In Damascus, Restoring Beit Farhi and the City’s Jewish Past

An architect works to restore the grand palace of Raphael Farhi, one of the most powerful men in the Ottoman world

Located off Al-Amin Street in the old Jewish Quarter, Beit Farhi is the real power center in Old Damascus. (Tim Beddow)

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Cameo, who like many Sephardic Jews – including the Farhis – has roots in Moorish Spain, grew up in a house just a few blocks away. He remembers his parents telling him stories about the Farhis and the great palace and how its library was open to any Jew who wanted to read from its many volumes. Cameo’s recollections and those of his contemporaries have helped Roukbti in his restoration.

There are also written accounts from 19th-century visitors like Lady Hester Stanhope, the famous traveler and Orientalist, who described the palace’s five inner courtyards, opulent gilded walls and gold-studded coffee cups. John Wilson, a noted biblical scholar of his day, wrote of the palace as “a little like a village … [with] sixty or seventy souls. The roof and walls of the rooms around the court are gorgeous to a high degree.” Wilson wrote of the Farhi’s grand hospitality and he detailed the palace libraries, both the public one and Raphael’s private book collection, in admiring detail.

For the purposes of restoration, however, these accounts lacked depth. Roukbti and Dijksma had only one visual source that depicted Beit Farhi at its apex: an 1873 rendering of the palace’s main courtyard by the classicist painter Sir Frederick Leighton. Titled Gathering Citrons, it portrays a woman in lavish robes looking on as an attendant drops fruit plucked from an orange tree into the outstretched hem of a young girl’s skirt. The stone columns are painted in alternating stripes of apricot and blue and the arches are enameled with intricate ceramic designs.

It is a charming tableau – and a far cry from Beit Farhi’s condition when Roukbti bought it in 2004. (A successful Paris-based architect, Roukbti financed the purchase with the help of several partners.) Like so much of the largely evacuated Jewish quarter, the palace was a nesting place for squatters. More than a dozen families, mostly Palestinian refugees, were living in each of its many rooms and it took Roukbti six months to buy them out under Syrian law. The main reception hall, which the Farhis used as their personal synagogue, had been ransacked and burned by looters decades earlier. Even the fountain had been dug up and carried away. It took another six months to clear the debris and crumbled stone from years of neglect and plundering before the real work could begin.

Whenever possible, Roukbti and Dijksma drew from indigenous sources to complete their work. The stones were quarried locally, though some of the marble was imported from Turkey and Italy. The pigmentation powder used in recreating Beit Farhi’s iconic ochers and azures was obtained from nearby shops. They recruited dozens of young artisans to repair or recreate from scratch the elaborately carved wood ceilings, marble floors and delicate frescoes. “It was difficult to find them,” says Roukbti, who has an artist’s easy manner and a thick head of grizzled black hair. “And even then, I had to be on top of them all the time. But now they are highly skilled. This has been like a finishing school.”

The work site has the quality and feel of an archaeological dig. The foundation of Beit Farhi begins with a layer of roughly hewn stones cut during the Aramaic period beneath far more precise masonry typical of Roman construction. The area was occupied by modest dwellings of black stone before the Farhis arrived in 1670 from the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, where they lived for two centuries after King Ferdinand expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492.

“They came with money,” says Roukbti. “And they came with powerful connections with Ottoman authorities.”

It was the dawn of a powerful Syrian dynasty that lasted some 200 years. During Napoleon Bonaparte’s advance on Palestine in 1799, Haim Farhi is credited by Jewish historians for having rallied the Jews of Acre in a successful resistance. An ambitious pasha had him killed in 1824, however, and a reprisal attack led by Raphael ended in failure with the loss of his brother, Solomon.

Despite Haim’s death, the Farhis would enjoy unrivaled wealth and power over the next two decades with Raphael as treasurer and vizier to the sultanate. But his fortunes were undone in 1840 by the family’s association with the suspected murder of a Franciscan monk. Several of Damascus’ most prominent Jews were arrested in the matter, including a Farhi family member, and it took intercessions from high-ranking diplomats and officials – all the way up to Mohammed Ali, the rogue Ottoman ruler of Egypt and the Levant - to clear them of wrongdoing. The affair was a mortal disgrace for the Farhis, however, and they scattered themselves about the capitals of the world.

At the very least, Roukbti hopes the rebirth of Beit Farhi will redeem Syria’s Jewish heritage - if not the Farhis themselves. Already, according to Cameo, two groups of Jews from abroad have visited the site and he is eager to host more. “This house has suffered so much,” he says. “Its return is very important, not just for Syria’s Jews but for all Syrians.”


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