Syrian Room, Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

The Syrian Room is one of Shangri La’s most cohesive spaces: a period room created for posterity, echoing those found in a number of other museums

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Doris Duke (1912–93) oversaw a major renovation at Shangri La following her acquisition of late Ottoman–period Syrian architectural elements from New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. What had previously been a billiard room, bathroom and office was demolished to create two adjacent rooms to house the newly acquired ‘ajami wood paneling (walls and ceilings), faceted hood of a wall niche (masabb), carved stonework, marble paneling (fountain and flooring), and several types of doors. The result was one of Shangri La’s most cohesive spaces: a period room created for posterity, echoing those found in a number of other museums. The Syrian Room is further distinguished by its relative isolation. Within its closed walls, one can feel transported to the Middle East with little distraction from the surrounding tropical setting.

Combining historic elements acquired from NYU and elsewhere with new pieces made in Hawai‘i by local craftsmen, Doris Duke and her staff created an interior that evokes the spatial layout and multi-media, multi-sensory experience of the Syrian qa‘a (Arabic: hall), a reception room found in affluent courtyard homes of the late Ottoman period (in Syria: 1516–1918). Visitors enter the room from Shangri La’s central courtyard and step down onto marble flooring, where a fountain bubbles. Above is an ‘ajami ceiling (64.13), the room’s most splendid single element, which is set off from the walls below by a whitewashed space punctuated by colored-glass windows (Qajar Persian, Ottoman, custom-made Moroccan). The rear of the main room features a raised seating area with various pillows (additionally covered with carpets during Duke’s lifetime), and the surrounding walls include closed cupboards, shelved vitrines, and a pair of gilded doors. The calligraphic cartouches along the upper walls feature Arabic verses from the Mawlid of al-Busiri (d. 1294), and the final cartouche is dated 1271 of the Hijra (1854–55 of the Common Era) (64.6.9a-e). In the adjacent smaller rectangular room, visitors can appreciate additional ceiling panels decorated with landscape and architectural scenes (64.19), carved stonework (41.3), a pair of vertical panels with fruit and floral designs (which were once part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Damascus Room”; 64.17.1-2), and Duke’s recreation of a masabb, a wall niche with a faceted hood (64.18). The vitrines in both rooms are filled with Duke’s own coveted collections, including nineteenth-century Persian and Bohemian glass, seventeenth–nineteenth-century Ottoman silk velvets, and sixteenth–seventeenth-century Iznik ceramics. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of these Iznik dishes were displayed in Shangri La’s second Syrian interior, the Damascus Room.

Interiors and furnishings
Two decades after acquiring and installing the Damascus Room at Shangri La, Doris Duke (1912–93) set her sights on a second late-Ottoman Syrian interior. In this instance, her source was New York University, where a number of Syrian architectural elements had been on display since 1975 in the lobby and library of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. These elements had been shipped to New York in 1934, after Hagop Kevorkian (1872–1962) acquired them from the antiquities firm Asfar & Sarkis. They were said to have come from a house owned by the Quwatlis, a prominent merchant family of Damascus (this association remains to be confirmed). At the same time, Kevorkian also purchased the so-called “Nur al-Din” interior, an exceptional qa‘a (reception room) now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1976, Duke acquired a variety of components that had been on view in the Kevorkian Center, as well as additional ones preserved in NYU storage. These included two pairs of gilded mirrored doors, a faceted hood of a niche(masabb), the panels framing open-air vitrines, closed cupboards, doors, an intact beam ceiling with four corner squinches, border elements from two more ceilings, stonework and pastework (ablaq) embellishment for walls, and marble flooring and fountain elements (see thumbnails of these elements below). From photographs preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Shangri La Historical Archives, and at New York University, it is possible to identify the locations of many of these elements in the so-called Quwatli house prior to its dismantlement. Many were located in a qa‘a featuring a lower entry area (‘ataba) and two flanking upper seating areas (tazar) (Baumeister et al. forthcoming). For example, the rear walls of these two tazars were once home to the two pairs of gilded doors now on view in the large Syrian Room (64.9.1 and 64.9.2); the original entrance of the qa‘a is now the door of the same room’s utility closet (64.10a–b); and the stonework arcade above the original entrance now adorns the east wall of the small Syrian Room (41.3).

Whereas the wood paneling of the Damascus Room was mocked-up to size in Damascus by the al-Khayyat workshop and sent to Doris Duke with explicit instructions on how to reinstall it, the collector and her staff had to create the Syrian Room from scratch. The individual pieces acquired from NYU did not seamlessly combine to fit a space that had once been two separate rooms: an office and billiard room. Rather, Duke and her staff needed to fill in a number of gaps and recreate important elements. The masabb in the smaller room is an excellent example. In this case, Duke had acquired only the faceted hood and the marble framework (64.18) from NYU. She then filled the central third of the niche with a Syrian tile panel acquired separately (48.41a–b).

Duke’s commitment to recreating canonical elements of the Syrian qa‘a speaks volumes about her desire to present as complete a period room as possible. Although the Syrian Room at Shangri La can never be confused with an authentic Syrian qa‘a, the spatial layout of the large room, in particular, and the inclusion and placement of diverse media (glass, stone, wood) and features (fountain, masabb, ceiling, windows) create an atmosphere that alludes to what such interiors are like in situ. Duke achieved this overall impact and context through the combination of old and new, Syrian and otherwise (consider the inclusion of Moroccan and Persian windows; 46.4).

Additional elements in the Syrian Room have an altogether different provenance. The room’s pair of vertical ‘ajami panels (64.17.1–2) and marble wall element (41.4) are associated not with the so-called Quwatli house but rather with the Metropolitan’s “Damascus Room.” In the spring of 1954, Hagop Kevorkian sent Duke an in situ photograph of this interior (then known as the “Nur al-Din” room). Duke’s interest in the interior was piqued, and either she, or someone at the Kevorkian Foundation, marked the ‘ajami panels and the marble element (which served as the riser between the ‘ataba and tazar). Over two decades later, in 1979, these “Nur al-Din” elements were shipped to Honolulu and installed in the Syrian Room alongside “Quwatli” elements.

Although the Damascus Room and Syrian Room are noticeably different in terms of media and layout, the twentieth-century “biographies” of both interiors are deeply intertwined. In 1934, the al-Khayyat workshop participated in the dismantlement of the so-called Quwatli home (Baumeister et al. forthcoming). Two decades later they custom-made the Damascus Room for Shangri La, and another 25 years later, elements of the “Quwatli” home were installed in the Syrian Room. Throughout their endeavors, the al-Khayyats seem to have collaborated closely with Asfar & Sarkis, with whom Duke sustained a lengthy working relationship from 1938 through the 1970s (in later decades, she worked with descendants of Georges Asfar and Jean Sarkis). Given their interrelated and complex histories, the two Damascene rooms at Shangri La occupy a critical role in the historiography of Syrian interiors during the twentieth century. In Honolulu, the well-documented relationship between collector, dealer and artisan has ramifications for the understanding of similar interiors in situ and abroad.

Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design
Shangri La is a museum for Islamic arts and cultures, offering guided tours, residencies for scholars and artists, and programs with the purpose of improving understanding of the Islamic world. Built in 1937 as the Honolulu home of American heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke (1912-1993), Shangri La was inspired by Duke’s extensive travels throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia and reflects architectural traditions from India, Iran, Morocco and Syria.

Islamic Art
The phrase “Islamic art” generally refers to arts that are products of the Muslim world, diverse cultures that historically extended from Spain to Southeast Asia. Beginning with the life of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632) and continuing to the present day, Islamic art has both a wide historical range and broad geographical spread, including North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and part of South and Southeast Asia as well as eastern and sub-Saharan Africa.

Visual Elements of Islamic Art. Islamic art covers a wide range of artistic production, from ceramic pots and silk carpets to oil paintings and tiled mosques. Given the tremendous diversity of Islamic art – across many centuries, cultures, dynasties and vast geography – what artistic elements are shared? Often, calligraphy (beautiful writing), geometry, and floral/vegetal design are seen as unifying visual components of Islamic art.

Calligraphy. The preeminence of writing in Islamic culture stems from the oral transmission of the word of God (Allah) to the Prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century. This divine revelation was subsequently codified into a holy book written in Arabic, the Qur’an (recitation in Arabic). Beautiful writing became imperative for transcribing the word of God and for creating sacred Qur’ans. Calligraphy soon appeared in other forms of artistic production, including illuminated manuscripts, architecture, portable objects and textiles. Although the Arabic script is the crux of Islamic calligraphy, it was (and is) used to write a number of languages in addition to Arabic, including Persian, Urdu, Malay and Ottoman Turkish.

The content of the writing found on Islamic art varies according to context and function; it can include verses from the Qur’an (always Arabic) or from well-known poems (often Persian), the date of production, the signature of the artist, the names or marks of owners, the institution to which an object was presented as a charitable gift (waqf), praises to the ruler, and praises to the object itself. Calligraphy is also written in different scripts, somewhat analogous to type fonts or today’s computer fonts, and the most renowned artists in the Islamic tradition were those who invented, and excelled in, various scripts.

Geometry and Floral Design. In many examples of Islamic art, calligraphy is superimposed upon backgrounds covered in geometric patterns, floral motifs, and/or vegetal designs with curved leaf forms known as “arabesques.” The appearance of this surface decoration differs according to where and when an object was made; the forms of flowers in seventeenth-century Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran are quite different, for example. In addition, certain designs were favored in some places more than others; in North Africa and Egypt, bold geometry is often preferred over delicate floral patterns.

The Figure. Perhaps the least understood visual component of Islamic art is the figural image. Although the Qur’an prohibits the worship of images (idolatry)—a proscription stemming from the rise of Islam within a polytheistic tribal society in Mecca—it does not explicitly preclude the depiction of living beings. However, figural imagery is generally confined to secular architectural contexts—such as the palace or private home (rather than the mosque)—and the Qur’an is never illustrated.

Some of the earliest palaces in Islamic history include life-size frescoes of animals and human beings, and by the tenth century, figures were standard iconography on ceramic vessels, including the earliest luster examples made in Iraq (see example) and later those made in Kashan, Iran. During the medieval period, human figures in miniature scale became integral to the illustration of religious, historical, medical and poetic texts.

Note on Dates. The Islamic calendar begins in 622 CE, the year of the emigration (hijra) of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina. Dates are presented as follows: 663 of the Hijra (AH), 1265 of the Common Era (CE), or simply 663/1265.

Diversity and Variety. First-time viewers of Islamic art are often captivated by its technical sophistication and beauty. Blown glass, illuminated manuscripts, inlaid metalwork, and soaring tiled domes astound through their color, forms, and details. Not all examples of Islamic art are equally luxurious, however, and a number of circumstances contribute to the diversity and variety encompassed under the broad term “Islamic art.”

The wealth of the patron is a critical factor, and functional objects for everyday use—basins for washing, chests for storing, candlesticks for lighting, carpets for covering—can differ significantly depending on whether they were made for a king, a merchant, or a peasant. The quality of a work of art is equally tied to its maker, and while the majority of Islamic art is anonymous, a number of master artists signed their works, desiring to be credited for their achievements, and indeed remain well known. Finally, the availability of raw materials also determines the look of an Islamic work of art. Due to the vast topography of the Islamic world (deserts, mountains, tropics), strong regional characteristics can be identified. Brick buildings clad with ceramic tiles are common to Iran and Central Asia, whereas sandstone and marble architecture is ubiquitous in India.

The regional—and by extension, linguistic—origins of a work of art also determines its appearance. Scholars and museums often deconstruct the broad term “Islamic art” into sub-fields such as the Arab lands, Persian world, the Indian subcontinent and other regions or by dynasty. The presentation of Islamic art in museums is often further segmented into dynastic production (example), which results in an emphasis on courtly production and patronage of the highest quality (example).

Status of the Field. The field of Islamic art history is currently experiencing a period of self-reflection and revision. Publicly, this is most evident in a number of major museum reinstallations (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louvre, Brooklyn Museum, David Collection) that have transpired over the last decade and some of which are still in progress. Of central concern is the validity of the phrase “Islamic Art” to describe the visual culture in question. Some curators and scholars have rejected this religious designation in favor of regional specificity (consider the new name of the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and have criticized its monolithic, Eurocentric, and religion-based origins. Indeed, although some examples of Islamic art and architecture were made for religious purposes (a Qur’an for recitation in a mosque), others served secular needs (a window to decorate a home). Moreover, there are many examples of non-Muslims creating works of art categorized as “Islamic,” or even “Islamic” works of art created for non-Muslim patrons. These realities acknowledged, some scholars and institutions have opted to stress the Islam component of “Islamic art” (consider the name of the Louvre’s renovated galleries, “Arts of Islam,” that reopened in the fall of 2012).

The collection of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (DDFIA), and its presentation at Shangri La, has much to contribute to these ongoing global dialogues. At a moment when the designation “Islamic art” is being fiercely debated, the DDFIA collection challenges existing taxonomies (ethnographic artifact versus fine art; secular versus religious; central versus periphery), while stimulating new ways of thinking about, defining and appreciating the visual culture in question.