Karen Dabrowska

The Middle East Online...

Originally published: 29th May 2019

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The Architecture of the Veil: an archive of old Damascus

By Karen Dabrowska

Augustus Lersten’s new video on Damascene houses creates a penetrating flash of insight into a rich cultural heritage threatened by sectarian war, before further devastation is wrought in the city. “Mortar shells landed not far from some of the filming sites, during the course of filming,” Lersten recalled. A former British Royal Marine with a Masters degree from Oxford in Islamic Art and Archaeology, Lersten decided to make the video after coming into contact with a number of talented amateur Syrian filmmakers while he was living in Istanbul in 2017.

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“They were determined to capture elements of the tangible and intangible elements of Syrian culture and heritage,” Lersten said. “The context of the Syrian conflict in 2017 had, following atrocities in major cities and in areas such as Palmyra, led to a number of dialogues connected to the necessity to document.”

Lersten had a meeting with Jeremy Johns his former professor of the Art and Archaeology of the Islamic Mediterranean at Oxford University to discuss the opportunity of working alongside Syrian filmmakers in Damascus. Johns suggested he contacted the Barakat Trust, a UK charity that promotes the study and preservation of Islamic art, heritage, architecture and culture.

In 2018, following a fund raising event at the British Museum, the trust was able to secure funding for the documentary.

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“I wanted to provide local and talented filmmakers and artists inside Syria with the opportunity to tell their story of Damascene houses. The aim of the video is, through telling the story of the houses and their associated cultural and architectural components, to protect their memory, promote their beauty and capture at a historical time, a unique architectural and artistic feature of the Arab and Islamic world and preserve it for generations to come.”

The 12 minute video: The Architecture of the Veil – an exploration of the inner spaces and hidden architectural features of the traditional Damascene house, is the result of their collective enterprise. In the introduction we are told that: “walking through the narrow passages of the old city of Damascus, you will see the close-knit houses huddled together. Hidden behind their doors is an architectural masterpiece. A small dark entrance with minimal decoration will gently lead you into the light, into the beautiful residential courtyard, the heart of the house.”

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A journey through the houses follows with descriptions of the fountain (“the sound of running water, sounds like a musician who never tires of his gentle melody”), the ewan (an open space comprised of three walls), the terrace and the furniture, splendidly engraved and decorated with mother of pearl.

There is an interesting description of the building process which starts by digging a trench to establish the foundations of the structure. The stone foundations are around 100cm thick. Then a 4m wall is raised above the ground. Neither cement nor steel is used in the building of authentic Damascene homes. They rely purely on local materials like rocks, wood, mud, bricks and limestone.

Lersten notes how, in the Damascene home, geometric and natural compositions are intertwined in a deliberate manner to create a specific order and poetic flow.

Funds permitting, he is hoping to produce a series of videos about various architectural styles and the cultural heritages of Syria and other Middle Eastern countries which can be made use of by schools and universities.

Augustus Lersten was born in London to Swedish parents. His father was a diplomat and his mother an artist. While at school he developed a fascination with the Arab/Muslim world as a result of studying the translated medieval texts of Arab historians, among them Ibn Jubayr and Ibn al-Athir, on aspects of the Crusades history.

“The study of that period introduced me to the importance of source criticism and the dangers of relying purely on a western set of medieval sources for reconstructing the events of that particular time and conflict”, he said.

Straight out of school in 2007 he took up a junior research post at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. He then completed a BA in history at University College London before moving to Syria to study Arabic. At Oxford University his research in 2012- 2012 focused on the relationship between the Islamic faith, material culture and political administration in the Umayyad Caliphate.

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He was involved in OP SHADER the code name given to the contribution of the United Kingdom in the ongoing military intervention against ISIS. In 2015, and as part of a small team, he deployed to the Middle East where he was involved in working alongside certain Syrian groups in order to support/train them to confront ISIS activity with greater ability. “Following the ISIS assault against the people and cultural heritage of the Syria and Iraq I felt obliged to act, in whatever way I could, in order to play a part, however minor, in stemming the tide.”

Lersten is very excited about a new initiative in the British military, the setting up of a 15 person Cultural Property Protection Unit to help combat the loss of cultural heritage in the Middle East. The creation of the unit is a response, in part, to the desecration of ancient sites in Syria and Iraq.

He is currently working for the UK Stabilisation Unit as a civilian adviser. The unit is a cross-government (Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development) organisation providing expertise in building stability, preventing conflict and meeting security challenges internationally. He spent three months in late 2018 in Oman with the unit. In autumn he will commence a PhD in Classical Archaeology at Birkbeck College, University of London.

The video can be viewed by clicking this link: The Architecture of the Veil