Traveling the Roads to Damascus

The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus

They say that Damascus is built on 7 layers. Nowhere is that more perfectly expressed than in the Umayyad Mosque located in the heart of Damascus, which according to UNESCO is the world’s oldest continually inhabited city.  Built between 705 and 715 AD the mosque sits on the ruins of a Christian Basilica, which rests on a 1st century CE Roman temple to Jupiter and before that an Aramaean temple to the god of thunderstorm and rain.  The mosque embraces its layered history and religions with a shrine inside containing the head of John the Baptist, a figure revered by Christians and Muslims alike. Syrian-born cellist and composer Kinan Abou-afach sees parallels between this layered history and the sounds of old Damascus where you can hear the call to prayer from mosques in between the church bells. “It may be one of the first examples of polyphony,” he remarks. In archaeological terms those layers date back to the 3rd millennium when the Aramaeans designated it the capital of their kingdom. 

Shrine to John the Baptist
inside the Umayyad Mosque


In a collaboration commissioned by Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, Kinan Abou-afach and visual artist Kevork Mourad are drawing upon the rich history of Damascus and their own memories of the city to create “Roads to Damascus,” an experimental work incorporating sound and image. The work will have its premiere in Philadelphia on February 23, 2013.

Kinan Abou-afach is a cellist and composer who received his master’s degree in cello performance after earning his bachelor’s in cello performance with a minor in oud performance from the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus. As a soloist and chamber musician Abou-afach has performed in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, France, Germany and Japan.  Kevork Mourad, a visual artist of Armenian heritage was born in Syria. Shortly after receiving his MFA from the Yerevan Institute of Fine Arts in Armenia Mourad moved to the United States and developed his technique of spontaneous painting, in which he shares the stage with musicians, creating his art in real time in counterpoint to the music.

This collaboration springs from a familiarity with each other’s work and a shared interest in Damascus, particularly in the context of the current conflict engulfing Syria. These two artists are seeking to capture significant moments in the city’s history that is steeped in mythology, religion, and culture. 


“Roads to Damascus” is comprised of 7 parts moving chronologically through the history of Damascus, which is a play on those 7 layers of history, religion, and culture, and the 7 gates to the old city of Damascus. The first piece entitled, bidayat (“beginnings” in Arabic) shows the first moments of Damascus. 


Once the artists agreed on a conceptual foundation and framework for the work, they worked independently on their interpretation of it. In 7 experimental pieces that have their origins in Arabic music, Abou-afach attempts to recreate the warm and friendly atmosphere that the city represents in his memories.


Sad Morning, Every Morning, 2012 by Kevork Mourad

Meanwhile Mourad has been working on a visual depiction of the narrative. In addition to featuring some pre-made animations, Mourad will be drawing spontaneously on paper with a camera overhead projecting his images on a large screen as the musicians perform. This is a technique that Mourad uses to explore a variety of subject matters. He notes that as a lover of many genres of music, “it was natural for me to find an expression that married my interest in rhythm with my use of line.” He combines this technique with a great deal of preparation. “Though the story is laid out in advance, there is an aspect of improv in the way the musician and I respond to each other, each building off the other’s impulses.” This intersection of music and art is something that Abou-afach also references in his work. “As I write music I always have a story or an image from my memory in mind.” Their connection to each other’s medium and shared conception and affection for the city of 7 layers makes this a compelling collaboration.


The concert takes place on February 23, 2013, 8pm at the Trinity Center for Urban Life. Purchase your tickets here.

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