Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg





Environment, Domestic Architecture and Life Style in Damascus in the later Mamluk and Post-Mamluk periods

This study investigates developments in domestic architecture, and the urban life style associated with it, in Damascus in the 15th through 17th centuries, building on the work of Oleg Grabar in his Penser de l’Art Islamique. It was a new era and a turning point in art and history globally, witnessing many innovations in architecture, landscaping, and daily life.

During the 15 through 17th centuries, architectural elements associated with a refined urban life gained popularity throughout Egypt and Syria, such as the qāʿa, qar, kishk (kiosk), and in particular, the maqʿad. This latter element, located on the upper floor, was a place for rest and for receiving guests, and generally opened onto a space or courtyard, providing a beautiful vista. Alternatively it opened onto a stable for horses. The coexistence of the maqʿad and stable in almost all amiral houses demonstrates the importance of horses for the Mamluk amirs and later for the Ottoman janissary officers (the sibahi in particular). This kind of domestic architecture, and the physical environment it created, reflects the distinctive lifestyle of these officers, Comparison of such architecture in Damascus with Cairo is particularly revealing. For example, using as a starting point my own data, along with conclusions made by Grabar in his Palais et Maisons du Caire, in which the forms and elements of houses described in the registers were studied, we can propose general stages in architectural development in both cities over time. The 15th-17th centuries, in particular, maintained many architectural elements that characterized the late Mamluk period, such as the maq'ad, with its arches opening onto a courtyard, stable, or other open space (rural hawsh). M. Amin and Leila Ibrahim in their book on the architectural terms in the Mamluk archives, describe several forms of maqʿads. An important number of ‘Mamluk’ elements of the 15th century continue into the early years of Ottoman rule (early 16th until the end of the 17th century). In Damascus, and more evidently in Cairo (where the Mamluks continue to exist under the Ottomans during a period called by certain scholars the ‘Neo-Mamluk’ era), there is a similarity of lifestyle, which is reflected in the domestic architecture. In 17th Damascus, we found in the registers several descriptions of maq’ads - possible survivals from the Mamluk period - which function is a larger landscape of green space and water. They could be simple constructions prepared merely for enjoying the view of gardens and pools or fountains, and often not located inside the house.  We have seen in the sale contracts that the maqʿad is located in many cases inside a garden annexed to the house. This garden could include more than one maq’ad and could even face each other, as in one example from the Sarouja quarter in Damascus: this extra-mural example contains a garden with two maqʿads, facing one another across a footpath and a stream. Another house contained an open space (hawsh) with a qar built on eight stone arches, a riwāq and two qāʿas. In addition to the hawsh was a garden with several maqʿads and three fountains, as well as a variety of plants and trees.

The maqʿad could reflect the lifestyle of military officers. Examples from 15th century Cairo include houses with a maq'ad on the upper floor, which opened onto a stable (isabl) for horses, rather than a courtyard or garden. This phenomenon demonstrates the importance for Mamluk amirs of their horses, "which distinguished them from all the urban society and the state", to borrow Jean-Claude Garçin’s words. References to similar amenities can found in the 17th-century registers of Damascus, in entries of houses belonging to janissary officers, demonstrating a common domestic culture between the Mamluk and Ottoman military elite of Cairo and Damascus.

On the other hand, the description in the registers of certain houses located outside the Damascus city walls, with references to water and green space, suggests that some houses were summer residences or ‘architecture of pleasure’. These were retreats for wealthy people and these "foreign leaders", and were also used by other residents of the city to enjoy the landscape of the extra-muros environment. Some elements of these establishments are special to the Damascus environs and none survive today. One example preserved only in text form appears in a sales contract as "all the plants and the construction of the junayna (garden), located in an extra-muros area called (under the citadel quarter) "Maallat Tat al-Qalʿa". This garden consisted of fruit trees, the four walls that surrounded it, and a maq'ad facing the Barada River, with a kiosk (kishk) on the top.

In certain areas houses contained a garden in place of or in addition to the courtyard. The fact that certain areas outside the walls were built on land that was originally orchards was an important factor in the inclusion of gardens. That the historic orchards surrounding Damascus were appropriated for leisure at this time is noteworthy. It also gives us an idea of what gave the inhabitants of the city pleasure during this period, in terms of the natural environment.

Scholars who worked in Cairo, such as André Raymond, have unfortunately passed on to us little information about the pavilions and palaces built between the city and the Nile and on the river’s banks. Also, for Damascus we have had until now limited information about housing and construction of the 15th-17th century in the gardens and orchards, which were located between the city of Damascus inside the wall and the suburb of Salihiyya in the north of the city. Only the registers of tribunals gave us an idea about these constructions and in particular, this architecture of pleasure and their surrounding environment.

Further information in the tribunal registers provides information about the inhabitants of the houses, and their ethnic and social background. Also, it demonstrates the process of change and continuity in space, the natural environment of the intra- and extra-muros areas, the architecture associated with, and the society that enjoyed it during the period of transition from Mamluk to Ottoman rule.