Thousands of traditional houses line the streets of the Old City of Damascus, but few have preserved their original interior design. Raed Jabri, the owner of a 300-year-old house, describes the traditional characteristics of a real Damascene home.
Crammed together in narrow alleyways, old Damascene houses provide privacy for their owners with windows that overlook the street from only the second floor upwards. Even then, the windows are covered by a wooden khis – a hand-painted shutter which keeps curious eyes at bay. Inside the house, however, windows of different sizes and architectural styles overlook the main courtyard, reflecting the light and giving the Damascene home its airy character.
Forget the fancy porch or the flashy doorbell, only small rickety doors feature on the plain crumbling walls of an old Damascene house. Whether the inside is fit for a king or a pauper, a true Damascene home maintains a modest outward appearance. In keeping with humble tradition, there is no need to highlight the difference between rich and poor when it comes to exterior home improvements.
In every Damascene house, there is a corridor that leads to the courtyard so that visitors don’t come straight into the courtyard and see all the family members. In bigger houses there’s usually a door in the corridor that leads to the reception room used to receive strangers or formal guests who don’t join the family in the courtyard.
The design of the courtyard’s floor looks like a chessboard or a labyrinth, made from a mixture of basalt and a rosy coloured stone called ‘mazzey’. The combination of these two stones is not only visually intriguing but also serves a practical purpose; whilst basalt absorbs heat, ‘mazzey’ stays cool. Thus, no matter the time of year, the courtyard remains at a moderate temperature.
In the centre of the courtyard sits a gushing fountain. Families usually put Damascene roses and jasmine in it to give the courtyard a perfumed scent. Large Damascene houses might have several such water features, some of which are actually located inside the rooms. The fountains are built of mazzey – this keeps the water cold enough for the fountains to serve as refrigerators for storing fruit. This is especially useful for keeping seasonal summer favourites such as watermelon fresh and chilled!
Years ago, old Damascus operated a unique water system in which each house had its own well. The fountains were supplied with water from a branch of the Barada River called Banias. Water was pumped into the highest fountain in the street where it would cascade over the edges and flow down through water pipes and into the fountains of neighbouring houses. All of the fountains in the Old City were connected by pipes, using the same regenerated water. With the modernisation of the Old City’s infrastructure however, this once efficient, ancient, water system slowly died out.
Harmony and symmetry are the most important characteristics of a Damascene home, thus the eastern and western wings of the house are always designed with a symmetrical number of windows and doors. To the south of the courtyard sits a ‘leewan’, a covered area of the house which provides the family with shade from the sun and makes for a comfortable resting spot during the hot summer days.
Branching off to the right of the ‘leewan’ is the ‘Murabba’a al Juaani’ – the “internal square” and to the left is the ‘Muraba’a al Barrani’ – the “external square”. The rooms above these two squares are called ‘al-Qasr al-Sharki’ – “the Eastern castle” and ‘al-Qasr al-Gharbi’ – “the Western castle”.
Labourers would finish decorating each room of the Damascene house by inscribing poetry and the date of completion on the wall. Legend has it that each letter in the poem stands for a number, with the sum total revealing a mystical date or sometimes even a hidden treasure!
In addition, beautifully decorated little alcoves known as ‘Dakouneh’ or ‘Mishkat’ are carved into the courtyard walls, providing a ledge for lanterns to sit on at night and sheltering their flames from the wind.
The bedrooms are raised a level above their doors in order to keep in as much warmth as possible during the cold winter nights. The cold air is trapped in the lower space between the door and the step, protecting the bedroom from icy drafts.
This article was published in Syria Today magazine.