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Model of a splendid Damascene home -- with elements now at Shangri La highlighted in color

Shangri La hosts a rare treasure: a collection of architectural elements purchased in 1976 by Doris Duke that once adorned an elaborately decorated private house in eighteenth–nineteenth-century Damascus. Nowhere else in the western hemisphere is a collection like this preserved so completely.  

Using historic photographs taken in the original house and the stone, marble, tile and wooden elements now at Shangri La, Dr. Anke Scharrahs, an expert on Damascene ‘ajami interiors, was able to determine the dimensions of the original house. The photographs and measurements were then used to create a 3D model that digitally reconstructs a courtyard and reception room of the house. Whereas many architectural objects that are today displayed or stored in museums or private collections lost their context after being sold, the Damascene gems at Shangri La will remain linked to their historic location—through archival photographs and, now, through the 3D model, which depicts elements currently at Shangri La in color.

Press play to hear the fountain.

The model provides a rare opportunity to walk through a private home that few have seen. Until the mid-nineteenth century, traditional houses in Damascus had high, plain exterior walls that protected the residents’ privacy. Houses faced inwards and revealed their splendor only to those visitors who encountered their interiors. Now, users can explore several interior spaces that illustrate the placement, craftsmanship, and function of the architectural elements, which include intricately patterned marble flooring, stone reliefs, doors and window shutters, a painted wooden beam ceiling, wall cabinet doors and shelf niche frames, as well as various stones decorated in a particular mortar paste technique for which Damascene craftsmen were famous.

The elaborate decoration showcased in this 3D model of the so-called Quwatli house underscores the sophisticated beauty of Damascene homes, the refined taste of their inhabitants, and the skills of their craftsmen. All of these lavishly embellished architectural elements, which once lined walls, floors, and ceilings in a reception room and courtyard, are quiet witnesses of a lost era of refined home décor in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

The Quwatlis
Archival documents suggest that the house in Damascus was once owned by the Quwatli family. These documents also describe a more likely scenario: that the antiquities dealers in the 1930s simply chose the name of a famous family in order to sell the architectural elements. The Quwatlis were among the most influential citizens in late nineteenth–century Damascus. At least five of their private residences were well known; three still exist in Damascus’s Old City. All of the Quwatli family houses were adorned with high-quality decorative features and are comparable to homes of other wealthy families. Many of these large houses featured numerous living rooms and reception spaces for guests surrounding three to seven courtyards. They were famed for their refined embellishment and served both as comfortable living spaces and as status symbols.

Dr Anke Scharrahs, Conservator specializing in polychrome wooden surfaces, February 2015. *This project would not have been possible without the research conducted during the Damascus Room project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008-10. Many thanks to Mecka Baumeister and Beth Edelstein.

Further reading and resources available on this website:

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, “Late-Ottoman Syrian Interiors and Furnishings,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012.

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, “Syrian Room” Virtual Tour, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012.

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