The Damascus Room and the Staging of the ‚Oriental Other‘ in the Dresden State Art Collections

How the ‚Damascus Room‘ came to Dresden

The so-called Damascus Room, exhibited in the Ethnological Museum of Dresden (Germany), was bought in 1899 by Karl Ernst Osthaus, the founder of the Museum Folkwang, now in Essen (Germany), after one of his journeys. Osthaus was one of the most important German art patrons and art collectors of the beginning of the 20th century. The room panelling from the Syrian city of Damascus was made around 1810. The elaborately designed wall and ceiling panelling contain relief ornaments, metal leaf editions and paintings. Until 1899 it was used in a welcoming room for guests of an old town house in Damascus. The decorations show townscapes, bouquets of flowers, fruit bowls and Arabic inscriptions. The elaborate decoration makes it clear that the owners invested a considerable amount of money in the design of the room.

The Damascus Room in Dresden in pre-restored state

The rarity, delivered to him in Hagen by ship in one hundred individual parts, was never unpacked. In the meantime, the museum concept had evolved thanks to the fruitful artistic exchange between Osthaus and the Belgian artist and architect Henry van de Velde: Instead of setting up an Islamic museum in Hagen inspired by the natural sciences, Osthaus now systematically collected contemporary, modern paintings, which at the time were the object of much hostility. For this reason, the bulky parcels from Damascus disappeared into the attic immediately upon delivery in Hagen in 1899. There they were stored for more than two decades, still in their original packaging, thus protecting the 22 square meter wall panelling of the Damascus reception room. When Osthaus died unexpectedly in 1921, his estate fell to a community of heirs.

Pfotenhauer 2010

After his death in 1930 it was donated to the Oriental Department of the Ethnological Museum in Dresden. It only came back into focus in 1997, when the first steps were taken to conserve, restore and reinstall the room. Since its dismantling in Damascus, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, the room has never been fully assembled and exhibited. Fortunately, however, the Damascus Room in Dresden was never unpacked, „otherwise the wooden room would probably have been built in the Zwinger and burned in 1945. After the war, museum people, monument conservators and restorers had more important things to do for decades. For lack of money and exhibition space, the old parcels from Damascus continued to slumber in the museum depot.“ (cf. Pfotenhauer 2010).

It was only the ethnologist Annegret Nippa, director of the museum from 1997 to 2003, who looked for the room in the depot, the existence of which she knew about through a footnote in a scholarly essay. It was Nippa who had it unpacked in 1997. When the wooden panels and parts of the ceiling were shown to the public for the first time that same year in the Ethnological Museum, it was a sensation for the experts – but for some museum visitors, it was rather unspectacular. For what you could see then, 13 years ago, were merely gloomy boards: grey-brown wood that had not been cleaned for two centuries, dusty wood.

Pfotenhauer 2010

The Damascus Room in Dresden in pre-restored state

Ulrike Siegel and Antje Werner, two students from TU Dresden, accepted the challenge of putting the giant puzzle back together. They measured the qualities of every single piece, drew them and meticulously documented every nail hole. With the help of the mass, the decoration, the joint and the number coding written onto the backside of the piece, the positioning of every piece could be clearly determined. The Damascus Room has a surface area of 4 x 5.5 m and is 5.4 m high. As seen in comparable rooms in the Orient, the wall panels only utilize 2/3 of the total height of the room. The upper parts of the walls are usually only plastered and whitewashed.

Anke Scharachs 2003

The Damascus Room in the Japanese Palace had been extensively restored in recent years with the participation of Syrian conservators. Never before had it been painted over and renovated (cf. Stadler 2017). Since its completion, it has been presented in its original colours and composition in the Japanese Palace (cf. MDR-Sachsen 2019). The following video shows Anke Scharrahs, the head restorer who wrote her doctoral thesis on residential rooms in Syrian townhouses from the 17th to 19th centuries, at work:

The Dresden Damascus Room is a rarity, as it was not bought together from several rooms of a similar kind and rearranged. Such combinations of so-called „Arab-Ottoman rooms“ can be found in Honolulu at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art or in Kuala Lumpur at the Museum for Islamic Art and in Potsdam, where the so-called Arabicum is installed in the Villa Gutmann. Other fully preserved rooms are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Islamic Art on Berlin’s Museum Island (cf. Pfotenhauer 2010).

Damascus and Aleppo are among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with a history of more than 5000 years. With their centuries-old urban structures, the old towns ‚intra muros‘ of Damascus and Aleppo are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Due to natural disasters, warlike conflicts, repeated phases of decline and prosperity have continuously transformed and changed the historic old towns of the two metropolises. Despite the rapid population growth since the middle of the 20th century and the associated serious urban development transformations, several thousand historic residential buildings from the last three to four centuries have been preserved in both old towns. They are still subject to constant change today in order to adapt them to modern lifestyles and usage requirements. The preserved townhouses are eloquent testimonies to highly developed urban life and still provide impressive information about the lifestyle and tastes of their inhabitants today.

Anne Scharachs (2013, p. 19)

An overview of the comparable rooms still preserved in Damascus – before the war in Syria – is provided by the magnificent work of Anne Scharrahs (2013). Among other things, it discusses the Bait Jacques Montluçon (Damascus, cat.-no. IX-251), which is exhibited in photographs in Dresden (cf. Isabelle Mayault 2011).

The Bait Jacques Montluçon (Damascus, cat.-no. IX-251); photography on the left by Anne Scharachs (2013, p. 42)

Staging the ‚Oriental Other‘ – the example of the ‚Turkish Chamber‘

The ‚Türckische Cammer‘ (‚Turkish Chamber‘) is one of the most important collections of Ottoman art in the world. It contains the Ottoman part of the Dresden Armoury and belongs to the Dresden State Art Collections. Over a period of several centuries the Electors of Saxony collected ‚oriental‘ but also ‚orientalising‘ works of art, mostly of Ottoman origin. The majority of these pieces were diplomatic gifts or deliberate purchases; some pieces also came to Dresden as booty from various battles against the Ottomans.

The literary scholar Edward Said showed in his research that, since its inception, European Oriental Studies has been less concerned with viewing the cultures referred to as the ‚Oriental world‘ ‚objectively‘ than with re-reporting a specific Western concept of the ‚Orient‘. This construct of the Orient has always contained a colonialist approach that corresponds to the power relationship between colonialists and colonised people. Western thinking is accordingly characterised by the fact that definitions of the Orient are created by juxtaposing opposites: Thus the ‚West‘ is seen as ‚the‘ civilisation per se, whereas ‚the Orient‘ appears mysterious and threatening. Even seemingly positive attributes such as ‚playful‘, ‚luxurious‘, ’sensual‘ or ‚mystical‘ have negative connotations at their core. In contrast to the ‚occident‘, these are considered to be backward. These aspects make the Orientalism of European Oriental Studies a specific form of ‚othering‘.

Obviously all collections on the ‚Orient‘, which started with the so-called ‚Chambers of Curiosities‚, are affected by this. This also applies to the very old collections in Dresden. The structure of these collections, too, is guided by the knowledge of the supposed superiority of the so-called ‚Occident‘. Today it is correspondingly important to take this perspective into account in a modern museum culture and to reflect it accordingly, as Holger Schuckelt, one of the chief curators of the Dresden museums explains in the following contribution on the so-called ‚Turkish Chamber‘:

What we are showing here is actually an interpretation by the Electors of Saxony of what they experienced from the Orient. This is not a history of Ottoman culture, but a history of the reception of Ottoman culture. The exceptional thing about this ‚Turkish Chamber‘ is that the stories of almost all the exhibits have been handed down so that we can still understand this reception.

Holger Schuckelt, chief curator in the Dresden museums

Nevertheless, it is not only the museum cultures that determine the reception of the exhibited works. Ultimately it is the visitors who bring their constructions of the ’self‘ and the ‚other‘ into the exhibition rooms. And so the following aspects remain relevant, which have already been decided in the preliminary stages of a (tourist) visit to one museum that focuses on the other: Which images and myths of the ‚Orient‘ and the ‚exotic Other‘ are created, for example, in tourism advertising, in brochures, on postcards and in travel literature? How were tourist myths and images able to develop such strong continuities despite the enormous political, economic and social changes in the respective regions? How do the images of the ‚Orient‘, which guide tourists in their search for an ‚authentic Other‘, lead to the actual creation of a (previously only imagined) Orient, if only in the form of imported palm trees or waiters dressed as Mughal servants? How does the Orient, as it is conceived, invented and finally portrayed, not only correspond to the tourists‘ ideas of the Oriental and Orientalised? And finally: What does ‚the Orient‘ set against all this? How does it ‚occidentalise‘ its counterpart, namely the tourists and their cultures of origin?

Text: Stefan Applis (2020)

Photography: Stefan Applis (2013)


Agela Pfotenhauer (2010). Wie türkischer Rokoko nach Dresden kam. Verpackt, Vergessen, Wiederentdeckt. Monumente-Online.

Felix Stadler (2017). Das Dresdner Damaskuszimmer. Ein Stück orientalischer Kunstgeschichte erstrahlt in altem Glanz. L.I.S.A. Wissenschaftsportal der Gerda-Henkel-Stiftung.

MDR-Sachsen (Ed.) (2019). Damaskuszimmer nach 20 Jahren wieder eröffnet .

Annegret Nippa & Anke Scharrahs (2003). The Damascus Room in Dresden – A Treasure of Ottoman Interior Design in Germany. Dresden.

Anke Scharrahs (2013). Polychrome Ausstattungen von Wohnräumen in syrischen Stadthäusern des 17. bis 19. Jahrhunderts. Zu Kunsttechnik und Erhaltungsfragen von ʿaǧamī-Interieurs. Dresden.

Anke Scharrahs (2013). Damascene Ajami rooms: Forgotten Jewels of Interior Design. Archetype Publications, London 2013.

Isabelle Mayault (2011). Beit Jacques in Damascus. Mashalla News.

Völkerkundemuseum Dresden (Ed.). Webauftritt. Ausstellungen. Damaskuszimmer.

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