The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Nov 12, 2009

Dimashq Cartoon Style

We stand at the Citadel by the statue to the greatest of Muslim heroes and wonder: surely he didn’t resemble a Gaul? All that’s missing is a menhir, and Saladin, chivalrous scourge of the Crusaders, could have been one of the better-looking denizens of Asterix’s village. We admire his flowing moustache, his flowing locks, his flowing frock and his frothing horse, and we ignore the tour bus that suddenly disgorges a chattering mass of foreigners agog to come face to face with the mighty hero. It is a sad truth, we find, that a Westernised fantasy is deeply embedded in the minds of the Levantines. We learn that the statue is based on some Western art from the 19th century, and that it was created by Abdallah al-Sayed, a Syrian sculptor, in 1993. It does not surprise me at all that one of the Baathist head-honchos was taken up with myth-making Disney-style, and wanted to see the Kurdish warrior looking like Vercingetorix.


To visit Damascus is to breathe the dusty air of one of the oldest cities of the world. Great wonders of art and zainabarchitecture have been installed, torn down, rebuilt and renovated here. To my atavistic eye, there’s little that is elegant in the local modern sensibility. Ripe and purple is the work of contemporary Middle-Eastern architects; at least, that’s what I deduce from the zainab minaretover-the-top concoctions that have been put up here in recent years.

And I don’t just mean poor Saladin. Wealthy Iranians have been buying up large parts of  the old city, attempting either to renovate lovely Damascene houses for business, or to have a holiday pad whenever they tire of the Islamic republic. The locals are not best pleased – who is happy to see his locality become unaffordable because of a bunch of yuppies turning up and buying up the entire area? – but they seem to appreciate the shrine to Sayyida Zainab, grand-daughter of the Prophet, and one of the remarkable women in the Shiite pantheon. The Iranians have brought in a particularly over-the-top sensibility here, and created a lollipop of a mosque. 

I suppose it is difficult to give up entirely on the architectural tropes of yesteryears. Lace and tile and cupola and minaret are repeated time and again, almost in mimeographed style, wherever ‘modern’ Iranian architects decide to put down a monument to their faith. Virtually every visitor to Sayyida Zainab’s mosque feels immediately transported to Iran. This is a shame in some ways, for it means the loss of a Syrian character. On the other hand, under the Ummayads, Syrian art and architecture spread throughout the region. I guess art, like much else in life, has a cyclical nature, and when one style has had its day, another will soon come to take its place.


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