a space that would have had multiple purposes, depending on the season. Voiceover: And depending on the time of day. If I could, I would certainly take up residence in this house, or any of the different houses in Damascus, because there is something so ethereal and gorgeous about them, and it's one of the things that has attracted travelers to Damascus. People who come to these houses, whether it's Isabel Burton or Frederick Layton, they are so touched by them that they cannot say how meaningful they are, other than that they always long to return.