by Elisabeth Korinth

With a steadied hand Abdulraouf Baydoun applies a viscous paste to pre-drawn patterns on a white surface. This pattern will turn into a magnificently colorful Syrian wall and ceiling decoration in a few days time, inspired by a once highly recognized and sophisticated craft called Khashabiyat madhuwna, otherwise known as Damascene painting or simply ‘Ajami.

‘Ajami is a decorative historical interior design technique and remains one of Syria´s best-known handcrafts. The word itself describes different elements of the craft: from the act of applying relief paste to a plain surface, to the resulting ornamentation. ‘Ajami also describes the type of room cladded with these artfully painted wooden panels. The beautiful decoration is created by applying several layers of paint, combining different materials and decorative elements. It is often complemented by so-called opus sectile works (a type of mosaic work that is made of stone, shells and glass elements) and complex wood carvings. The interaction between matte and shiny elements and the interplay of light and shadow give these historical rooms their unique character.

‘Ajami or Damascene Painting: Traces of a Traditional Handcraft

Interior of a traditional Damascene house with ‘Ajami (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo: Bryan Whitney)

The art of ‘Ajami became a highly developed and respected craft in Syria. Throughout time this craft has been influenced by different regions dating back until at least the Mamluk Era (13th/14th c.). According to Prof. Stefan Weber, director of the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin, it might even go back as far as the Fatimids. In the Ottoman period, the craft experienced a zeitgeist, harkening an era of mixed Arabic, Persian, European, Indian and Turkish design elements. As an integral part of traditional Syrian houses of upper class people in Ottoman times, many of the rooms were decorated with ‘Ajami. In the following centuries, several family businesses emerged in Syria, which professionalized this craft and passed on their knowledge from generation to generation. Since then, the craft has continued to evolve and be practiced by a variety of workshops. However, its techniques have significantly changed, and war has left the handcraft struggling to find customers.

‘Ajami from A to Z