1. ‘Ajami or Damascene Painting: Traces of a Traditional Handcraft
  2. ‘Ajami from A to Z
  3. Conserving ‘Ajami Interiors – Challenges and Fascinating Discoveries
  4. Grandmasters of the ‘Ajami Craft
  5. Becoming a Craftsman: Interview with Mohammad Haj Qab
  6. Between Traditions and Innovation: Interview with Aliya Alnuaimi
  7. Secrets of the Old Master Artisans
  8. The Soul of ‘Ajami: Interview with Ziad Baydoun
  9. The Aleppo Room …from a Personal Viewpoint
  10. ʿAjami in Aleppo: A Tale of Traveling Motifs
  11. Beit Ghazaleh: The House of My Great Grandparents

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.

| The word ‘Ajami

The word ‘Ajami appears in written sources related to the interior decoration of buildings from the 18th century onwards. The Arabic term ‘Ajami means “foreign”, most likely referring to the Persian influence on the motifs used in the decoration of these gorgeous interiors. An exact definition and titling of this craft is still in controversy, leaving the craft entangled with several names. For the artist Mohammad Haj Qab the term ‘Ajami suits perfectly. “The word ‘Ajami was associated with everything that came from Persia”, he comments. “The name fits for this trade, because the decorative elements are not fixed or based on a strict decorative principle. We use motifs and flowers from the East and the West, techniques from the North and South.” Another commonly used term and maybe the more fitting version is the Arabic word “Khashabiyat madhuwna” meaning “painted wooden wall panels.” This describes the product of the craft. Others call it Damascene paint, referring to the belief that the city of Damascus was the craft´s center and origin. However, exactly where and when it comes from cannot be scientifically confirmed yet, as ‘Ajami objects dating to the 17th century or earlier remain extraordinarily rare to find.

Read other articles from the series ‘Ajami – Stories about a handcraft:

‘Ajami or Damascene Painting: Traces of a Traditional Handcraft
‘Ajami or Damascene Painting: Traces of a Traditional Handcraft
‘Ajami or Damascene Painting: Traces of a Traditional Handcraft
‘Ajami or Damascene Painting: Traces of a Traditional Handcraft
‘Ajami or Damascene Painting: Traces of a Traditional Handcraft
‘Ajami or Damascene Painting: Traces of a Traditional Handcraft

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