Syrian brothers in Istanbul

By Karim Othman Hassan

Were it not for the label inside stating that it was made in Istanbul, one would assume this instrument was made in Damascus about 100 years ago. This type of oud must have been popular in Istanbul around 1900, because a considerable number of identical instruments appear on Ottoman genre pictures. Fortunately some of them survive today, despite their fragility. This one dates from around 1904 and was made by Tawfiq and Iskander Qudmany (known in Ottoman as Şamli Tevfik and Şamli Iskender Kutmanyzade). They came originally from Damascus, and must have migrated to Istanbul at the beginning of the 20th century, where they had opened a business by 1902.

The string length of 62cm is relatively long for Istanbul. The face, which measures 37cm across at the broadest point, consists of 4 pieces of high-quality, very fined grained Caucasus spruce (Picea orientalis). It is surrounded by a simple strip of walnut wood and has only one sound hole, with a rosette typical for Damascus at the time, made from a combination of walnut and maple. The ornament is not very complex but it is very precise, fluently worked. It reveals a high level of handiwork, which is sustained through many other details of the instrument.

The edge of the sound hole has been bevelled so that no shadow can fall on the rosette. The bridge is made in an style typical of Damascus and Cairo, and there is a pickguard made of dark rosewood (Dalbergia species).

This and many other instruments made in the Syrian oud-making tradition have a particular quality to their shell. In order that the right arm can curve comfortably around the end of the instrument, the shell is rounded off towards the face. This detail is a sign of highly distinguished oud making, as every rib must be bent to a different form. The walnut and maple used for the shell of the instrument has been made very thin, in places as little as 1mm, which makes the whole extremely light. Both the upper and lower blocks inside have been hollowed out as well, which was standard for almost all good ouds. A stable connection between the neck and the upper block has been ensured by a dovetail join rather than the usual dowel of Damascus instruments.

The inside – including the bracing – is as carefully crafted as the visible exterior. Thus the paper strips holding together the 15 ribs of the inside are glued precisely over the joins.

The neck consists of light spruce, covered with a thin veneer of walnut up to the fingerboard. The latter is a thick strip of walnut, which extends ornamentally onto the face.

The pegbox, which is made very thin, has suffered a little bending from the tension of the strings. The 11 pegs are not original.

Despite its considerable size the instrument weighs only around 700g. Many instruments of similar dimensions known to the author are even lighter. This is presumably one reason for their brilliant and ethereal tone.
This article was translated from the German by Rachel Beckles Willson.

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