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.
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
Crafting ‘Ajami decorations
Rooms decorated with ‘Ajami originally consisted of a series of framed wooden panels that covered the walls and ceiling, and integrated doors, windows and cabinets into their design. Usually poplar, cedar, cypress or walnut wood was used as paneling. Some wood types varied in a given individual room. In Damascus, for example, ceiling panels and frames were often made of poplar, while doors and shutters were made of a harder wood, such as walnut. In Aleppo, cedar and walnut was most often used. Gaps between the individual panels were often filled with organic material. (Photo: © Anke Scharrahs)
Preparation of wood
Wood panels were typically held together with adhesives from vegetable fibers, animal glue or simply nails. Sometimes panels were covered with cloth in order to conceal the joins or cover nails. For example, in the al-‘Azm palace in Hama, paper was used as a base to hide nails and transitions. Before applying the ornaments, the wooden panels were typically primed and elaborately processed with different tools and materials, and primed. The wood surface was usually individually prepared depending on the different requirements of the subsequent decorations and paintings. Commonly, a mixture of unburnt gypsum and animal glue was used as a primer (gesso). Sometimes, primers were created with indigo, minium (red lead) or orpiment, which resulted in light blue, orange or yellow shades. In some cases, as in the Aleppo Room in Berlin, tin foil was directly applied to a few panels using a sticky resin layer. In Bayt al-Hawraniya in Damascus the ‘Ajami decoration was applied to some wood panels before the tin decoration. Today, however, the wooden panels are often replaced by MDF (fibreboard), as the material is cheaper and easier to use. (Photo: © Mohammad Haj Qab, CC-BY-NC-ND)
Pre-Drawing: Patterns for the ‘Ajami decoration
Before the decoration and painting of the wooden panels, stencils were used to create a template. A paper sheet with punched-out holes that was was laid over the primed wooden layer. Then, a small textile bag filled with charcoal powder was patted over the stencil, transferring the outlines of the ‘Ajami to the primed layer. Individual ornaments outside of the regular pattern were drawn free-hand. (Photo: © Ziad Baydoun from Baydoun Creation, CC-BY-NC-ND)
The relief application
Following the ornaments´sketch, the ‘Ajami decoration was then applied as a raised motif. Here, the correct composition of the relief decoration paste (Nabāti) played a crucial role. Only the right amount of water, glue and plaster – a viscous mixture of unbaked gypsum and animal glue – would lead to the desired relief. Incorrect composition would otherwise cause the paste to sink, leaving a porous layer. Today, artisans mostly use a mixture of acrylic binders, chalk, gypsum and zinc white. (Photo: © Ziad Baydoun from Baydoun Creation, CC-BY-NC-ND)
The Making of the Nabātī
The composition of the relief paste (Najēne ‘Ajami or Nabāti in Arabic) is often an especially strictly guarded secret. The master himself usually mixes the paste. Many myths and rumors surround the making of the relief paste. Add a little sugar…add a little tea. Some believe the secret lies in mixing the colours with bare hands, arguing that the human skin contains enzymes that accelerate chemical reactions in the paint, which makes a vital contribution to its quality – a hypothesis that has never been confirmed by scientific research, but nonetheless adds an an aura of mystery to the craft. (Photo: © Ziad Baydoun from Baydoun Creation, CC-BY-NC-ND)
Application of metal foil
After the relief layers have dried, metal foil (normally gold leaf or tin foil) was applied to certain areas or on the entire surface with the help of binders. From the 18th century onwards, copper alloy leaf became increasingly popular to use. The choice of binder was also dependent on the type of material that was applied to the underlying paste. For example, the underlying raised motifs were moistened before applying the gold leaves. Today, the foil is often replaced with bronze paint. (Photo: © Anke Scharrahs)
Colouring of ornaments
Next, various areas of the metal layer were polished and painted with a tinted glaze, starting with the larger surfaces and then continuing to the smaller ornaments. The glaze used to be made of colored natural resin. This not only improved the appearance, but in some cases protected particular surfaces, like brass, from corrosion. Non-glazed areas can be clearly recognized by a change in the color of the metal. Today, modern colours are used to paint the surface. (Photo: © Anke Scharrahs)
Painting between the relief
Areas not highlighted as part of the relief were richly painted. The most popular motifs were recurring floral and geometric shapes as well as flower bouquets and fruit bowls. The pigments used included lead white, orpiment, vermillion, lapis lazuli, verdigris and carbon black, as well as organic dyes like kermes, indigo, cochineal, and aloe. However, how the binders and colours were made is undocumented. An important part of the knowledge of the 17th and 18th century painting has thus been lost, except of the colour components that could be identified through scientific analysis. (© Dresden State Art Collections, Dresden Museum for Ethnology, photo: Anke Scharrahs)
The rich ornaments are then outlined in black or other colours and individual flowers are shaded. The outlines and the shadowing of the various ornaments importantly illustrate the shape and condition of a motif´s surface. As a result, the painting not only forms a picture but has a spatial dimension to it. (© Dresden State Art Collections, Dresden Museum for Ethnology, photo: Anke Scharrahs)
‘Ajami work as a living organism
An ‘Ajami artwork must be considered as a living organism, as the wood and the colours continuously react to their environment. This knowledge and the harmonization of the individual components with the laws of nature were essential for the quality of the work, especially in historic times. The correct composition of the colour, for example, depends on the season and the humidity of the place where it is made. As a living material, wood cracks and expands depending on the weather. New material such as MDF (fibreboard) has helped to make the practise of the craft easier with its soft surface. However, much of the knowledge and original aspects of practising this craft has fallen into oblivion over the centuries. (Photo: © Stefan Weber)
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.