At the center of downtown Beirut is the prominent Mohammad al-Amin mosque, the largest mosque in Lebanon. The beautiful building, which was inaugurated in 2008, is often the backdrop for local protests that cluster at the adjacent Martyrs’ Square. Inside is a stunning painted dome. It is the work of an artist who has gained a reputation as a leading painter of decorative ornament, particularly in mosques. What may surprise many people unaware of the rich cosmopolitan tradition of Islamic religious art is that the artist, Harout Bastajian, is not Muslim himself. When people ask him how a Christian is creating the decorative program of a mosque, he likes to answer, “God works in mysterious ways, brings us all together to decorate his house of worship.”
He embarked on this artistic path back in 2004, when he was asked by the Hariris, a prominent business and political family in Lebanon, to decorate the newly inaugurated Hariri mosque in Sidon, Lebanon — a structure built by the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in memory of his father. He had already worked on the family’s villas, and the 20-something-year-old Bastajian’s work clearly impressed the Hariris, so they made an agreement.
The journey into painting in sacred spaces has been inspiring for the artist. Not only has he painted the interiors of mosques but he’s also been involved in the restoration of Roman Catholic and Armenian Catholic buildings in Lebanon. He remembers his first mosque commission in Sidon well. “When I went in and saw the huge dome, which is like 900 square meters [roughly 9,687 square feet], I couldn’t sleep that night. I was thinking, ‘How am I supposed to do this?’ And then I was playing basketball in my backyard. I saw the basketball, the shape, how it’s divided. So I started thinking, how can I divide the dome and try to manage it? And it was easy. Within two months I was able to finish the project with my team,” he explains.
“Regarding the design, for sure, I go through history, through different schools, and I try to come up with something somehow contemporary and work on it. And I will always use the golden ratio as a fundamental for my work. Regarding the colors, I don’t see one color. I always work with layers of colors in order to reach this depth of color, the decorative finish, and give this aesthetic end result.”
He currently has a team of six or seven colleagues who work with him full time, and a graphic designer who helps organize the project plan since Bastajian doesn’t like to work with digital tools — and he appreciates the help in fine tuning his ideas and ordering the overall program. He uses synthetic-based paint, and the inner layers of the domes are almost always gypsum, so he’s often painting on that surface. He provides a 25-year guarantee that the colors he uses will not peel, and he emphasizes that he spends a significant amount of time ensuring that his paint is of the highest quality.
In the last 18 years, Bastajian says, he has painted 37 full and half domes, which translates into over a dozen mosques and many secular projects as far afield as Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Switzerland.
“Well, when I did my first few mosques, I had to travel a lot and check other mosques in order to understand it all better. Then I took some courses in Islamic design and Islamic art … [and] after a while it became part of me. I can see the end result only by doing the sketches and preparing the designs … I don’t like to do the same, or repeat the same thing I already have done. I only repeat the same Quranic verses, which I have to, but as for the design and the colors, I don’t like repetition …. [Looking at my work] you can see none of the domes looks like the others; they’re all different.”
He conceives each project from the ground level, where visitors will experience the work, incorporating a mixture of geometric designs, along with vegetal and floral motifs, to create a rich web of patterns. “The shape of the dome itself, it has something divine in it because it’s circular. It doesn’t have a start or an end,” Bastajian explains. “And the light that comes in from the windows, they call it the light of God. The dome itself, you feel that it’s flying, it’s something divine.”
That symbolism is important to the artist, who is sometimes inspired by other works, such as the designs from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, which influenced his work for the al-Amin mosque in Beirut. He adjusts the designs according to the sect: Ottoman designs tend to work better for Sunni spaces, while Shia holy spaces tend to take their aesthetic cues from Persian-influenced styles and geometry. But it’s hard to characterize Bastajian’s work as one thing, since he relishes the hybrid nature of culture today.