French engineer saves Damascus treasures

Thu Jun 17, 2010 8:56am EDT
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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS (Reuters Life!) - When French engineer Jacques Montlucon bought one of the famed, centuries-old courtyard houses of Old Damascus six years ago he had no idea it contained an architectural marvel.

But Montlucon, who has restored artifacts from the Titanic and helped rescue goods from a sunken Napoleonic merchant ship, has a knack for uncovering the unexpected.

"I was removing the heavy varnish covering the wood-paneled walls in the iwan (reception room) when figures of painted strange birds, monsters and castles started to emerge," he said, pointing to the fine drawing between the carved wood.

"The paintings are dated 1789, the year of the French Revolution. But who knows how long it had taken for the news to travel from Paris to Syria," he said.

An imaginary black bird pulls a boat. A man points a rifle from the top of a castle on a sea and monsters fly over the water. The wood ceiling resembles an intricate Persian carpet.

"It's a fairytale, but no one yet has been able to explain it," said Montlucon, who first came to Syria in 1965 in a tiny French car and worked in the Middle East over a 30-year career with Electricite de France.

The small house, which has an elegant fountain and a magnificent rooftop view of the Umayyad mosque, is one of the best kept secrets of Old Damascus. Montlucon believes it dates from the middle of the 18th century.

The once walled city, a United Nations world heritage site, is attracting tourists in increasing numbers as Syria, which has been ruled by the Baath Party since 1963, has relaxed entry restrictions and lifted bans on private enterprise.   Continued...

<p>A section of a ceiling of a courtyard house restored by French engineer Jacques Montlucon in Old Damascus, June 10, 2010. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri</p>