December 2016        

The Aleppo Room

Jenny Farrell

It is of course deeply cynical to think of this season as one of good will. And yet this might be as good a time as any to reflect on a magnificent piece of art, exhibited in the Berlin Museum of Islamic Art.
     It is a wood-panelled interior of the reception room from an early seventeenth-century house in Aleppo, which expresses supremely good will to all. What makes this so special and poignant is its cultural and religious inclusiveness.
     A prosperous Christian citizen in the town of Aleppo, the Armenian merchant Isa Ibn Butrus (Jesus, son of Peter), commissioned the painted panels of the walls of the reception room in his house in 1600. This was the room into which his guests would first arrive, so it had a representative and expressive function.
     The paintings in what is now known as the Aleppo Room are the oldest collection from a Syrian residential house of the Ottoman period. The Christian owner engaged craftsmen from the best workshops of the time to paint a variety of themes. (The name Halab Shah Ibn Isa, one of the craftsmen, appears on the cornice.) These are based on Islamic book illustration of that time, floral and geometrical designs, and are executed in the best Ottoman tradition.
     Christian themes from the Old and New Testaments, including a depiction of Mary with Child, have their place alongside courtly scenes based on Persian book illustrations. A selection of decorative psalms, Arabic proverbs and Persian principles framing these scenes deepens the impression of a community of different religious beliefs living together peacefully. The room is a visual expression of this harmonious diversity.

     The central panels are at the back of the room’s main section, to both sides of a wooden cabinet door set into the wall. Middle Eastern courtly scenes are painted on the left-hand panel, including a royal personage sitting on a throne, a hunt and a hunting party, with a prince holding a falcon. Old and New Testament themes portrayed on the right-hand panel involve Salome’s dance in front of King Herod, the Last Supper, and the sacrifice of Isaac.
     What adds to the interest of these images is the fact that they reflect the Middle Eastern origins of Christianity and the natural inclusion of this religion in the regional culture. It makes complete sense to the Aleppo artist to depict the characters in the paintings in Middle Eastern dress.

     Other panels inside the room display more individual illustrations from either Middle Eastern courtly and hunting scenes or Christian subject matter. They also show illustrations of the Arab love story of Leila and Majnun of Nizami (1141–1202) from the Haft Paykar, or the Virgin Mary and Child, or St George. Fantastic and real animals are depicted alongside these.
     The inclusivity of the themes of these paintings makes these earliest surviving wall panels such a significant collection. They are evidence of a peaceful plurality of culture that could perhaps only have arisen in the Syrian trading town of Aleppo.
     It does not take a cynic to point out that such cultural inclusivity has been utterly lost in a time when we so badly need it for our survival.

Home page  >  Socialist Voice  >  December 2016  >  The Aleppo Room
Baile  >  Socialist Voice  >  Nollaig 2016  >  The Aleppo Room