A description of the Farhi Houses

(revised 15 October 2011)

In 18th & 19th century Damascus

In 19th Century Damascus, Raphael el Muallim Farhi lived in a one of the most opulent houses of Damascus. The following map of Damascus (the old walled city), shows three Farhi houses (119, 120 & 277), the Liniado (268) and the Lisbona (4941). From this city plan, the Muallim Farhi house was indeed the largest of them all.

These houses were the home of many families, family sharing one of the 7 court yards. Eventhough the outside appearance and first courtyard were non descript as not to attract the attention of the general public, the subsequent coutyards and housing were very well decorated with water fountains, trees (the fruit tree was a symbol status) and gilded ornaments. From testimony of Farhi who lived there not as long ago as the World War II period, each Farhi family had a court yard. The living room faced the courtyard and the bedroom quarters were relegated to the back facing the outer walls (usually without large windows).

 

Dorothée Sack, "Damaskus die Stadt intra muros" in Damsaener Mittelurgen 2 (1985)

See bottom of page for another map.

 The Farhi Houses

In his book Land of the Bible, visited and described (1847), John Wilson wrote that :

We visited the House of Mourad Farhi, one of the princely mansion of the Farhi, the richest bankers and merchants of Damascus. He recalled visiting the Library which contained the whole body of Jewish literature except some of the additions which have been made to it in Europe within the last quarter of a century. The library was open to all Jews of Damascus to visit and use. Four chief rabbis odf the congregation and a few respectable persons waited upon us at this place and heartily welcome us to Damascus.... (page 334). Note from the editor. The Mourad House is known today as the Dhadah House.

On the 8th of June , we visited the mansion of Raphael, the chief of the Farhis. We were told that in the Household lived about sixty to seventy souls. This establishment is even grander than that we visited yesterday (Mourad' s house). The roof and walls of the rooms which are situated round the court like those already noticed are gorgeous in a high degree. One of the British traveler expressed his doubts whether those in our own Royal palaces are superior to them. One of the principal apartments, the Hebrew inscription , adverting to the magnificence of the place and invoking the blessing of God on the proprietor is cut, painted, and gilded in large letters.... (Note, the current occupant of the house had these inscriptions covered by newspapers). We visited Raphael, the Nasi of the Damascus Jews in his private room... From his room, we went to his library which, like that of his relative already noticed, is of considerable extent. It is sometimes used as a private synagogue. It contains three beautiful rolls of the law, in the richest silver case which I have yet see enshrining the books of Moses and a copy of the Bible about 450 years old most splendidly illuminated and coloured. The latter manuscript is the finest which I have noticed during my residence in the East. It is certainly worth a thousand pounds; but it was procured for a much smaller sum.

The premises of Raphael Farhi are like a little village; and it strikes me that notwithstanding the deference which is accorded by all their inmates to the patriarch of the family, and the good order which is observed, domestic comfort, in the European sense of the term, must be considerably impeded by the number of different ages moving to and from in the courts. The ladies themselves made a busy scene of it, trudging along in their high patterns or calling to another from one side of the quadrangle to the other. They seemed , however to cultivate great kindness , as well as volubility of address, when summoning the attention of their companions. The name of Sarah, Rebekah, Miriam and other, fell like music on our ears; and in the persons of those who bore them we saw the forms which or imagination associated with Hebrew mothers and daughter on whom they were first bestowed.... (page 341)

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Brigit Keenan in her book Damascus published in 2000 by Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, UK , describes the Farhi houses. Several pictures taken by Tim Beddow (and copyrighed by Mr. Said and his charitable trust Safingest) shows how magnifiient these houses were and how some are in a sad state of neglect. A great 1873 painting by Sir Frederic Leighton " La Cueillette des Citrons" shows the courtyard in its glorious day with two women and a girl (probably Farhi) picking up lemons from one of the courtyard's tree. The dresses of the women are European style and most likely never worn in Damascus. The painting owned by the Leighton Trust is shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

The Mourad Farhi house, which has now renamed Beit Dahdah by its current owner , an art dealer, is shown in the following pictures. The page numbers refer to the Keenan book.

Inner Courtyard of Beit Mourad Farhi now renamed Beit Dahdah (page 103)

Plaster and Colored Wall of Beit Mourad Farhi (page 149)

Painted Wood Panels of the Sitting Area (Mastaba) of Beit Mourad Farhi (page 120)

The Raphael el Mouallem House which was described by Lady Hester Stanphope as one of the largest House of damascus with its four inner courtyards had vivid gilded walls, painted ceilings with inlaid precious stones and mosaic floors. she was served coffee in cups with solid gold studs. It is now occupied by several families of modest means and is in need of repairs and restauration.


Beit al-Muallim Farhi: one of the four courtyards (page 94)


Beit al-Muallim Farhi 's Mihrab with Mosaic and Marble (page 76)

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Julie D. Bouchain, in her 1996 thesis entittled "Auf-und Abstieg der Familie Farhi 1740-1995" (On the descendance of the Farhi Families 1740-1995) Hamburg University, has included the following pictures with captions.

The entrance of Beit al-Muallim Farhi.On the left of the picture, the door to the guest room where visitors were received. They were not admitted to the main courtyard and therefore could not see the family's real wealth.

The courtyards of the Beit al-Muallim in February 1994: the birthplace of Sarah (Widad) and Alice Farhi. Widad died in November 2006 and Alice lives in a flat in the old city of Damascus.

Behind the water tanks of the Syrian and Palestinian families living today in the rooms of the dilapidated Beit al-Muallim, the Hebraic inscriptions have been preserved.

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The inner courtyard of the Beit Mourad Farhi.

Beit Mourad Farhi is currently named the "Dahdah Palace". Today, it is the residence and antique shop of a wealthy Damascene. All references to the former residents have diseappeared; symbols and original wall carvings either have been carved out or are covered (with newspapers).


Najwa Al Quatan in her thesis: The Damascene Jewish Community in the Latter Decades of the 18th Century: Aspect of Socio Economic Life based on the Registers of the Shari'a Courts (published in 1992 by Berliner Islamstudien Bd.5, Franz Steiner Verlag in Stuttgart), reports many land and houses purchases by the Farhi family in the late 18th century Damascus, here are a few listed:

  • May 9, 1781: property in Suq al Dajaj (Chicken Bazar) bought by Haim & Shehada Farhi for 1,400 ghurush ("piastres")
  • August 20, 1780: property in Mahallat al Nasaraj (Christian Quarter) bought by Haim & Salmon Farhi for 205 ghurush
  • August 31 , 1780: adjacent property in Mahallat al Nasaraj (Christian Quarter) bought by Haim & Salmon Farhi for 8,000 ghurush. That property was sold a few days later.
  • December 20, 1784: house bought by Yacoub & Joseph Farhi for 200 ghurush
  • 1780/81: property in bought by Isaac & Haim Farhi
  • 1786/88: 6 properties bought by Moussa & Mourad Farhi
  • 1779-95: 11 property in Mahhallat al Yahud (Jewish Quarter) by Salomon Farhi for an average of 4,760 ghurush, including the most expensive properties ever recorded.

We assume that the large Farhi houses may be some of those purchased by Salomon and his family. As an indication of value, dwellings were rented for a few ghurush a month.


Update December 2006

The Beit Mourad Farhi palace also known as Beit Dahdah may have been sold to the famous scupltor Mustafa Ali.

The Raphael El Mouallem complex has been purchased by an architect. He plans to restore it to its past spendor and convert it into a luxury Hotel.

Out of the 24 Farhi residences in old Damascus, one Farhi house has already been "gentrified" and converted into the Talisman Hotel. Its web site is http://talismanhotels.com .


Update October 2011

The Raphael El Mouallem complex has been purchased from Hakham Roukbi (the architect that started the renovation project) by the Asfari family and new efforts made to document its history. The inauguration of the Hotel is still a year away.

Professor Elizabeth Macaulay Lewis of the City University of New York (CUNY) has taken many photos of the decorations and frescoes on the walls of the "Pink Library" and courtyard (also shown above behind the water tanks in an earlier photo).

Courtward

The French translation of the text is:

Beni sois-tu en arrivant et beni sois-tu en partant
Par cette porte d'Aram Tzoba (Alep) il n'arrivera malheur
ni au veillard, ni au jeune enfant ni au jeune homme, à personne

The English version is

May you be blessed on arrival and blessed be you departing
Through this door to Aram Tzoba (Aleppo) No misfortune will happen to
neither old man nor young child nor young man nor anybody else.


Update October 2012

In light of the current situation in Syria, inauguration of the Hotel is still years away.

The architecture and history of the Beit El Muallem Farhi are the subject of a book named Bayt Farhi and the Forgotten Palaces of Damascus - Minority Architecture in Late Ottoman Syria. At the requestof Professor Macaulay Lewis, the pictures of the frescoes of the Pink Library and their translation have been removed temporarily from this page until the book is formally published in 2016.


Update January 2013

The late Joseph Elia emigrated from Damascus in 1920 and in 2000 drew a map of old Damascus from memory. His daughter, Jacqueline Tawil submitted it this month.

Damascus 1920

Update January 2016

The following map of 2012 shows the famous houses in Old Damacus with their new names shown .

Damascus houses


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