Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City
photographs by Tim Beddow
Thames & Hudson, £40.00 hardback, 224 pages
Brigid Keenan is clearly made in the same stamp as Isabel Burton. They are
both passionate about old Damascus which they got to know through a chance
posting in their husbands' diplomatic careers. When Brigid Keenan quotes
Isabel Burton's famous reply to whether she had liked Damascus, "Like it! My
eyes fill and my heart throbs even at the question", she could also be
answering for herself.
Her subject is not public architecture, the five M's of a
Muslim city (mosques, mausolea, markets, medrasa and military-monuments) but
the closely guarded domestic space. She has used all her wiles to gain
entrance to thirty-eight of the courtyard mansions of Damascus. It is a
privileged view, especially when seen through the lens of Tim Beddow. He
lovingly combines the opulence of the past with the decay of today - but
seemingly Damascus was ever so, "a golden kernel in a shell of clay". These
houses were once the jealously guarded preserve of the old families of
Damascus such as the Azem's and Mardam Bey's. For all their unmistakable
Syrian identity the decorative influence of the late-Ottoman Empire is
tangible. Nor can this be corrected by any examples from Syria's 'pure'
medieval period, for the very oldest of the palaces dates from 1749.
Brigid is not an architectural historian but she knows how to make
use of them. Her book is informed by the drawings and maps of the experts
but is fortunately not overwhelmed by their technicalities. Her passion
shines through, whether describing the perfumed alfiyya (huge
thousand-year-old snakes that nest in the foundations), gardens of bitter
orange and sweet basil, or the meals shared between a patriarch and 80 of
his grandchildren. One can only hope that her book quickly becomes obsolete
as new owners follow her example and restore one of the hidden treasures of
the Old City.
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by Barnaby Rogerson