The Doorway to Another World in Hawaii

Step into a room and out of the islands, to the opulence of the Ottoman Empire. The Damascus Room is a rare opportunity to be surrounded by treasures of Syria from the 18th and 19th centuries. Every inch of the room is decorated: ceilings, walls and floor. Display cases show objects that would have been common in the luxurious private homes of Damascus’ Old City centuries ago.

East wall of the Damascus Room. On display in the historic wall vitrine are examples of Syrian, European, Iranian, and Turkish works of art from the DDFIA collection.

The Damascus room in Shangri La opened to the public for the first time in July after years of restoration and is a very popular attraction for visitors here on Hawaii vacations. It joins the Syrian room as highlights of Doris Duke’s Islamic art collection. Only a hand-full of such later Ottoman period Syrian interiors are displayed worldwide, and most must be viewed from behind a glass panel. In Hawaii, it is possible to get a close look at the intricate decorative detail while surrounded with elegance.

Duke placed the order for the room in September 1953. It was retrofitted to fit her home and shipped from Beirut in nine cases a year later. Duke used it as a guest room while she lived in the estate. She had first visited the Middle East in 1938 when Shangri La was being built, traveling to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Egypt to purchase artwork, some from the same antiquities firm that later provided the full room. Many of the items from the archives associated with her travels, such as the original invoice for “1 Old Damascus Room,” photos, letters and cablegrams, are now shown for the first time in the Damascus Room display cases.

General view of the ceiling. The four hanging lamps were purchased with the room from Asfar & Sarkis.

The usual visit to Shangri La is made in small groups with a tour guide who explains the details of the home and its equally unique creator. We were excited to visit on the day that the Damascus room first opened to the public and found it to be an exception to the routine. The display cases allow for a self-guided exploration that can be more leisurely. It was a wonderful opportunity to just enjoy being in such incredible surroundings. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to sleep in this amazing room as a guest. It truly calls to mind the “Arabian Nights” theme that Duke said characterized her interior décor.

View of the Damascus Room looking southwest towards the ocean and Diamond Head. The wall vitrines and cases on the far wall present the history of Doris Duke’s encounters with Syria from 1938 to 1955, including the purchase of the Damascus Room.

Photo Courtesy: Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.)

Posted by: Bruce Fisher