The refined craft of Damascus in Istanbul

By Karim Othman Hassan

No other Arab city has been for so long and so strongly associated with handicraft as Damascus. Even in Byzantine times there may have been a taste for the most refined forms of crafting. But it is the late Mamluk style that was cultivated there until recently in an almost unbroken tradition, and which made this beautiful city famous, in the Arab world at least. Who of us has not held in their hands the wooden pillboxes of Damascus, with their breathtaking inlays? Damascus table

Damascus was particularly renowned for woodwork of every kind but especially for furniture, which was certainly the most sophisticated in terms of craftsmanship and was in what we could refer to as the ‘historical Mamluk style’. The Ottoman home of a well-to-do citizen would rarely lack this furniture and a musical instrument, typically a Damascene oud, often found its way inside as well. The Damascene interior at New York’s Metropolitan Museum suggests a wealthy family in late Ottoman times.

Damascus room METIf one looked inside such an instrument one often read something such as ‘Made by the Brothers Nahat in Damascus’, or ‘Shoukri al Moulki, Product of Syria’.Abdo Nahat label 1917 Instruments by the Nahat brothers were evidently highly sought-after, because over a hundred have survived more than a century almost unscathed in Turkish homes, and in the legacies of formerly wealthy families. It was certainly not uncommon for a Turkish-Ottoman Pasha to order furniture plus oud from the Nahat family. Today the furniture is less significant than the ouds for the fame of Nahats.

All this might give the impression that luthiery, in particular the oud-making of Damascus, was primarily in the hands of furniture makers rather than specialists in musical instruments. But it was not always the case. An exception is provided by the Qudmany brothers, who had settled in and opened a business in Istanbul by 1902, and their older brother Selim, who was an oud virtuoso as well as a luthier. The narrow-shouldered Selim, who appears in photographs looking poorly-clothed so was likely rather impoverished, was very active in the music life of the casinos. We have traced him as follows:

In 1901 he played oud in the famous Haci Sarakum casino.

Then in 1902 he played in the Iskele casino, along with Kemani Memduh, Kanuni Şemsi, Hanende Karakash, Mihran Effendi und Ahmed Bey. In the same year he played in the Ariv casino with Udi Misirli Ibrahim Effendi, Kanuni Abduh and Kemani Şükrü. With the same ensemble (but with Kemani Harun) he played as the Arab-Tukish ‘Ince Saz Ensemble’ in the Haci Sarafeyemin Birahane (alehouse).

In 1903 he played in the Burnu casino with Kemani Bülbüi Salih Efendi, Hanende Ahmed Bey, Mihran Bey und Hafiz Efendi.

In 1909 his activities in the Mösyö Mita casino are documented. In 1910 he played with Misirli Ibrahim, Kanuni Hafiz, Karakas Bey und Agopos Bey in the Göztepesuyu casino. In 1912 he performed regularly with Misirli Ibrahim, Kemenceci Anastas, Kanuni Şemsi, Girnataci Ibrahim, Hanende Üsküdarli Osep, Selanikli Emin and Lavtaci Hacik. The same group also played at the Hasan Bey casino in Cubuklu und in the Iptalogos casino Gazino, that time with Lavtaci Onnik rather than Lavtat Hacik.

Selim’s frequent appearances with the Aleppine Misirli Ibrahim Effendi led to a rumour that they were brothers. This is impossible, as Ibrahim was Jewish, and Selim was a Syrian-Orthodox Christian.

In the same period that Selim was in demand as a musician, his younger brothers Tevfik and Iskender were doing business in their instrument workshop and shop at 18 Maliye Karshisi.Iskender publishedy sheet-music collections of the most significant Ottoman composers, song books, instrumental tutors and so on. He also published a journal called Muntehabat that included scores.

Iskender scores
Scores published by Kutmanyzade Chamli Iskender, including fasıls ed. Ismail Hakki Bey
Iskender Muntehabat score
Muntehabat journal published by Kutmanyzade Chamli Iskender This issue features the Armenian composer Bimen Effendi, later known as Bimen Şen’in.

Alongside scores and tutors produced by some of the music publishers, instruments must have been on sale. Presumably, just as is the case today, one could buy instruments of widely varying quality and price there. The diverse ouds surviving from the brothers’ early business years suggest that they were designing instruments variously for children, women, and men. The children in the article’s featured image are from an orphanage in Erzurum in 1927, while the women below were photographed in 1930; several of these ouds are manifestly in the Kutmanyzade style, and may have been Kutmanyzade instruments.

musical scene from Konya in 1930

Later labels in ouds reveal that around 1912 each of the brothers opened his own business. Nevertheless they seem to have continued to work together, because their two shops were adjacent to one another.

small iskender kutmanyzade oud.jpg

Iskender devoted himself primarily to selling the work of his publishing house. But some smaller ouds by Iskender survive in private collections. This one was made in 1918.

iskender-kutmanyzade-1918.Iskender died in 1960 and was buried in the Kutmanyzade family grave in Istanbul.

Ouds that survive from the hand of Tevfik are more decorative than the early work of the brothers, coming in line with the style of his hometown Damascus. Tevfik (Tawfiq) seems to have moved to Lebanon to pursue his craft at some stage. An instrument made by him in 1940 was produced in Beirut.

Translated from German, and edited by Rachel Beckles Willson. Special thanks to colleague Christian Moser, who gathered together so much material and provided translations of Turkish sources.

 – Türk Musikisi Tarihi, Nazmi Özalp

 – Türk Musikisi Ansiklopedisi, Yilmaz Öztuna

 – 20 Yüzyil Türk Musikisi, Rona Ahmed

 – Yüzyilimizin Başlarında İstanbulun Musiki Hayati, Ruhi Kalender

  – Ud öğrenme Metodu, Kadri Şençalar

  – Geçmişten Günümüze Türk Lütiyeleri, Etem Ruhi Üngör

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