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Additional late-Ottoman Syrian materials

Although the Syrian Room and Damascus Room preserve the majority of the DDFIA’s late-Ottoman Syrian collection, additional architectural decoration and furnishings can be found elsewhere at Shangri La, both on view and in storage.

In the late 1930s, Doris Duke’s (1912–93) collecting was largely informed by a simple practical reality: the need to acquire works of art to be used throughout Shangri La. While in Damascus in 1938, she purchased two types of Syrian chests. The first type can be attributed to the eighteenth or nineteenth century and features inlaid mother-of pearl designs of medallions, floral bouquets and/or Cyprus trees (65.61). The form of the chest is standard—a rectangular trunk with a hinged lid sits upon a scalloped apron—and comparable examples can be found in many museum collections (see an example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Photographic evidence (see an archival photograph in the Library of Congress) confirms that nineteenth-century Damascenes used such chests in the reception rooms of their private homes, perhaps for the storage of bedding and other textiles. The second type of chest dates to the early twentieth century and is completely sheathed in mother-of-pearl (65.46). Its vertical format, consisting of rows of drawers was developed to appeal to American and European clientele (Milwright, 2012). During her visit to Damascus in 1938, Duke purchased three such bureaus.

When she oversaw the creation of the Syrian Room at Shangri La in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Duke appears to have run out of room for many of the architectural elements acquired from New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. In particular, a great deal of stonework and pastework (ablaq) had to be displayed elsewhere. Given that this extra material consisted of arched elements that would have originally framed thresholds, Duke installed it in hallways leading to the staff wing, Damascus Room and Mughal Suite. The most cohesive installation can be found in the dimly lit hallway just before the bright arcaded space fronting the Mughal Suite. Here, one can appreciate an abundance of pastework (ablaq) and stonework, including spandrels and arches (78.7, 78.8) placed above a total of five doorways. The floor below (41.60) is covered in white and burgundy marble tiles of the type found in the Syrian Room, and the adjacent storage room preserves a collection of nearly two dozen pastework (ablaq) fragments (78.24). These fragments facilitate a close inspection of the technique in question: a thin coating of plaster was applied over stone; designs were carved out of this plaster substrate, often piercing the stone below; and colored pastes were then poured into each of the voids.

A final architectural element standard to late-Ottoman Syrian interiors and represented in the DDFIA collection is a type of window composed of a carved gypsum plaster frame inset with pieces of colored glass. These windows constitute a critical component of the overall aesthetic of the qa‘a; specifically, they occupy the space between the walls and ceiling. The DDFIA collection includes two such windows. The first is on view in the foyer (46.2.1), and its design comprises a naturalistic floral arrangement set within a bulbous vase and enclosed by an arch with additional floral motifs in cartouches. The background includes a number of small circles similar to contemporary examples in other collections. This original, which was installed in August 1938, served as the prototype for eight copies that were cast in Hawai‘i and remain on view in the foyer and the central courtyard. The second example (46.3) depicts a building, perhaps a mosque (note the minaret-like forms). It is on view in the Syrian Room, where, alongside Moroccan and Persian examples, it reflects the appropriate placement within a qa‘a. The two DDFIA windows can be compared to examples attributed to Ottoman Turkey, Egypt and/or Syria (see examples in the V&A and Met collections). Although a Syrian attribution cannot be confirmed, they are of a type known to have decorated late-Ottoman Syrian homes. Textual evidence further confirms that such windows were produced in Damascus at the turn of the twentieth century and were in large demand (Milwright forthcoming).

Doris Duke installed carved stonework, marble flooring, and ablaq pastework from NYU's Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies in the private hallway leading to the Mughal Suite. (Photo: Tim Street-Porter, 2011.)

Doris Duke installed carved stonework, marble flooring, and ablaq pastework from NYU's Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies in the private hallway leading to the Mughal Suite. (Photo: Tim Street-Porter, 2011.)

The large Syrian Room, with colored-glass windows in the space between the walls and the ceiling; 46.3 is visible on the right. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 1999.)

The large Syrian Room, with colored-glass windows in the space between the walls and the ceiling; 46.3 is visible on the right. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 1999.)

Recommended Citation expand icon

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, “Late-Ottoman Syrian Interiors and Furnishings: Additional Late-Ottoman Syrian Material,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012, www.shangrilahawaii.org.

Works Cited expand icon

Marcus Milwright, translation of “Qamarjī,” from the Qāmūs al-ṣināʿāt al-Shāmiyya (Dictionary of Damascene Crafts) (forthcoming).

Further Reading and Resources expand icon

Online:

Marcus Milwright, “Doris Duke and the Crafts of Islamic Syria,” Shangri La Working Papers in Islamic Art, no. 2 (July 2012): 1-20.

Print:

Anke Scharrahs, Damascene ‘ajami Rooms: Forgotten Jewels of Interior Design (London: Archetype Publications, 2013). 

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