Bayt Farhi, a Jewish house in Damascus

Bayt Farhi, a Sephardic palace in Ottoman Damascus, begun c. 1780 an ARCHES video; speakers: Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay and Dr. Steven Zucker

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Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis: [0:06] Frederic Leighton, who was President of the Royal Academy and one of the British Empire’s most famous painters, spent a lot of time traveling. He went to southern Italy, he went to North Africa, and he went to Damascus. In Damascus, he was captivated by the houses.

[0:22] In a letter that he wrote to his father, he said he couldn’t actually capture [them], because they were so beautiful, they had such color, so that he was having some photographs made. Fortunately for us, he in fact did sit down and paint two paintings of what is one of the most important and spectacular houses, Bayt Farhi.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:37] Those paintings become important evidence for us as we try to understand the evolution of this house through time.

Macaulay-Lewis: [0:44] This is a house that is located within the Old City within Damascus.

Zucker: [0:48] This is the area that was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Macaulay-Lewis: [0:52] It is a place that right now is very inaccessible. So, trying to study the house, we need to look to documentary evidence like this painting, also to historical photographs. Likewise, we have a lot of different travelers’ accounts. It gives us a model of how we can study and understand buildings and sites that we can’t study due to war and conflict.

Zucker: [1:11] This house is especially complicated, because although we might assume that it was a house that was owned by a wealthy Ottoman — the Ottoman Turks were then in control of Syria — it was in fact a Jewish house.

Macaulay-Lewis: [1:23] It belonged to one of the most prominent Jewish families in all of Damascus and actually, arguably, this whole part of Syria within the Ottoman Empire; it belonged to the Farhi family. The Farhi family were Sephardic Jews.

[1:35] They had come from the Iberian Peninsula after 1492, when they had been expelled. Many Jews came to the Ottoman Empire because it was a place of opportunity for them, where there were many more limited opportunities for them in Europe.

Zucker: [1:47] The Farhi family flourished, and they’re an important reminder of the ways in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted in the Ottoman Empire. The patriarch of the Farhi family, a man named Haim, was able to amass significant political and economic power.

[2:03] Although the Farhi family really did prosper, there were moments of crisis that were often precipitated by politics and exacerbated by their religious identity.

Macaulay-Lewis: [2:11] We start to hear about the Farhi family and Haim in the late 18th century. He clearly amassed enough money, and the family did as a whole, to build this remarkable, enormous house in the heart of the Old City within the walls.

Zucker: [2:25] This house is a reflection, not simply of Jewish traditions, but of the cosmopolitan nature of Damascus at this moment.

Macaulay-Lewis: [2:31] We see this across houses both in the standing buildings in Damascus, but also in some of the museum collections in Europe and the United States.

[2:40] The Damascus Room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art allows us to see a house from a Muslim family with its inscriptions, and the Aleppo Room in Berlin allows us to see how a Christian family might express their identity.

[2:51] So when we look at this house in comparison to those, we can see a really interesting conversation that’s going on in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all using the same artistic languages to convey their faith, their affluence, and their lives.

Zucker: [3:05] When you approach the house from the street, there’s nothing grand about it. In fact, it would be quite easy to walk right by it.

Macaulay-Lewis: [3:10] That is a strategy that is used by most grand houses in many parts of the Arab world, and this is a security issue.

Dr. Steven: [3:17] Once you begin to walk into the house, you have to take a sharp right turn, so that there is no direct sight line into the beauty within. These are known as courtyard houses, and this is a commonality between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim houses. In essence, the house surrounds a large interior courtyard.

Macaulay-Lewis: [3:34] That courtyard supplies light, it can have a well, it can have plants. If the family is more affluent, then you have two, three, even four or five courtyards. In this case, we have five. Also, who you were made a difference on what you got to see and where you got to go.

Zucker: [3:48] If you were a trusted visitor, you’d be allowed into the barrani, that is, the outer courtyard.

Macaulay-Lewis: [3:53] It was decorated with what we call ablaq work, the very famous stripes, and you would look directly across to the northern wall. Above the entrance to the main reception room was a stone-cut inscription. The stone-cut inscription would have been gilded, with a blue background and gold.

[4:08] What would have told you were not in a Christian house and not in a Muslim house was the fact that it was in Hebrew. It is in fact what is called the house blessing, which comes from Deuteronomy 28:6, “Blessed shall you be in your comings, and blessed shall you be in your goings.”

[4:22] Then the line continues, and this is not from Deuteronomy. “Through this portal, pain shall not come. Not to the elderly, and not to the child, and not to the youngster. May it be His will. Amen.”

[4:32] What you would go into was this extraordinary room. This is one of the places that the family would greet some of its most important visitors, depending on the weather. These houses functioned seasonally. You move from room to room, depending on what time of day it is and what season it is.

Zucker: [4:46] These rooms were multipurpose. You did not sit in a room where the sun was beating in in the hot Damascus summer.

Macaulay-Lewis: [4:52] And when it was cold, you wouldn’t want to be in a big room that couldn’t be heated well. You’d be in a smaller, more intimate room that you could put carpets up to cover the windows so it was warmer and intimate, but on a beautiful day that wasn’t too hot, you would go into this northern room. In there, you would be greeted by, again, a symphony of colors and of decoration.

Zucker: [5:10] Damascus houses from the late 18th and early 19th century are especially noted for their decorative programs. In addition to the pastework, one that is most striking is the woodwork.

Macaulay-Lewis: [5:21] This is painted wood with raised surfaces. Often, the focal point of these rooms are inscriptions. This reminds us that we are in a cultural world where poetry is still the highest art form, and that is something of the Islamic world. In the case of the Farhi family, they use Hebrew and Aramaic to do it.

[5:38] The story that they are telling, particularly in one room which we call the Pink Room, tells us about the Farhi family. It says, “May the family grow and be fertile. May there be lots of offspring.” But also, they are very deserving of all of their success and wealth because they are pious before God.

[5:52] We see this same type of language in the Damascus room in the Met. People want to have wealth. They want to have lots of descendants, but also, that they are pious and so they are deserving of God’s blessings.

[6:02] While we think of these houses as beautiful and glorious and when we want to live in them, by the beginning part of the 20th century, no one does. They don’t have modern conveniences. These houses are less and less desirable and they fall into disrepair. That is consistent for all of these houses in Damascus.

Zucker: [6:17] But there was a revival. In the 1990s and the early 2000s; there was an increasing interest in the Old City and in its long-neglected architecture. And there was some reinvestment in that area.

Macaulay-Lewis: [6:28] In the late 1990s, there was an awakening of an Arab identity and wanting not to look to Europe as a model for cultural identity. People started buying the old houses and renovating them.

Zucker: [6:39] Including a Paris-based Syrian architect.

Macaulay-Lewis: [6:41] Who bought Bayt Farhi and wanted to try and renovate it and then turn it into a hotel. One of the tensions we always have with historical buildings is, how do you preserve them?

Zucker: [6:50] The most serious challenge is the civil war that’s been raging across Syria for years now.

Macaulay-Lewis: [6:55] By all accounts, the building is largely intact, but much of Syria’s cultural heritage has not survived.

Zucker: [7:01] A reminder of how precious our cultural heritage is and how critical it is for us to undertake research and conservation when we can.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Bayt Farhi, a Jewish house in Damascus," in Smarthistory, October 16, 2020, accessed July 19, 2024,