Throughout history, Damascus has been one of the most important cities in the Middle East and still is until today. It is well-known for its immense markets and it is considered an important international trade hub and route. Its markets are diverse and the people’s socio-economic status has allowed them to take care of their houses and design them artistically. The Damascene houses are known as art galleries for their vast decorations, carvings, unique structure and the material from which they are created.
A Damascene house is usually composed of two or three storeys. The land of the house (Ard AlDiyar) is a large yard at the centre of the house surrounded by the other rooms of the floor. On the first floor there is usually a celestial open space on the roof side called the bright , surrounded by the walls of the bedrooms. It is often where Dalia Grapes* and the deployment of laundry occurs. The first floor usually includes the bright bedrooms and a large room often used for the winter. Al Tayra – located on the third floor – is a room of reflections and serenity; it is usually used for study and research and sometimes for family guests.
The houses in Damascus are very different from the houses on the seaside. Seaside houses are usually smaller, made of stone and less artistic, while if you entered a Damascene House you will be mesmerized by the wonderful art that has been preserved despite the years. Describing a Damascene house is simple yet difficult. The secret in understanding the architecture of the house lies in comprehending the simplicity of the external configuration, accuracy and creativity.
One of the most outstanding features of a Syrian house is the fact that it is closed from the outside and open from the inside. Imagine Alice in Wonderland; she walks through a dark path only to open her eyes to a magical colourful world. Similarly, in Damascene houses you pass through a dim corridor to a vast expanse of open land, sky and usually a marble crafted fountain or a water basin. All together, they represent a beautiful indoors garden. Such gardens are rich rare Damascene trees and flowers like, Jasmine, Mulberry, Narinj…etc. The flowers and trees planted in the garden are usually scented and this aroma makes the environment of the house filled with tranquility. It is probably for this reason that the guest room is located in Ard Al-Diyar, it has no door and thus the guest can pleasure in the beautiful scenery and pleasant scents that the air carries from Ard AlDiyar. No one succeeded in putting it better than Qabbani – a Syrian Poet and Publisher – when he said, “Do you know what it means for a human to live in a perfume bottle? Our house was that bottle.” He even added that he has lost interest in the outside world because of that particular scent found only in a Damascene house.
Large Damascene houses are divided into three sections: The Salamlak, which is the male guests section, The Haramlk which is the female guests section and The Service section for the helpers of the house. This, however; is only in large houses and not in medium-sized or small houses.
The Iwan is another prominent feature of the Damascene house. It is a covered three-wall space with an arch that reaches up to the last floor. It is usually located on the north side of the house to trap in the cool night breeze. The Iwan is located about half a meter high from the level of Ard Al-Diyar. The arch is called the Iwan Crown and is decorated with colourful hand-made wooden decorations called Ajami.
Ajami decorations are usually portrayed flowers, vegetation, Quranic verses, Arabic sayings or poems. Visitors usually stop to stare at the wonderful Ajamis as they are not only beautiful to the gazer but also hold meaningful reflections of the house and its residents.
When speaking about Damascene houses, the furniture stands out too. The rooms of the house have cracks and thresholds. The tanks are stuffed with wooden duffel, which are first spread over the mats and are stretched on the rims and rugs and placed on the seats. The plaques or columns and their backs are coated with fabric; it is known as Damascui. A Damascui is a velvet fabric engraved with artistic designs which unfortunately is rarely available today as it was replaced with a woolen or cotton fabric.
The Damascene House was able to structure familial and social ties through its design and architecture. The house is a world of its own and that is why scholars have written vast research on them admiring the well- defined and extraordinary designs. It is designed to fit all seasons and draws beautiful shadows during the day. A Damascene house has aesthetic value that is always craved in the minds of its visitors. Its sense of creativity breaks the overused buildings of the modern age. Visiting a Damascene house is an enriching experience that one cannot be forgotten.
*Dalia Grapes, a traditional Syrian dish.