By Karim Othman Hassan
This Damascus-made oud is without doubt the most impressive and – to the best of our knowledge – the oldest surviving instrument made by the Nahat family. Until recently it was assumed that the brothers Rufan and Abdou Nahat (Ikhwan Nahat) founded the first Nahat carpentry workshop in 1880. It is not yet clear whether Yousif Nahat, the maker of this oud, was a relative and predecessor of the famous brothers.
In terms of its external form and geometry, the instrument is not significantly different from later ouds made by the brothers. However, the maple, walnut and mahogany filaments ornamenting the instrument are original and astonishingly virtuosic. The filament unit has been subtly and precisely assembled from a range of angular cuts, which bespeaks carpentry of great refinement, especially given that such work was done entirely by hand at the time.
The lavish body of the oud seems to be built entirely from filaments, but these were in fact assembled around a another shell, which can be seen through cracks, and which is constructed from 17 ribs. Along the centre of each of these were placed two wave-shaped strips of filament structure, reaching from the top to the base. The joint of the ribs at the base is covered with a walnut and bone veneer floral ornament.
It is very difficult to see whether the face is made from more than two parts. Most likely it comprises 4 pieces of spruce glued to one another longitudinally, just as we find in later Damascene ouds. The face is fitted with a decorative edge that binds it to the body; further decorative purfling covers the glued joints and protects the delicate edges.
The centre of the rosette is almost exactly one third along the length of the 63cm-long strings. It is glued to the sound hole from the inside and presents remarkably intricate construction. There are 7 ornaments sawn from bone or horn, and these are held together by radial strips of wood and circular wooden rings, all encircled by another decorative ring. In later ouds such rosettes were made of 2 parts at the most.
The bridge, glued directly onto the face and probably made of walnut, is formed in a way characteristic of Arab ouds of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Ouds of this time were also fitted with a pickguard, positioned to take account of the angle of the pick during playing.
The neck joins the body two thirds along the length of the string, and is probably connected with a dowel to a wooden block inside. Where the face reaches the neck we find a bone ornament similar to the filament join at the base, but this time slightly smaller. It functions on many ouds to mark the end of the neck, and is often referred to as an ‘almond’ (Luza in Arabic). In line with other old Syrian and Egyptian instruments, it is smaller than those of early 20th-century models.
The neck is almost semi-circular and the finger board is inset with filaments of wood. The slightly curved and decorated pegbox houses 12 simple bone pegs laid with ‘eyes’ warding off evil, typical of the region. There are remnants of earlier stringing.
The pickguard reveals that the instrument has been well used, which is at odds with one assumption that might be made, namely that it was primarily an ornamental object. Players tend to prefer instruments built more simply because they often resonate better: elaborate decoration may inhibit the sound.
We hope that future investigation will yield more detail about this extraordinary instrument. It belongs to the Royal College of Music, where a restoration projects is underway. For more about its history click here.
This account was translated from German by Rachel Beckles Willson.