Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House
About this Piece
Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House is a celebration in music, words, and images of 18th-century culture in two fascinating cities. Though separated by 3,000 kilometers, Leipzig and Damascus had a number of characteristics in common. Both lay at the crossroads of ancient commercial routes and became important centers for international trade fairs.
Leipzig lay at the intersection of the Via Regia (the east-west route from Santiago de Compostela to Kiev and Moscow) and the Via Imperii (the north-south route from Rome and Venice to the Baltic Sea). Merchants from many countries converged on the city three times a year, bringing furs, wines, textiles, and books to be sold at trade fairs that were among the most famous in Europe.
Damascus lay at the intersection of the Via Maris, which linked the Mediterranean Sea with Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Far East, and the north-south route from Turkey to Yemen and the Arabian Sea. Important trade fairs were established for the sale of silks, jewels, and coffee from the Levant and the Far East.
Leipzig and Damascus were also both famous centers of scholarship and learning. Leipzig was a vital center for book publishing and the dissemination of ideas. Its university was one of the oldest in Europe, attracting students and scholars of theology, philosophy, and law from all over Germany.
The ancient city of Damascus, which had been conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1516, was a cosmopolitan hub of intellectual activity. Scholars speaking Arabic, Persian, and Greek used the services of the city’s scribes for their treatises on medicine, astronomy, and philosophy.
Leipzig and Damascus had another striking feature in common: they both enjoyed a lively tradition of coffee houses in which the finest musicians of the city performed. The autobiographical writings of Georg Phillip Telemann recount how he began to direct a music club called the Collegium Musicum for the students at Leipzig University in the early years of the 18th century. In 1702, the first public streetlights were installed in the city, making it possible for respectable people to be out after dark. Coffee houses soon became destinations for refreshments, conversation, and entertainment, and the student musicians began to perform at several local establishments.
In 1729, the Collegium Musicum was taken over by Johann Sebastian Bach, who directed weekly concerts for the patrons of Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse. He supplemented the ensemble of student performers with members of his family, visiting virtuosos, and Stadtpfeiffers – elite performers from the town band. The repertoire by Telemann, Handel, and Bach included in the concert is typical of the music performed there.
The public coffee houses of Syria were also venues for famous musicians who performed settings of strophic poems called muwashshahs, instrumental doulabs, and improvised taqsims, forms of classical Arabic music that are the specialty of our guest ensemble, Trio Arabica.
Our performance includes the telling of a story about a destitute migrant, a tale told by Scheherezade in some manuscript collections of the Arabian Nights. It originates as a moral tale in a work now known as the Mirror for Princes by the medieval Islamic philosopher Al-Ghazali. A copy of this work from the collection of an 18th-century Syrian coffee-house storyteller named Ahmad al-Rabbat may be found in the library of the University of Leipzig.
Verses from a poem attributed to Al-Ghazali, who was highly esteemed in Damascus, decorate the exquisite room that has inspired our theatrical set piece. It is a room with exuberant Islamic designs and baroque European influences, which was brought from Damascus to the Ethnological Museum in Dresden in 1899.
In its original setting, this room would have been a place for relaxation, for business, and for cross-cultural encounters over coffee. The dividing lines between the ancient communities of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, who had been part of the fabric of Damascus for centuries, were blurred, and the beautiful calligraphy around the room, which avoids overtly religious content, betrays a desire to make visitors from other traditions feel welcome in the house.
In the present time, when so many Syrians are making new homes in Germany, the people of Leipzig and newcomers from Damascus are seeking similarly creative ways to accommodate and enrich each other’s cultures in their new and challenging reality. In the process of restoring the Damascus Room in nearby Dresden, young Syrian scholars are being trained by German mentors in the restoration of the historical interiors of their homeland. It is their and our dream that they will one day be able to practice their art and enjoy coffee and music in a peaceful Damascus.