Hospital (Bimaristan) Nur al-Din
In the Suq al-Hamidiyyeh area, south of the Great Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria
Hegira 549 / AD 1154
Abu al-Fadl al-Harithi (known as al-Muhandis, “the Geometer”).
Nur al-Din Mahmud bin Zangi (r. AH 541–69 / AD 1146–74).
The Bimaristan Nur al-Din, a hospital dating from the AH 6th / AD 12th century, is one of the most famous buildings in Damascus. At the time of its construction, it was considered remarkably new and refined, a sentiment recorded by the memoirs of the Valencian voyager from al-Andalus, Ibn Jubayr. It functioned as a therapeutic refuge for the sick as well as a medical school for aspiring physicians. The Mamluk Sultan Qalawun is said to have been saved from a lethal illness at this bimaristan – an experience which inspired him to build his famous institution in Cairo, The Complex of Sultan Qalawun. The Bimaristan Nur al-Din currently functions as a Museum of Arabic Medicine and Science. Located in a side road off the Suq al-Hamidiyyeh, it is easily discernable by its Mesopotamian-style red brick muqarnas dome rhythmically dotted with bulbs of dark glass. It is also famous for the eclecticism of its entrance façade, the woodcarving of its door, and the perfect balance of its axial symmetric four-iwan plan.
The entrance block to the Bimaristan Nur al-Din protrudes at a right-angle to the building and it is accentuated by a portal featuring an unusually tall and shallow muqarnas façade, including a row of lobed arches at its base, and resting on top of a classically styled lintel. The door is an important example of fine wood carving and inlaid wood of the period. The identity of the door's designer is recorded in history as Abu al-Fadl Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Karim al-Harithi, known as al-Muhandis, or “the Geometer”. As both a medical doctor at the bimaristan and a creative craftsman of its gate, Abu al-Fadl demonstrates the multiplicity of expertise that scholars of this period usually enjoyed.
The entrance leads into a square vestibule capped with a brick muqarnas dome; the adaptation of the muqarnas to the medium of stone was yet to take place in history. Once inside, the overhead muqarnas is a mesmerising vision of gradually receding cells pierced by beams of light.
Passage through the vestibule leads to the grand rectangular courtyard and its central square basin with bracketed inner corners. Surrounding the courtyard are four arch-vaulted iwans: the west iwan which leads to the entrance, the south and north iwans on either side of the courtyard, and the main, east iwan which is larger than the others and faces the entrance. This main iwan represents the grand hall of the bimaristan, a place where students attended lectures by renowned physicians and had access to medical manuscripts for study. A marble dado rail with a naskhi inscription quotes passages from the Qur'an pertaining to medicine and healing. This serves as an allegory to the building's function as well as a holy blessing.
Overlooking the southwest corner of the courtyard is an original arched window of perforated stucco, comprising a grid of octagonal stars with interlacing floral scrolls.
A charming survival of a medieval Syrian hospital, the bimaristan was built by Nur al-Din Mahmud bin Zangi in AH 549 / AD 1154. It had a strong architectural and institutional impact, inspiring the construction of Bimaristan al-Qaymari, also in Damascus, and the Sultan Qalawun complex in Cairo. The undulating muqarnas and classical-style lintel that accentuate its facade, the red-brick muqarnas dome and the perfect axial symmetry of the interior iwans around the courtyard, are examples of local adaptations to Eastern influences brought in by Nur al-Din. This bimaristan was a renowned medical centre in its timel.
The monument is dated by the foundation text which is inscribed in four lineson a horseshoe-shaped marble sacramental table that is embedded in the eastern iwan.
Allen, T., “Ayyubid Architecture”, Occidental (electronic publication 7th edition), 2003.
Bogard, F., Composition et decors dans l'Architecture Damascaine aux XII et XIII siecles: La Formation d'une Esthetique dans la Damas Medievale, PhD thesis, University de Provence, Aix-Marseille I, 2004.
Herzfeld, E., “Damascus: Studies in Architecture”, Part I, Ars Islamica, Vol. IX, 1942, pp.2–11
Tabbaa, Y., "The Muqarnas Dome: its origin and meaning" Muqarnas, 3,Leiden, 1985, pp.61–76.
Sakhnini, Z., Mathaf al-Tib wa al-'Ulum 'ind al-Arab: Bimaristan Nur al-Din [The Museum of Medicine and Science of the Arabs: Bimaristan Nur al-Din], Damascus, 1997, pp.31–53.
Ibn Jubayr (d. 614 / 1217), Rihlat Ibn Jubayr [The Voyage of Ibn Jubayr], Beirut, 1999, p.241.
Abd al-Razzaq Moaz, Zena Takieddine "Hospital (Bimaristan) Nur al-Din" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2017. 2017. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;sy;Mon01;15;en
Prepared by: Abd Al-Razzaq MoazAbd al-Razzaq Moaz
Abd al-Razzaq Moaz is Deputy Minister of Culture, in charge of Cultural Heritage and Head of EU projects, at the Ministry of Culture, Syria. He was born in Damascus in 1962. He received his BA in History at the University of Damascus in 1985, a DEA in Archaeology from the University of Provence, Aix-en-Provence in 1987, and his Doctorate in Archaeology from the same university in 1991. He was a Scholar at the Institut Francais d'Etudes Arabes de Damas, Damascus, 1991–3 and was a Visiting Scholar at the Aga Khan Progam for Islamic Architecture, Harvard University and MIT, USA in 1993/4, at Granada University, Spain in 1994, at Harvard University (Fulbright Scholar) in 1995 and at Harvard University Urban Planning Department in 1996. He was a lecturer at Damascus University, 1997–9 and Visiting Professor, Harvard University in spring 1999. He was Director General of Antiquities and Museums, Syria, from 2000 to 2002. He speaks Arabic, French and English., Zena TakieddineZena Takieddine
Zena Takieddine is a researcher of Arab history and Islamic art. She received her BA in history (with distinction) from the American University of Beirut, and her MA in art and archaeology (with distinction) from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She has a diploma in art and antique connoisseurship from Sotheby's, London. Her fields of interest include pre-Islamic Arabian epigraphy and the development of the Arabic script, early Islamic art and architecture, Arab miniature painting, the study of intercultural influences between Islamic civilisation and the Christian West during the medieval period, and post-colonial methodology in the study of history and identity.
Copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: SY 19
Islamic Dynasties / Period
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