The Myth of the Orient

Architecture and Ornament in the Age of Orientalism

by Francine Giese (Volume editor) Ariane Varela Braga (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 230 Pages


This volume commemorates the 160th anniversary of the Selamlik of Oberhofen Castle near Thun – one of the most significant Swiss Orientalist interiors, designed by the Bernese architect Theodor Zeerleder (1820–1868) – by presenting the latest research on the spectacular smoking room inspired by the luxurious reception halls in Cairo, which Zeerleder discovered during his travels to the East. At the same time, this collection of essays explores the significance of the famous city on the Nile as a privileged model for 19th-century architecture and ornamentation, bringing together papers by Mercedes Volait (Paris), Romain Siegenfuhr (Paris), Richard Parisot (Besançon), Elke Pflugradt-Abdel Aziz (Düsseldorf), Tarek Ibrahim (Berlin), Vincenza Garofalo (Palermo), Andrea Lermer (München), Rémi Labrusse (Paris), Ariane Varela Braga (Zürich), Leïla el-Wakil (Genève), Francine Giese (Zürich) and Annette Loeffel (Bern).

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • The Myth of the Orient
  • Section I: Oriental Visions
  • Figuration et fortune artistique des intérieurs du Caire au XIXe siècle
  • Les photographies du Caire peintes par Willem de Famars Testas
  • Architecture(s) du Caire au prisme des récits de voyageuses germanophones au XIXe siècle
  • Section II: Architecture – Cairo
  • Carl von Diebitsch (1819-1869): Moorish Style as State-of-the-art Architecture in 19th-century Cairo
  • Johann Adam Rennebaum and the Architecture of Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo
  • Section III: Architecture – Transmission
  • Mamluk Reproductions: Survey and Analysis of Tombs in the Cemetery of Sant’Orsola in Palermo
  • Von Kairo nach Dresden: Zu den islamischen Vorbildern der Tabak- und Cigarettenfabrik Yenidze, ihrer medialen Vermittlung und formalen Adaption
  • Section IV: Ornament
  • Tectonique islamique : un paradigme pour penser l’ornement au XIXe siècle
  • Owen Jones and the Oriental Perspective
  • La Banque Misr du Caire : Antonio Lasciac, les décorateurs italiens et le « style arabe »
  • Section V: Selamlik
  • The Oberhofen Selamlik – a Cairene manḍara made in Switzerland
  • Restaurierung des Selamlik im Schloss Oberhofen 2010-2013
  • Abstracts and Biographies

The Myth of the Orient


On the occasion of the 160th anniversary of the Selamlik of Oberhofen Castle – one of the most significant Swiss Orientalist interiors, created by the Bernese architect Theodor Zeerleder (1820-1868) – the Institute of Art History of the University of Zurich, in collaboration with the Oberhofen Castle Foundation, organised an international congress. Held on 13th June 2015, it presented the latest research on neo-Islamic architecture and ornamentation, with a special focus on Cairo, as one of the prime destinations of 19th-century artists and architects in search of new inspiration.

One of them was the aforementioned Theodor Zeerleder, who was fascinated by Islamic architecture and ornament, which he came to know intimately during two extended journeys through the Near East in 1847/1848 and 1849/1850. Like many of his contemporaries, Zeerleder might have fallen prey to the fever for Egypt, following General Bonaparte’s expeditions to the Nile in 1798. In travel notes, letters, drawings and watercolours, the so far relatively unknown Bernese architect presented a multifaceted picture of the Orient – especially of Cairo and its domestic architecture.

Zeerleder’s extensive material, hold at the Burgerbibliothek in Bern, served him as main inspiration for the neo-Islamic smoking room of Oberhofen Castle, created between 1854 and 1855. While other architects used books like Pascal Coste’s Architecture arabe ou monuments du Kaire, first published in 1839, as primary sources – Ludwig Persius for the neo-Mamluk exterior of his Dampfmaschinenhaus in Potsdam (1841-1843) for instance – Zeerleder could rely on his own drawings from Cairo. Due to their accuracy, even the ornamental details of the Selamlik were taken from his sketches. ← 9 | 10 →

The result is astonishing. Far away from Egypt, Zeerleder recreated a Cairene reception room, which brought his drawings to life. Even if some of the woodcarvings have been simplified, they still follow the principles of Islamic ornamental design, making the recently restored Selamlik a prime example of the neo-Islamic building tradition in Switzerland.

According to Norbert Bolz, the myth is the “matrix of the world view”1. As such, the Oberhofen Selamlik presents a view back on 19th-century Switzerland, when a Prussian diplomat from Neuchâtel, who worked in Istanbul for several years, contracted a much-travelled architect from Bern to design an Oriental smoking room in the medieval tower of Oberhofen Castle. The entanglement witnessed here was not unusual in 19th-century Europe. What Wolfgang Welsch described in the 1990s, by introducing his concept of transculturality, as the “altered cut of todays’ cultures” was very common in 19th-century Switzerland too2.

However, we must bear in mind that the idea of escaping modernization and social changes in the West by appropriating the ‘backwardly’ East, is in most cases an oversimplification of the facts, as territorial and economical aspects were equally important3. As Avinoam Shalem has well observed, Islamic art supplied every now and then the “appropriate and necessary injection of new blood”4 to reanimate Western art. This is the reason why the myth of the Orient has persisted for so long and reached the heart of Switzerland, of which we are reminded by the remarkable example of the Selamlik.

Putting this outstanding model of neo-Islamic Swiss interior into a broader context, simultaneously showing the great diversity of perspectives and approaches dealing with neo-Islamic architecture and ornament, was the main goal of the conference, which tried to look at the ← 10 | 11 → phenomenon from different angles. The proceedings follow the same approach. Thus, the first part, dealing with Oriental visions, considers the image of Cairo and its Islamic architecture between reality and imagination. In the 19th century, artists and architects contributed to the formation of a common visual idea of Cairo’s architecture that would feed the European imagination, as shown by Mercedes Volait. This collective image was not only the result of traditional media, as drawings and engravings, but was also conveyed through the use of photography, and particularly retouched photographs, such as those made by Famars Testas, analysed in Romain Siegenfuhr’s essay. If artists and architects travelling the East were mainly male, women had also their part to play in the mental construct of the Orient, as Richard Parisot reminds us in his study of German travellers Anna von Minutoli, Maria Schubert and Ida von Hahn-Hahn.

The second and third parts, dedicated to 19th-century Cairo and the transmission of its Islamic repertory to the West, focus on the development of neo-Islamic architecture, both in Cairo and back in Europe. Elke Pflugradt-Abdel Aziz presents the case of the banker Henry Oppenheim’s Villa in Cairo, built by the Prussian architect Carl von Diebitsch in neo-Moorish style, using the most modern building techniques and materials in order to create a contemporary architectural style that is both historically suggestive and technically up to date. As other 19th-century revival styles, neo-Islamic often co-exists with other styles inside eclectic structures. The no longer existing Shepheard Hotel offered an interesting testimony of this eclectic architectural tradition, while at the same time symbolising the tensions between East and West, colonizers and colonized, as Tarek Ibrahim reminds us in his study of the hotel’s history. If neo-Islamic architecture fascinated Europeans and reinforced their vision of an imaginary and eternal Orient, it was also reappropriated by Egyptians themselves, as staged in the hall of the Misr Bank, studied by Leïla el-Wakil.

Neo-Islamic styles proved also very popular in Europe throughout the century, and their use was not only restricted to ephemeral and leisure architecture. As Vincenza Garofalo shows, it was also chosen for ← 11 | 12 → funerary architecture, as the case of the tombs of the Palermo’s Santa Orsola cemetery illustrate. Choosing to build in exotic style, European architects would rely on different transfer media, the most important being the publications that included both architectural and ornamental details. Andrea Lermer provides a good example of this practice through her analysis of the Yenidze tobacco factory in Dresden, which is largely inspired by Cairene models.

The fourth part is more particularly dedicated to the question of Islamic ornament and its conceptual importance for the development of 19th-century architectural theory. As Rémi Labrusse recalls in his examination of the subtle relation between ornament and architecture, Islamic ornament was a privileged source of inspiration for a redefinition of ornament itself. Architects such as Owen Jones, studied by Ariane Varela Braga, found in Islamic ornamentation the principles that could lead to the creation of a totally new style, based on the study of geometry and potentially independent of the influence of past styles.

In the fifth and final part, we return to Switzerland. Francine Giese’s essay illustrates the specificities and fundamental characteristics of the Selamlik of Oberhofen Castle, re-placing it in the more general context of contemporary Orientalist interiors, in both Switzerland and other neighbouring countries. The last contribution, by the architect Annette Loeffel sheds light on the intricate phases of the Selamlik’s restauration, detailing the different stages that have brought this exceptional neo-Islamic smoking-room to new life.


BOLZ 1991

N. BOLZ, Eine kurze Geschichte des Scheins, München, Wilhelm Fink, 1991.


S. L. MARCHAND, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire. Religion, Race, and Scholarship, Cambridge, University Press, 2010. ← 12 | 13 →


A. SHALEM, “Dangerous Claims. On the ‘Othering’ of Islamic Art History and How It Operates within Global Art History”, Kritische Berichte, 2012, vol. 40, no 2, 69-86.


W. WELSCH, “Transculturality – the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today”, in “Universalität der Kunstgeschichte?” in M. von FEATHERSTONE, S. LASH (eds.), Spaces of Culture. City, Nation, World, London, Sage, 1999, 194-213. ← 13 | 14 → ← 14 | 15 →


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
Orientalism decorative art Oberhofen Theodor Zeerleder Architecture Ornament Cairo Neo-Islamic style art history architectural history
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 227 pp., 20 b/w ill., 42 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Francine Giese (Volume editor) Ariane Varela Braga (Volume editor)

Francine Giese is SNSF professor at the University of Zurich. Her PhD thesis and habilitation dealt with different aspects of Islamic architecture and its preservation. Her research interests are Islamic art and architecture, cross-cultural exchanges in the Middle Ages and the appropriation of Islamic aesthetics in the West. Current projects: Mudejarismo and Moorish Revival in Europe / The Orient in Switzerland. Ariane Varela Braga is SNSF assistant and post-doc researcher at the University of Zurich, in the project "Mudejarismo and Moorish Revival in Europe", directed by F. Giese. Her PhD thesis examined the genesis and theory of Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament. She has taught at John Cabot University and has been a fellow of the Swiss Institute in Rome.


Title: The Myth of the Orient
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231 pages