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Beit Jacques in Damascus

Beit Jacques 1

With his stylish white scarf and naturally tanned face, Jacques Montluçon looks more like an aviator from the 30s than a French retired engineer. Based in Damascus half the year, he is the only foreign landlord in the capital’s old city. “After retiring, I came here to take Arabic lessons. But it turns out I never really learned Arabic. Instead, I bought a house.” An old building enthusiast, Jacques wanted to take a look behind the Mamluk-old closed doors to see how a typical Damascene interior was like. He then registered in the only estate agency of the old city where he presented himself as a potential buyer. Only to decide impulsively a few days later to buy the house which would become “Beit Jacques” (Arabic for “Jacques’ house”).

Since then, Jacques has accumulated a fair knowledge of all the nooks and crannies of the old Damascus. He wanders through streets unknown of the flocks of tourists, ignoring the signs which mark out the neighbourhood’s streets for newcomers. Here, he advises to pay a visit to a goat wool workshop. There, he admires old houses built on the Barada River, free flowing at this time of the year. In the Jewish quarter, where Jacques says empty houses to buy are numerous, he advises to have a look at the Syrian artist Mustafa Ali’s workshop, but most of all, never to hesitate knocking on closed doors. This is how Jacques discovered a few architectural gems. Wandering through well restored courtyards with historical fountains and lemon trees became his favourite pastime. “Raw, these weird yellow fruits are inedible but they make really good jam,” explains Jacques. He loses his temper when discussing the growing tourist industry which invades the old city. Teddy bears shops supersede traditional craftsmanship. For Jacques, protecting the Syrian heritage and its artistry has become a full-time hobby. He evasively mentions that he is involved in archeological sites held by the UNESCO in Jbeil (Lebanon) and in north-east Syria. “I have never worked so much in my life than since I have retired,” he jokes.

Engraved on one of those typical century thick walls, in Arabic, is Beit Jacques. The setting behind the heavy door is worthy of a museum. A turtle dozes on the old stones which pave the floor. Upstairs, the light pours in the kitchen which has two glass walls: on one side, you can see the courtyard. On the other, Damascus’s rooftops. A terrace overlooks the whole city. On the foreground stands the Umayyad mosque. Although the original house was already a rare find, Jacques faced a few surprises when he started the restoration. In the reception room (iwan), the wooden panels which cover the walls turned out to be authentic paintings from the end of the 18th century, representing mythological creatures and poetic fairy tales. “It was made in 1789, the year of the French revolution,” says Jacques. “It’s a funny coincidence.”

Also, behind the 20th century tiles which covered sections of these walls, Jacques discovered Mamluk engravings, confirming the prestigious past of the building. “This house used to be the outbuilding of the house next door, which most probably belonged to aristocrats. They must have used this one to welcome their guests.” Their neighbour is none other than Mrs Jumblatt, the wife of Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt. Art lover and skilled technician, Jacques has also added his personal touch by building a chimney in the winter living-room and a hamam next to the yard. He also decorated his room with Afghan rugs, covered with highly geopolitical patterns. Among which, a scene representing the World Trade Centre under attack and a portrait of Bush Jr. “I like wiping my feet on his face every morning,” Jacques confesses, smiling.

Beit Jacques 3

The word of mouth made Jacques’ house the most well-known secret in the old city. Film crews and fashion magazine editors keep asking Jacques if they could rent the place. But he never gave in. “I will never rent it. I occasionally lend it to friends, but that’s all.” When Jacques realised he was becoming a tour guide in his own house, because of the numerous visitors coming in everyday, he decided to buy a second one and to make it public. A few streets away in the old city, Dar al Nofara is not only an architectural gem — these ruins of an Umayyad palace were restored at the beginning of the 20th century by the Bedouin prince Trad al-Milhem — but also a cultural centre, dedicated to the conservation of the Syrian culture and craftsmanship.

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