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.