Niche from a Samaritan house
Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum
Hegira 10th century / AD 16th century
Marble and varieties of limestone, mosaic work, supplementary material.
Height 302 cm, width 215 cm, depth approx. 70 cm
Mamluk and Ottoman
Damascus, Syria; private house in the town quarter of al-Zahir Baybars.
The Samaritan niche consists of an opening recessed into the wall, which is crowned by a muqarnas (stalactite) vault and thus replicates all the elements that form part of a mihrab (prayer niche). Small columns featuring bases and capitals frame the sides of the niche. They finish off flush with the wall. The niche’s wall configuration is composed of a lower part, painted in wide alternating coloured stripes, which continue upward to form a pointed arch. The upper part is subdivided by a continuous distinct zigzag band, which is drawn out over the wall and the niche. Two round medallions framed in squares occupy the back wall, flanked by small squares with multifoil filling. Samaritan inscriptions can be found within both the red-coloured spandrels of the arches as well as within the rosettes: they allude to the ensemble belonging to a house built by Samaritans. Furthermore, inscription panels that were originally attached beside the niche have also been preserved. The inscriptions contain foreshortened words and only sections of them can be read as full texts. The text is extracted from the Old Testament (Moses, II, 23, Verses 25/26). The inscriptions within the right-hand-side arch spandrel conform to the Samaritan Pentateuch in detail. The Samaritans were a Jewish sect that had resided in Syria since late antiquity. According to tradition, those Samaritans who lived in Damascus had to leave the city in 1625.
The niche was originally located in a private Damascene house and over the centuries has undergone a variety of alterations in colour. The colourful stripes and the details of the muqarnas testify that it was created during the Mamluk period. When M. Sobernheim first visited the house in 1900, he was still able to see something of its splendid interior. He salvaged the Samaritan inscriptions that he found there. These were brought to Berlin in 1907 and the niche was later installed as part of an exhibition in the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum, after which it was transferred to the Pergamon Museum in 1932.
This stalactite niche, resembling a prayer niche, from an old Damascene house built in the Mamluk style, was saved from destruction because insets in the spandrels and roundels contain Samaritan inscriptions from the Old Testament. The Samaritans were expelled from Damascus in the 17th century.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Kurabi, owner of the house in which the niche was located. He was, however, only the last owner of the house, which today no longer exists
Every decorative element is indicative of the Mamluk period in Syria. Because the Samaritans had to flee Damascus at the start of the 11th / 17th century, it is likely that this niche dates from before this period.
Bought in Damascus in 1907.
M. Sobernheim salvaged stones that formed part of a niche with Samaritan inscriptions from a house in Damascus, some time after 1900.
Keenan, B., Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City, London, 2000.
Museum für Islamische Kunst Berlin, Mainz, 2001, pp.88–9.
Sobernheim, M., “Samaritanische Inschriften aus Damaskus”, Mittheilungen und Nachrichten des Deutschen Palaestina-Vereins 5, 1902, pp.70–80.
Tropper, J., “Die Samaritanischen Inschriften des Pergamonmuseums”, Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 111, 1995/2, pp.118–33.
Annette Hagedorn "Niche from a Samaritan house" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2020. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=object;ISL;de;Mus01;32;en
Prepared by: Annette Hagedorn
Translation by: Maria Vlotides, Brigitte Finkbeiner
Translation copyedited by: Monica Allen
MWNF Working Number: GE 42
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