by Rami Alafandi

Art knows no borders. Throughout history, arts and crafts have always traveled, intermingling and adapting new styles and forms along the way. This article takes you on a journey of the story of motifs in the Ottoman Empire illustrated by the example of ʿajami rooms in Aleppo with their ornate wood panels. Bound by neither national boundaries nor cultures, the ʿajami motifs were carried by talented artisans from afar who contributed to the creation of one of the most fascinating examples of Syrian artisanry that is still admired to this day: ʿajami rooms.

During Ottoman times, wealthy courtyard houses in Syria were cladded with these painted wooden panellings, especially in the trade centers of Damascus and Aleppo. Their surface presented an endless abundance of floral and figurative motifs developed by various artisans from different cultures. Importing talented artisans from conquered regions to the Ottoman palace atelier was a general practice of Ottoman rulers and part of the Sultans’ conquest plan. The main task of these artisans was to create unique masterpieces which demonstrated the importance of the current ruling Sultans. This way the Ottoman Empire created a kind of melting pot where different art styles and motifs merged, creating a whole mosaic of designs. 

Upon closer inspection, these motifs can be found throughout the region, including on wood, ceramics and manuscripts. Their origins can be traced back to several regions such as central Asia and Europe. Even though the motifs had been brought from diverse cultures, they developed into three distinct styles which can all be found on Aleppine ʿajami work: the stylized (or abstract) style (known as the classic style), the semi-stylized style, and the naturalistic style. The three styles will be explained using the most reasonable terminology, which the researcher chosen, as styles and motifs terms vary among countries, languages, and researchers.

Stylized classical motifs flourished during 15th-16th centuries in the Ottoman court:

Stylized motifs were influenced by Central Asian motifs and include two types: Rumi and Hatayi. In Aleppo, Rumi and Hatayi Styles were used together during 17th century and continued to appear in later times. 

Rumi consists of systematic and symmetric swirling stems with leaves. These motifs can be found in the well-known Aleppo Room, currently located in the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin as well as in Bayt Ghazaleh in Aleppo (see figures 1 and 2). 

The term Rumi comes from the Arabic and Turkish word “Roman” and describes the land of Romans in Anatolia (Bilad al-Rum) which was part of the Roman / Byzantine Empire before the Seljuk Rum Sultanate took over and brought those motifs with them from Central Asia.

In contrast, Hatayi is characterized by more free but symmetrical, wavy stems and includes leaves, blossoms, flowers and a selection of flowers. The motifs were drawn using a systematic color scheme (see figure 3).The term Hatayi refers to Central Asia, specifically the Qara Khitai tribe (or Western Liao dynasty) from the 12th century.

Semi-stylized motifs flourished during 16th-18th centuries in the Ottoman court:

Semi-stylized motifs appeared when Sultan Selim I conquered Tabriz, Iran, and brought with him the Persian artist Shah Kulu. His artistic creativity under the rule of sultan Suleiman resulted in a new style of motifs known as Saz. Saz is similar to Hatayi but more natural, rendered in a free-hand drawings with long wavy stems and spiky leaves (see figure 4). These are accompanied by creatures, such as birds, angels and mythological animals.

Shah Kulu had a talented student by the name of Kara Mehmed Memi, who also became a famous artist in the Ottoman Court. He created a new style bearing his name in Turkey. The Kara Memi style is internationally known as “quarter flowers” as it contains four basic repeated flowers; tulips, roses, carnations and hyacinths (see figure 5). 

One of the most notable examples of decorated wooden panels is the so-called Aleppo Room (the original reception room of Bayt Wakil). Located in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, it presents a vastness of motifs including both the stylized (Rumi and Hatayi) and the semi-stylized motifs (Saz and Kara Memi).

Furthermore, in the Aleppo Room Chinese motifs, human and animal figures as well as mythological creatures and sceneries from famous literature can be found alongside Ottoman styles (see figures 6 and 7). It´s unique surface shows off the diverse cultural backgrounds and talented skills these artists were able to bring together in one place.

Naturalistic style started 18th century in the Ottoman court

The Naturalistic style emerged during the 18th century in Istanbul, which is known as the Tulip Era (1713-1733). Throughout this period, the Ottoman Empire was highly influenced by Western culture and art, especially Baroque-Rocco styles. Classic Ottoman styles were often replaced by naturalistic motifs. Flower bouquets and dishes full of fruits found their way into motif decorations. One beautiful example is the Sultan Ahmed III room of the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul. These styles also appeared in Aleppine houses, such as in the Ghazaleh House and others (see figures 8 – 10).

The Ghazaleh House is interesting in such that it contained many painted wooden panellings from different times of the Ottoman period. The panels showed examples of all the above-mentioned styles. Unfortunately, most of the wooden panels were lost during the armed conflict in Aleppo from 2012-2016. However, these panellings have been documented and studied in detail by the writer of this article.

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Fig. 10: Decorated wooden panels of Bayt ad-Dahhan (Funduq Qasr al-Mansuriyya), 18th century (© Rami Alafandi)

Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, was the meeting point of artisans who had produced and developed all these motif styles. The examples from Aleppo show how these two cities were well connected. Although the architecture of Aleppo has a particular local style as seen in the stone masonry, stone decorations and composition of houses, the interior painted wooden decorations feature Ottoman art trends. The connection between Istanbul and Aleppo was made possible through traveling artisans and merchants. These artisans shared their crafts throughout cities of the Ottoman Empire, and the Aleppines, especially merchants, were exposed to the art trends of the Ottoman Empire by traveling and visiting Istanbul and other Ottoman cities. The result of this cultural exchange is a vastness of motifs that decorated the magnificent wood panels which found their way into Aleppine house with a warm welcome.


Read other articles and interviews from the series ‘Ajami:

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