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]