Wednesday, February 24, 2010


For your reading pleasure, my summary of research initiated while at the Institute, also online on .

Geometrical Ornamentation at the Omayyad Mosque

Through the support of and residency at the Danish Institute I have been able to conduct a study on a small but important part of Islamic architecture. With a professional background in architecture, and using simple tools of drawing and research, I have been able to make some preliminary observations that are intriguing and worthy of further exploration. This written summary is based on an illustrated presentation at the Danish Institute on 2 Feb 2010. The study has shed new light both on the design of the grilles themselves and on their relationship to their spatial and historical context. This was also an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between structure and ornament in architecture. I suggest that geometry, in particular the golden ratio, was not ornamental in the sense of being non-essential and applied, but in fact integral and fundamental in the structure and design of many elements of the Mosque. As Euclidean mathematical ideas were revealed in the objects of study, I think that modern architectural expressions could build from experimentations in more current, non-Euclidean mathematics as a way of, perhaps, revealing Paradise on earth.

There are 6 marble window grilles located on the west side of the courtyard in the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus. They each have a unique geometrical pattern, two of which were studied as drawings to incorporate the golden ratio, and not based on more typical four- or six-sided forms. Claimed to be original elements in what is one of the oldest extant Islamic monuments, they may well represent one of the earliest usage of geometrical ornamentation in Islamic architecture.

The context, design, material, dimension, symbolism and functionality (or lack of – in modern building envelope terms) of the grilles suggest a bridge between the sacred and the profane, and between Islam and the ruling Omayyad Caliphate at the time. They lack noteworthiness (being under the spectacular Barada mosaic), functionality (providing neither light or view), and visual integration on the façade when viewed from the courtyard. The lack of functionality is underscored by the relocation of 4 of these grilles above their original sill location, such that the original header is behind and within the space of the grilles. I would suggest that these are exquisite pieces of artwork rather than architectural ornamentation, framed and positioned as if they were functional building elements, but noteworthy because they appear not to be so at all. The relationship between these grilles to the Mosque is less in terms of typical building connections but more in terms of the golden ratio. Drawings of two of the grilles suggest the use of the golden ratio, both in the overall dimension as well as in the interior geometric pattern. Moreover, using rough measurements on photographs and available drawings, the ratio is suggested to be found in the exterior dimensions of the Mosque, the two wings beside the domed nave, the exterior façade of the central nave and the original section through this domed nave. Just at the Mosque is a unique religious and – at the time, political – precinct, these grilles perhaps also have equal spiritual and political tones. They appear to be a “window” to Paradise but also windows into the Uthman Room, a reception room which, by the right-hand rule when facing the Mosque entry, would have been a politically important room.

It has been satisfying to look closely into a small part of Islamic architecture, and to look at the underlying lines beneath geometric patterns rather than simply copy-and-paste, a more common method of looking at “exotic” ornamentation. While it is anticipated that further drawings are made of the 6 grilles for exhibition, it is hoped that future study can look at the notion of ornament as fundamental, and how architecture can reveal and relate to more contemporary mathematics. Such would bring value and relevance of this historical study to modern practice, and continue the search for what makes architecture, architecture.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Year of the Tiger

You are a certain animal in Chinese astrology. However, unless you are a tiger, of course you would like to be like one of us. Tigers are most wonderful creatures, no question about it.

One option is to dress up in a tiger suit, but another, much more meaningful one is to take a rigourous programme of courses and obtain certification. There's probably an international school for this in a city near you.

Courses include:
- Basic Tiger Survival Skills - in Zoos, Forests, and on urban outskirts
- Advanced Tiger Grammar and Phonetics - Rar! in Practice and Theory
- How to Love another Tiger - Safe and Non-destructive Nibbling Techniques
- Practical Tiger Grooming - Common Hammam Practices for the Very Hairy
- Tiger Cuisine - New Explorations in Raw Meat

Upon completion you get a nice flea collar with a gold name tag. You then have the privilege of learning the secret tiger purr as well as a song which describes how fabulous and amazing tigers are - and this you need to sing 5 times a day in order to maintain your certification of practice.


It is my last week in Damascus. I am keeping to a similar schedule as usual - a blend of Arabic, cooking, reading, exploring - but there's more gift-giving just now as I lighten up my load, and a bit more personal admin as I organize my next few weeks as I go on the road again.

My Arabic is just getting good. I have been verbing so much that I long to be an adjective again. I have learnt to phonetically approximate the secret code for "Can you give me a discount" - a sentence complex enough that I don't quiet know what the structure is yet, but it apparently impresses shopowners enough to reduce whatever I am buying by a dollar or so. Arabic is slowly paying off.

It has been a very Christian week for me the past week. Last Friday was a short day trip to Seidnayya, a town just 1/2 hour away. An important pilgrimage town in the Middle Ages, second only to Jerusalem. The main monastery was spatially amazing - stairs, courtyards, balconies, terraces in a full 3D labyrinth. Tough to say how old it was - like most buildings here there is a lot of ongoing rebuilding. On Sunday I went to the Armenian Orthodox Church for service, which lasted 2 hours. They also have a curtain, like the Armenian Catholic Church. But here it was always drawn. Full Mystery. Like coming to a theatre to see a play, but the curtains remained closed.

Also finally went to a hammam here. "Only" 12th century - the oldest here is 9th century but that is only for men. The one I went to was really nice, a good honest scrub in very nice surroundings with a couple of friends. There is one in Aleppo that I hope to try too.

Looking forward to Aleppo. One book says there are 10km of souq, another says 30km. Probably a truly delightful commercial experience, however long it is. Due to its location, one book says that they really had to work to get people to come to Aleppo, as it is not a natural crossroads. And because it has been so ignored for the past hundred years it has not been modernized - so pretty ideal for the modern tourist now. A very old city, and it will probably look it, much more than Damascus. Even the Jdeide Quarter or "New Quarter" refers to an area that began in the 15th century.

Also gearing up for the route afterwards. I am languishing for rice rolls and jook, so have already made arrangements to go to Crispy Duck Restaurant with some friends in London. I'm just there for a night, after which I am off to Muscat for the last 2 weeks in March, and then Melbourne for April to visit family.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Breakfast with Pigeons

It's 9am. It's beautiful and warm on the roof terrace, where I have my breakfast. Slow enough to enjoy the sunrays, just barely fast enough so that the pancakes and coffee can be enjoyed warm. Such is the timing of living.

The sound of the pigeons here will forever bind me to the sound of the Institute. And then again, it's not so much that - it is the quiet. Resonating beyond their feathery fluff, the muted sound of their inner organs fills the morning stillness of the courtyard with wholeness and grace. It is a fine way to begin the day.

Two pigeons on the other side of the courtyard, above the director's residence, inspect the roof and scuffle around back and forth. A little bit beyond is a minaret, one of the many pieces that create the roof landscape here. If maps and streets don't have much to say with one another here, it is even more so with the random assortment of roof bits. Like heaven, the roofscape bears little with what is on the ground. In the summer, it is a cat's playground as they ransack one kitchen to another via roof access. In the winter, it is a wonderland of buildings that have the appearance, strength and protection of a wheaties biscuit. Their defiant existance during the rains is an act of faith on borrowed time.

Far off towards the east, church bells ring. They sound old, I imagine they are older.

I went to the Armenian Catholic Church for service once. (I can't remember if I wrote about this - in any case I can't read my blog in Syria). I think I remember reading somewhere that Armenia was the first state to be Christian. I went there at 8am, and sat until 10am when service started. A wonderful old man welcomed me, gave me water and sweets his wife had baked. It is a renovated church, white and bright, with modern frescos, electricity, and heating. Drapes cover the front part, and were drawn in and out throughout the service. Mystery is a beautiful thing. The music, as I remember it now, seemed to have a common refrain, and hauntingly, achingly gorgeous. Slow and minor.

And recently I went to the Armenian Orthodox Church one evening to see a film called Phoenix and Ashes, on the work of German Johannes Lepsius during the Armenian genocide of 1915. 1.5 million died, many in Syria where they tried to escape to from Turkey. The evening was frigid. Cold wind blew through the front doors of the church and bit through thick coats, as if to give sensual effect to the subject matter. At one point the film showed a regular gas/petrol station. Cars going in and out as usual. And then a map, which showed that it lay on top of a mass grave. Where the bones of 300 Armenians lay, those that went to find refuge from persecution in their church, but found themselves locked in and gassed.

Yesterday there was a "workshop" at the Danish Institute, on the secular state and religion in the Levant. It was to be a full weekend conference with free public admission at the Damascus University, but because we are in Syria, it was cancelled the day before. I only went to one session, as it was partly in Arabic and I am not that good yet. It was interesting to hear about Turkey as a possible model as an "Islamic-but-secular-state", where Islam is good for business and good for EU. But Turkey still does not recognize that the genocide occurred.

I have 2 weeks left in Damascus, after which I abandon it for Aleppo. People don't believe me when I say that it will be so incredibly difficult to leave Damascus, but it's mostly because I haven't had to deal with the bureaucracy that much here. But I am so looking forward to Aleppo. I have saved it to last, for the good weather of March (though we are already in the low/mid-20s), and a friend from Berlin is coming especially to join me in my last 2 weeks in Syria. I love the idea of staying at the Baron Hotel - how often is a hotel listed in wikipedia?

Like my breakfast, it will all be about timing these next 2 weeks - wanting it to be savoured but at the same time impatient to explore Aleppo's 10km of souqs.