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Arab Eclecticism - Foundation and evolution of an Architectural School in the city of As-Salt (1860-1925)

Date of Submission: 02/04/2015
Criteria: (ii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of Jordan
State, Province or Region:
Governorate of Balqa’
Coordinates: N354799884 E75747962
Ref.: 6012
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At the turn of the last quarter of XIX century, the city of As-Salt, at that time ruled by the Ottoman Empire, witnessed the development of an architectural movement – or school. This school was the result of the pioneering work of a ‘stone master’ (mu'allim in Arabic) who had migrated to As-Salt from the nearby city of Nablus, which was capital city of the same district. Upon his arrival in As-Salt, Abdel-Rahman 'Aqruq worked under the supervision of a French missionary and architect, Father Jean Moretain, who designed and directed the construction of the Latin Mission of Salt (1869-70). Later on Mu'allim 'Aqruq started designing and building houses for the new bourgeoisie of Salt and became the leading personality of a group of builders, stonecutters and craftsmen, who gathered around his charismatic character. The architectural creations that derived from this school (1869-1921) shaped the new identity of what became, in less than fifty years, the first capital of the new-born Jordanian nation (1921). During this time, also known as “Salt Golden Age”, people belonging to different tribes, religions and cultures mingled and socialized in a newly created urban space. Since his first creation in As-Salt, the Sukkar House (1879-84), Abdel-Rahman 'Aqruq based his original approach on the solid know-how of the Arab craftsman, forging a new architectural language derived from the Middle-Eastern tradition; rejecting historicism, and paving the ground to the birth of an original ‘school of architecture’. A Neo-gothic/Neo-classic lexicon rich in ornamental details characterizes this school, making it belonging to the new language of Eclecticism spreading rapidly in the towns of the Ottoman Empire. Main reference and source of inspiration are to be found in Nablus and other capital cities of Late Ottoman Empire such as Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo and, of course, Istanbul. Mu'allim 'Aqruq and his followers absorbed this lexicon giving birth to a new original style. Localized in As-Salt, and carved in the Salti yellow limestone, this original architecture joined traditional and modern elements. This original Arab Eclectic architectural language finds in As-Salt the socio-economic and political conditions allowing its intellectual and practical flourishing and development. Istanbul, Damascus, Jerusalem and Cairo being a trajectory upon which the city of As-Salt, in that historical period, not only lied but prospered, becoming, as a result of political peace and economic growth within the Ottoman Empire, the container of and the fertile soil for a unique and original Arab architectural development in modern times.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Each and every one of the architectural productions identified and described in this dossier are the existing testimony of an original ‘Eclectic Arab Architectural Style’ generated in the last quarter of XIX century, melting together the main characters of tradition and modernity, and originating a specific language which has in the city of As-Salt the place of its creation, development and concentrated production.

The outstanding universal value of this Arab Eclectic Movement in the History of Art and Architecture lies on its recognizable character, relatively unique within its geo-political and cultural context, and in its ability to transmit the significance of peaceful coexistence – Muslim and Christian communities living together to present - in the flourishing of socio-economic relations and cultural footprints.

The association of intangible heritage values to these buildings and the townscape that contains them plays an important role in the readability of the historic fabric of As-Salt. The representative buildings chosen in the dossier display the living component of this heritage, e.g. the establishment of an arts and crafts school and the continuity of a traditional know-how, the association of practices and traditions that survived to date, and the continuous harmonious atmosphere of coexistence that characterized As-Salt from the early stages of the Jordanian nation to present times.

Criterion (ii): The Eclectic architectural school of As-Salt exhibits an important interchange of human values, being the result of a hybridization of architectural languages and styles (a Neo-classic lexicon) assimilated in other cities of the Ottoman Empire, and reinterpreted in a local key: the School of Salt, which shaped the townscape with its “Golden Stone Architecture”.

Criterion (iv): The selection of buildings nominated is an outstanding example of a type of building and architectural ensemble that illustrates the relations between the centre and the periphery of the Ottoman Empire in the second half of XIX century, as well as contributes to the creation of modern Jordan.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The conditions of authenticity are truthfully and credibly expressed through a variety of attributes, e.g. the form and original design of the buildings and architectural ensembles; the use of homogeneous material, the yellow limestone of As-Salt quarries that is at the core of the ornamental elements of this architectural heritage due to its workability; the relations between the Arab tradition of stonecutters and a new language that emerged in the XIX century in Europe, which passed through Istanbul and reached the southern districts of the Ottoman Empire; and the recognizable unique character of this architectural heritage which found its favourable location in As-Salt. The emphasis of material is stone because that is what was mostly available. Wooden elements do exist but are much scarcer and mainly found in the big houses.

The architecture also exploits the terrain and grottos and caves, as well as rock-faced rooms are part of the architecture. The selected buildings representing this architectural heritage display a complete representation of the features and processes that convey the property’s significance and therefore express integrity towards their outstanding universal value. On-going architectural conservation according to international standards aims at bringing back its original splendour to these buildings. The selected buildings are included within As-Salt Old City, which hugs the terrain as originally planned, and maintains most of the original historic fabric including public spaces and streets.

Comparison with other similar properties

The School of Architecture of Salt was influenced by Eclectic movements elsewhere, especially in Europe, but it can be said that it is very different from the rest. The language is that of an emerging Arab nation, eager to show the world that it is different though influenced by others. The founders of Salt wanted a language that distinguishes them from others and these differences can be found in minor architectural features. The architecture is a modest one, with little if any monumentality in it, even in the religious buildings. It reflects a very close Arab society, one that is respectful of different religions living side by side and not in isolated quarters. The architectural language also reflects the primary materials found in the area and in particular the very special yellow stone. In the light of the above, this regional Eclecticism is compared with European Eclectic movements, such as, among others, Art Nouveau in Belgium and France, Viennese Secession in Austria, Jugendstil in Germany, Modernist Art in the United Kingdom, Modernismo in Spain, and Liberty in Italy.

A thorough comparative analysis is being devised: Comparison with other World Heritage properties such as “Major Town Houses of the Architect Victor Horta (Brussels)”, Belgium, “Le Havre, the city rebuilt by Auguste Perret”, France, and the “Urban Historic Centre of Cienfuegos”, Cuba, highlights the potential outstanding universal value of the Architectural School of Salt and its architectural products. Comparison with architectural heritage from the region, not necessarily inscribed on the World Heritage List, is also being carried out. Preliminary studies address architectural creations of XIX century in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.