America, Protector of Beauty: In Praise of the Syria-Lebanon Room

The Syria-Lebanon Room in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning (Maryann Sivak/Nationality Rooms & Intercultural Exchange Program)
A bit of magnificent Middle Eastern culture is preserved in the Cathedral of Learning, a rose among thistles at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Cathedral of Learning, located on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus, is a neo-Gothic gateway to the pedagogical cosmos. Endearingly referred to as “Cathy” by students, the building is a rose among the University’s brutalist thorns; the husking blandness of Posvar Hall and Hillman Library is far enough away so as not to intrude on the relative panache of the Cathedral, which has been a sanctuary for students for almost a century, myself included. While students and faculty roam most of the 42 floors of the Babel-like skyscraper, the building is a reliquary of nationality-themed classrooms, located on the first three floors, that attract thousands of visitors every year.

The Nationality Rooms are a collection of about 30 rooms designed after traditional classrooms or living areas of each respective nation. Until my graduation from the University of Pittsburgh in April 2018, each room was an opportunity for me to briefly teleport from Pittsburgh to a foreign place, often centuries back, when I wanted more of a spectacle to accompany my studying, rather than the monotony of a coffee shop or the lack of privacy and aesthetic inspiration in the streamlined, open floor plan of the university library.

The Ionic, marble columns and coffered ceiling in the Greek classroom neighbor Beijing’s Forbidden City–inspired Chinese classroom, with a writhing, golden imperial dragon in the center of the ceiling and two stone lions guarding the red-lacquered entrance door. A brief walk away is the French room, exuding the glory of the French Empire’s apex with its upholstered royal blue, mahogany student armchairs, and crystal chandeliers influenced by the Palace of Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors.

The Nationality Rooms are luxurious and one of a kind; Maxine Bruhns, the director of the program for 54 years, tells National Review that there isn’t anything like it anywhere else in the world.

My favorite room was the sumptuous, forbidden fruit, located on the first floor, only to be looked at but not touched: the Syria-Lebanon room.

My first encounter with the Syria-Lebanon room was as a high-school junior touring Pitt’s campus with my mother before officially applying. The hallway was dark, framing the gilded room that was protected by a glass-paneled French-style door, as though it were a precious but unexplorable relic. It was like standing too close to Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings, with the heavy impasto whorls created with oil that could cripple with the human touch after over a century lapsed, owing to their fragility, but that overwhelms you with its seductive delicacy and color, raised just enough off the painting that it teases you with its allure. (I’ve actually read in an anonymous blog post that touching a Monet is like touching a smooth-pebbled plaster wall — for anyone who was curious but doesn’t want to risk putting a museum on lockdown by attempting to touch one.)

I peered into the room that was ensconced in this colossal European-inspired structure, and although the oil from my fingers and the weight of my body could’ve been enough to tarnish the materials, which were mostly originals from an 18th-century Damascan home, there was a sense of relief and gratitude in this preservationist treatment, despite my temptation to sit on the satin-shrouded sofas and experience more intimately the artistry of my Syrian ancestors.

I’m reminded of the Syria-Lebanon room in the Cathedral of Learning with the news spreading around the Homs Governorate of Syria, where my mother’s family lives, that Palmyra, which Syrians refer to as the bride of the Syrian desert and is a UNESCO World Heritage site ranking alongside Pompeii for its beauty and significance, is undergoing repair and is expected to open to tourists once more in summer of 2019, thanks to the assistance of UNESCO, Italy, Russia, and Poland. The loss of life due to the near-decade war is compounded by the cultural genocide that jihadist iconoclasts have subjected Syrians to through their brutal campaign of destruction on many of Syria’s most treasured archaeological and religious sites.

Between 2014 and 2016, ISIS militants took jackhammers to priceless artifacts and detonated bombs at churches and mosques during their reign of terror, which has diminished in Syria, but it has left in its wake the remnants of an ancient culture that Syrians could not safely protect and preserve. Some Syrians gave their lives protecting their centuries-old archaeological marvels from terrorists. Two weeks ago was the three-year anniversary since Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist who served as Palmyra’s most dedicated guardian for half a century, was publicly beheaded by ISIS for refusing to lead them to antiquities. ISIS destroyed many of Palmyra’s ancient wonders such as Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baal Shamin, and the columns in the Valley of the Tombs, all in an attempt to erase any pre-Islamic history.

I reached out to the staff responsible for the Nationality Rooms to inquire about the Syria-Lebanon room. I had passed it countless times on my way to class, which was often held in one of the other 28 Nationality Rooms that were the regular location for lectures and seminars for thousands of fellow Pitt students. I was curious about the room’s presence in the Cathedral during a time when Syria’s architecture, art, and archaeology were being violated and erased.

The room, I learned from correspondence with the Nationality Room tour coordinator Michael Walter, exists because classically designed homes in Syria were being torn down for modernization. After France took control of Syria as a result of the Sykes-Picot agreements in the mid 20th century, many large cities in Syria were subject to a Le Corbusier modernization process, which involved gutting the culturally rich and ornate towns and replacing them with the brutal concrete blocks that were standard for the International Style movement that Le Corbusier championed.

The room’s grandeur is the Middle Eastern equivalent to the Tapestry Room at Osterley Park in the U.K., an 18th-century drawing room, similarly intended to entertain and impress guests. It’s the only original room among all of the Nationality Rooms; the rest are copies and pastiches. According to Michael, it’s also one of only five in America — two are at Doris Duke’s Shangri La mansion in Hawaii, one is in the Cincinnati Art Museum, one is at the Met in New York City, and then there is the one in Pittsburgh. Maxine says that the room’s value increases every year because of its authenticity. She recalls an instance when a few Arabic-speaking children were permitted in the room and could read the Arabic inscribed on the frieze. The marble even slopes down at the entrance where visitors would remove their shoes before entering.

“They’ll never make another one like it,” she said.

The tiny chamber’s components, including walls, sofas, and marble floors, were shipped off to New York City when people took interiors to sell to collectors around the world following the “revolutionary” architecture movement that the modernists heralded. It’s poetic justice, that the room that was purged from its homeland in exchange for modernism’s sterility and minimalism found its new home in a medieval, Gothic Revival building exalted for its traditional, picturesque facade.

(Maryann Sivak)

Maxine is also especially fond of the room; she earned her master’s degree in education from the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1954. She went to Syria countless times, she tells me, during her two years in Lebanon. Much has changed in the two countries since she was a student, and owing to the danger that remnants of Syria’s ancient past face today, it’s even more critical that the room is preserved so it can offer visitors a rare glimpse of exemplary Syrian design and craftsmanship.

“Preservation of such sites and such architecture in and of itself is worthy, and for me, preservation of such things is an investment in the future, so others may see and learn,” Michael  says. “For the Syria-Lebanon Room to exist here is a continuity with the past and an awareness of it for the future.”

The Nationality Rooms are a testament to the American investment in the preservation of tradition; the rooms are dutifully conserved because they’re worth conserving. Each room is representative of the most impressive elements of each culture, that have withstood the test of conflict and even the International Style’s purging of any structure that wasn’t a rectilinear slab of reinforced concrete. Beauty is a universal value anchored in our rational nature. It is a testament to the Western appreciation of the most resplendent contributions of the world’s past that the idea of the Nationality Rooms was accepted with open arms and celebration at one of America’s finest institution of higher learning.

(Maryann Sivak)

Our collective intellect is seeped in the ancient wisdom that created these works. They are worth recreating and safeguarding. Although I could never enter the Syria-Lebanon room as a student and could only witness it from outside its transparent door, I relish the fact that it’s guarded with so much care and consideration for its future — people who perhaps have never been to Syria or Lebanon, or don’t share consanguinity with Syrian or Lebanese Americans, dedicate their efforts to maintaining and teaching the high-culture achievements of those communities’ forefathers.

As many American universities undergird their curriculums with an emphasis on subjectivity’s inclusive nature, and thus its virtue, rendering objectivity and meritocracy nearly obsolete, these rooms are permanent stations of what the pinnacle of beauty and magnificence are. Somehow, despite the so-called socially constructed quality of beauty, the rooms have the ability to unite their surrounding communities rather than alienate or divide them.

In retrospect, I see that the Syria-Lebanon Room taught me more about beauty’s indispensable role in shaping our world than it did about my heritage. America is beauty’s protector — let’s ensure that she remains a vigilant one.


Marlo Safi is a Pittsburgh-based writer and a former Collegiate Network fellow with National Review.


The Latest