A blue room with decorations clearly inspired by Islamic epigraphy is found in a private house in Palermo. Since its discovery, a carousel of authorities, scholars and onlookers have visited the house, and everyone seems to have something to say. Including myself.
Chapter 1 – discovering a mosque
Summer 2013. A young couple buys a house in the heart of Palermo. More precisely, they buy an apartment in Via Porta di Castro, a long, narrow street, that runs from the Norman Palace to the Ballarò street market, following the path of the ancient stream Kemonia, buried around the 17th century in an underground tunnel.
The couple starts the renovation work. So far so good. But after a violent storm, and the subsequent water infiltration, the walls of a room are quite damaged, and the couple needs to remove the plaster, to check the wall. Beneath the plaster, the wall is deep blue, ultramarine, with some white, decorative, signs.
The young couple decides to remove the upper layer of plaster to check the overall decoration, discovering a room fully painted in ultramarine, with (kind of) inscriptions, in (kind of) Arabic. In the center of one wall, a door/window opens, the direction is towards Mecca. It’s a mosque.
The incredible find is reported. The reactions of Italian authorities are unanimous. An expert in the local history, Gaetano Basile, and an art critic quite famous for his eccentric tv appearances, Vittorio Sgarbi, clearly recognize it as a mosque: a wonderful example of the Arab-Islamic heritage of Sicily and Palermo. The President of the Arab League in Italy, Sekander Fareed Al Khotani, after visiting the room, confirms that it is a mosque: the inscriptions are in some ancient form of Arabic and he can simply recognize a few letters, but he will proceed and compare them with some other artifacts ‘kept in Mecca’, to date it. But as early as September 2013, some doubts start to emerge, quite unheard: Sherif al Sebaie, professor of Arabic Language at the Polytechnic University of Turin, clearly states this cannot be a mosque, and also, this has nothing to do with a Arab-Islamic community living in Palermo.
Anyway, the general opinion agrees: this is a mosque, in the center of Palermo, a long-lost witness of the ancient, Islamic past of the city.
Chapter 2 – a bunch of scholars and a curious girl
In November 2013 the Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art was held in Palermo. I flew there, partly because of the symposium, partly to visit the city, partly to spend a few days with a dearest university friend, who was living there.
‘They said they have discovered a mosque next to my house’, she told me, while munching some fried rice. ‘They said there are inscriptions.’ She knew the address, I knew how to stalk the young couple living next door. The telephone directory helped. The couple told me that the scholars of the symposium had been invited to see the Blue Room, the next day.
If I wanted I could join them.
So, I find myself together with Sheila Blair, Jonathan Bloom, Robert Hillenbrand, Oliver Watson, and Anna Contadini, in the apartment of the couple, eating Sicilian sweets and drinking wine, waiting to see the mosque.
We enter a beautiful, ultramarine-painted, richly decorated room. Lines of white calligraphy running all over the place, tughra-shaped motifs and images resembling Aladdin’s magic lamp.
The opinion was unanimous (and I agreed): no mosque here, it was a beautifully decorated chambre turque. Commissioned most probably by the rich, former owner of the apartment, fascinated by the Orient, in a period, the 19th century, when the West was discovering its taste for the exotic and the Arabian Nights. A sort of Wunderkammer, a Cabinet of Curiosities.
Sorrowfully enough, this visit and its outcome have not raised much attention.
Chapter 3 – three (or four) scholars from Germany
For nearly one year, until late 2014, no news over the room. But after a while, some articles begin to appear, in blogs and online local and national newspapers: three scholars from the Univeristy of Bonn have decided to study the blue room and to decipher its walls.
An article of the Giornale di Sicilia explains quite everything. From what’s written there it seems that two German universities started some research on the Blue Room, specifically on its decorations: the University of Heidelberg and the University of Bonn.
Professor Werner Arnold, from Heidelberg, concludes that the text seems to be a mix of Syriac and Arab letters, without any apparent logical sense.
Chiara Riminucci-Heine, University of Bonn, anyway talks about occultism: the room was a magic one, used by a magician, for his occult practices with a connection to Islamic masonry and esoterism. It seems that the ‘sentence’, repeated all over the place, and the tughra-shaped symbols are indeed magical formulas either in Syriac, or Hebrew: ‘A magic formula in Hebrew or Syriac is much more powerful than an Arabic verse. This would also mean that the owner of the room not only knew the Islamic occultism, but also the Judaic one (and perhaps also the Christian one)’, she explains to the Giornale di Sicilia. This opinion is shared also with Sebastian Heine (University of Bonn) and Sarjun Karam, poet and expert in Arabic.
Apparently, the three of them, wrote a joint paper, with the results of their research.
Epilogue – a curious girl left uninformed
I’ve been fascinated by the Blue Room right from the start, when my fried-rice-munching friend told me about it.
I tried to get in touch with the young couple again, some months ago, to have any news, and they told me they would have sent me some more information. They did not sound convinced, and in fact, I have not received any other communication from them. When confronted with specific questions, their answers were quite vague and reticent, they sounded tight-lipped, but always very kind and willing to help.
I tried to reach Chiara Riminucci-Heine, as well as Sebastian Heine, to have more info on their research, and to know whether they are going to publish something over their findings. In this case, no answer at all.
But the bunch of articles I have, and the information I have been able to gather can be enough to build my own opinion and my own point of view. (in part 2)
A bunch of articles (the list is not complete)
(Please note, the majority of articles on the subject are written in Italian)
‘Palermo, due giovani restaurano una casa e sotto le vernici scoprono una moschea blu’, by Felice Cavallaro, 6th September 2013. [online, last accessed 17/11/2016]
‘A Palermo un ‘blu’ non arabo’, by Maria Chiara Strappaveccia, in L’Indro, 16th September 2013. [online, last accessed 17/11/2016]
‘Palermo Meraviglia del #Mondo, studiosi rapiti dai decori arabi in casa di un privato “stanza turca”‘, by Salvatore Arena, in #info5stelle, 13th November 2013. [online, last accessed 17/11/2016]
‘Avevano una «moschea» in casa: si rivela il rifugio di un “mago”’, by Felice Cavallaro, in Corriere della Sera Cultura, 16th Oct 2014. [online, last accessed 17/11/2016]
‘Sembrava una moschea: la verità sulla stanza blu di Palermo (gallery)’, in SicilianFan, 17th Oct 2014. [online, last accessed 17/11/2016]
‘Magical find behind the Palermo flock wallpaper’, by Tom Kington, in The Times, 31st October 2014. [online, last accessed 17/11/2016]
‘La Camera delle Meraviglie: era un tempio della Massoneria araba’, by Mirko Lupo, in Giornale di Sicilia, 1st November 2014. [online, last accessed 17/11/2016]
‘Casa araba, Orlando incontra gli studiosi che interpreteranno scritte e decori’, in Giornale di Sicilia, 1st July 2015. [online, last accessed 17/11/2016]
‘The blue chamber of secrets hidden in the heart of Palermo’, in Sicily Uncovered, undated. [online, last accessed 17/11/2016]
‘Il mistero della Stanza Araba di Palermo’, by Samuele Schirò, in PalermoViva, undated. [online, last accessed 17/11/2016]
‘La Stanza Blu di Palermo, esoterica bellezza’, in Italian Ways, undated. [online, last accessed 17/11/2016]
10 Comments Add yours
Hi. I told and wrote immediately – unheard – that this wasn’t a mosque. It couldn’t be: the arabic was not arabic, and I havent’ ever seen any mosque in which the easily recognizable words “Allah” “Mohammed” wouldn’t be repeated. More: any calligraphic play involving the holy Qu’ran would be considered blaspheme. Also, a turkish club of Tugra experts told me “these wold-be-tugras” are meaningless: they should be the calligraphic “sublimation” of the name and titles of a Sultan, while are just nothing”. Obviously my out-of-the-core voice was “spoling the feast”: it had to be a mosque, everybody wanted it to be a mosque, that’s it. You quoted Sekander Fareed Al Khotani, President of the Arab League in Italy (I believe that “President of the Islamic Council of Italy” is more appropriate) , confirmed it as being a mosque, but “he could simply recognize a few letters… would proceed and compare them with some other artifacts ‘kept in Mecca’. More precisely, if remember correctly, he said that he couldn’t translate the scripts, and he would compare the letters with some ancient samples kept in Mecca. Now, we know that there aren’t so many types calligraphies in Arabic; and, we know that the Qu’ran must has always been written in one of them; and we know that a President of an Islami Council must be able to read Qu’ran in any type of arabic calligraphy… Everithing seems boiling down to a corteous attempt, from the arabic guest, of not looking unpolite to his hosts by telling the truth. All this said, I have to say that I have since the beginning that the room was just a “Turkish room”, or in the Turkish style. In the late 18th and the early 19th century the fashion for chinese-looking style, and in a lessen way of turkish style, spread around in Italy. In northern italy there is a Villa in which there are two rooms, one “chinese style” and one “turkish stile”. In the same Palermo there is a unique examole of chinese-style royal villa, the “casina cinese” decorated with false ideograms.
Now, that the much advertised “blue mosque of Palermo” came out – at last – to be not such, the blue room became something related to magics, to with islamic masonry, and so on. The same way the balcony orientation was a “prove that the room was a mosque” now the number 7 which seems recurrent and the “syro-arabic letters” would prove the new version of “what the room is”.
Well, if this is true, welcome. Why not. But, after all these “certainties confirmed by illustrious persons” which have collapsed, my question is: do we have something solid and confirmed in writing by real experts?
Should you come up with something – in one direction or the other, would you please let me know?
Thanks and regards
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I apologize for some typing mistake.
Hi Carlo, thank you for your comment! I totally agree with you: it cannot be a mosque, and to my knowledge, nothing is written on the walls of the Blue Room. The signs are just decoration. And the tughras, look like to be simply copies of tughras.
I also agree with the fact that Al-Khotani could have said what he said out of politeness. I know that when the story of the blue room came out a few people, you among them, spoke about the room as an Orientalist product, and not related to an Arabic past of Sicily in a strict sense. Unfortunately, that interpretation was not attractive enough for the public (and for the owners).
It is a fact that now many things have changed, at least in the studies that have been carried out, but the results are similar.
The owners of the room have decided to open it to the public (something absolutely admirable, as such), but I doubt the information provided to the visitors is accurate. Two scholars of the University of Bonn have studied the room and came out with a challenging interpretation, that sees the room as being connected with occultism and magic, not better identified. The explanation they provide, as far as I can see, lacks solid bases and us more based on assumptions than on facts. All this published in a short book. I tried to contact them to have some more detail on some parts of their studies, I sent them some questions via email, but they have not replied yet.
Together with the two articles I wrote after this one (part 2 – https://goo.gl/BiXBhD- and part 3 -https://goo.gl/Uy1GGP-), I also wrote a review of the recently-published book (https://goo.gl/wVHBwL). I also wrote an article about it in Italian, for the online magazine Dialoghi Mediterranei: https://goo.gl/H7yYXT. Maybe it is of your interest: there I also propose an interpretation of the room that I think is more accurate, and takes into account the social and cultural context of the room. It is the same interpretation I have already discussed in the several articles I have written about in this blog, condensed in only one article.
Thank you again for your comment, and I’m looking forward to hearing what you think about the other articles.
Thanks for your answer. I’ll read your articles and revert as soon as I surface from a… crucial moment of the thriller I am writing. In fact I write thrillers which take place in Palermo, and the one “in the tube” has esoteric implications that have needed some research… that’s how I stepped in to your interesting article, perfectly synchronized with my opinion. I would like to add two little details, which could be interesting or meaningless, to your consideration: 1) both the components of the couple work are journalists in the same Giornale di Sicilia which was so vocal with the scoop; 2) the early pictures, released immediately after the discovers, show doors in perfect conditions. They are obviously either restored or brand new; in both cases, it appears that the discovery had been made some time before the news was “launched”.
I repeat: I don’t know if these could be considered of value to understand the dynamic of the facts; however, if one looks at the whole story, what comes immediately in mind is that there has been, since beginning, a clear “desire of scoop” which has interfered with a scientific approach, feeding to the public wishful thinking as “facts”. And at this point, considering also the lack of feedback to your inquiries, one should wonder if the “magic version” is the final and correct one.
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for sure the fact that the owners are journalists helped a lot the spreading of the news. On the one hand, it also helped the spreading of not-so-detailed conclusions on the room. Then, the fact that the room has been publicized as such is very welcome, and helped the room to be known and studied in the first place. On the other hand, this publicity also backfired, and now we are struggling with inaccurate and sensationalistic interpretations.
I also noticed that the doors had already been restored at the time the first photos appeared: in the last book it is quite clear that, nonetheless, the doors originally displayed an ornament similar to thar of the walls (via an x-ray analysis).
I do not believe at all that the “magic version” is the final and correct analysis of the room.
In any case, should you need any further info on the room, I have plenty of material and notes about it discussed in the articles I shared with you (in particular the analysis of the “writing”). Should you need any further detail, feel free to drop me an email: email@example.com.
Thanks a lot! For the time being, I am contented with having met a person with whose conclusions I agree. Presently I am writing a thriller with a strong exoteric scent set in Palermo (yes, I am a writer) that’s why the news of the “new theory” about this turkish style room, labeled as “magic” “masonic” etc, caught my attention. By the way, let me provide an info which might be of some use, now or in future. The fact that the tugra-like sign on the wall was not a tugra at all, was confirmed by a team of experts from Turkey, whose address and answer are herebelow:
I viewed the picture. it is not nor a sultan tugra neither a tugra. it is only a tugra like figure and impossible to give a meaning. we encounter so samples very often
—– Orijinal Mesaj —–
Gönderilenler: Mon, 09 Sep 2013 06:34:03 -0700 (MST)
Konu: Info request
Good morning. My name is Carlo Barbieri, I am an Italian writer. Very recently, during some restructuring works in an old private house in the historical centre of Palermo (Sicily), islamic frescoes were revealed, leading to the belief that the house had been used, between the 18th and the 19th century, as a private mosque. It was a period in which the relations with the Islamic world was not exactly friendly, so the finding is quite interesting. On a wall I noted something reminding me a tugra, and I wonder 1) if it is really a tugra, and 2) if it is, if it can help determine the date (if it is a Sultan’s tugra, probably it would).Can you help?Thanks Regards Carlo Barbieri