Beit Farhi: jewel of the old city of Damascus

With thanks: Alain Farhi

One of the most powerful Jewish families of the Middle East were the Farhis, who made their mark on Syria in the 18th and 19th centuries. Beit Farhi in the old Jewish quarter of Damascus  is the enduring legacy of  Raphael El Muallem Farhi (1774 – 1846), a banker, tax collector  and adviser to the Ottoman sultanate.

Beit Farhi is the largest of several houses in Damascus belonging to the Farhi family (others included the Mourad house and what is now the Talisman hotel).  It was immortalised by the 19th century British painter Sir Frederic Leighton.

La Cueillette des citrons by Sir Frederic Leighton, set in Beit Farhi’s main courtyard.

Few passers-by would have guessed at the opulence within the unassuming outer walls. In order to conform with the stricture  that dhimmi  Jews and Christians must not show off their wealth and status, casual visitors would encounter a blank wall as they entered and be ushered to the left, into a small and dingy anteroom. However, those trusted  to enter were permitted to turn right, and  would be dazzled by the first of five courtyards with their citrus trees.

The main courtyard today sports a glass roof

Proud owners of the medieval Farhi Bible, the Farhis were well-versed in Judaism and  Beit Farhi housed Raphael’s  exquisite pink library (below), adorned  with Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions.

A Hebrew inscription above the exit doorway wished visitors a safe journey.

Beit Farhi  passed out of the family’s ownership. It was in a state of disrepair before it was bought by a Syrian architect, Hakam Roubki, in 2004. Roubki had it painstakingly restored with a view to turning it into the Palace Hotel. The Syrian government has  padlocked abandoned  homes in the Jewish quarter, protecting their ownership, so much so that Roubki was not allowed to buy an adjoining Jewish property. Roubki bought out the 30 Palestinian squatters occupying Beit Farhi itself, one by one. In 2009 until 2012 Beit Farhi passed into the hands of the Asfari family. 

However, the Syrian civil war broke out before the Palace Hotel could open. The site is assumed not to have sustained any damage in the war – Damascus escaped largely unscathed – except for the collapse of an outer wall due to rain. 

Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis, a US professor, authored an academic book featuring Beit Farhi in 2018. (interview ). The photos were taken by the Macaulay-Lewises in 2012.

Harif Lockdown Lecture,‘The Farhis of Damascus’ by Alain Farhi.

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