Restorer finds 18th c. decorations in Damascus home

French engineer and avid restorer Jacques Montlucon bought a small but lovely classic courtyard home in Old Damascus six years ago. These old aristocratic homes are fading fast in the Syrian capital, and Montlucon has a yen to save as many as he can. This particular property caught his eye because of its beautiful fountain and its dazzling rooftop view of the Umayyad mosque.

A wood-panelled section of the painted walls in the iwanHe didn’t expect to find entirely unique wall paintings and stone carvings behind layers of varnish and 20th century tiles, however.

“I was removing the heavy varnish covering the wood-paneled walls in the iwan (reception room) when figures of painted strange birds, monsters and castles started to emerge,” he said, pointing to the fine drawing between the carved wood.

“The paintings are dated 1789, the year of the French Revolution. But who knows how long it had taken for the news to travel from Paris to Syria,” he said.

Section of the ceiling painting An imaginary black bird pulls a boat. A man points a rifle from the top of a castle on a sea and monsters fly over the water. The wood ceiling resembles an intricate Persian carpet.[…]

Behind plain 20th century tiles in the same room, Montlucon also uncovered carved stone walls with mosaic-like Arab patterns, a technique pioneered by the Mamluks, one of the many rulers of Damascus.

Syrian craftsmen had a reputation for carving stone as if they were cutting paper. They flourished during Ottoman rule from the 16th to early 20th century, and incorporated Persian and Western influences, such as baroque into their work.

The thing that makes these extraordinary decorative elements unique is their theme. Other historical homes in Old Damascus have similar paintings, but they’re of buildings and landscapes. The fantastical, mythological paintings Montlucon found are unheard of in other courtyard homes.

Montlucon thinks the owners who covered up all this magnificence might have been hiding opulence from the piercing gaze of tax collectors, or they could have just wanted to modernize. I find it hard to imagine someone thinking layers of varnish were more stylish than exquisite 18th c. paintings, or that some spackle and tile cut a more handsome figure than hand-carved stone mosaic patterns, but crazy is as crazy does, I suppose.

At least Montlucon has a properly reverent attitude towards preserving the beauty he uncovered. He made sure to use the mildest of restoration techniques: nothing more than cotton balls, water colors and basic solvents. It took him and a friend 6 months to reveal the full majesty of his walls.

 Jacques Montlucon on his rooftop with the Umayyad Mosque in the background

6 thoughts on “Restorer finds 18th c. decorations in Damascus home

  1. Jacques Montlucon is a gem! He bought a small but lovely classic courtyard home in Old Damascus. These old aristocratic homes are indeed fading fast in the Syrian capital.

    I cannot see any way around it though. UNESCO named Damascus a world cultural heritage site, and in the 1970s Syria passed laws banning demolition INSIDE the city walls. Old Damascene houses were once gorgeous, but since at least two thirds of these mansions lie OUTSIDE the walls, who will save them?

    1. I didn’t realize there were so many outside the walls of Old Damascus. 🙁 I hope the recent tourism push provides motivation for the state to protect these historical beauties.

  2. Lovely and fascinating, is the wall painting in the top picture trompe l’oeil style or on a recessed part of the wall?

    The interiors of the old Damascus mansions heave been disappearing for sometime, not only plastered/painted over but dismantled and sold at auction, particularly the carved wooden panelling and tiles, sad but at least they are being preserved somewhere, sometimes as entire rooms.

    1. I believe it’s slightly recessed. If you look on the bottom left you can see a hinge, so I suspect it’s an arched doorway with the wood beams standing out some from the painted lunette.

      I hate hearing about historical houses being dismembered, but at least they’re not getting bulldozed. If the structure is irreparable, then recycling the features is really the only preservation you can do, I guess.

  3. Those houses and courtyards are gorgeous. I was lucky enough to get invited into one for coffee and a tour, just on account of looking all moist-eyed at one after another beautiful courtyard while walking through the Old City. That one had the old wall (which I believe is Alexandrian, but not sure) as one of its internal walls — a hole in the wall amounting to a short tunnel served to connect part of the house with another part. The lovely home and its charming, generous owner left me with a very fond recollection of Damascus.

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