A pioneer of a new age
Doris Duke's Shangri-La
April 27, 2004
In James Hilton's Lost Horizon (1933), an Englishman
finds paradise in
the Tibetan valley of Shangri-La. Ever since, Shangri-La has
symbolically stood for an imaginary lost paradise on Earth.
Put together by an affluent tobacco heirless with a hatred of smoking,
a fertile imagination, a love for surfing and surfers, a passion
collecting, and a romantic fascination with the Islamic civilization
-- there you have another Shangri-La in Honolulu.
Situated on the
front at one of Honolulu's most exclusive neighborhoods,
Point in Kahala, the tobacco heiress Doris Duke built herself a
on a five-acre estate that should be considered a wonder of the
A Wonder of the World? Yes, Shangri-La tells volumes about the
emerging world of the 21st century: Improbable. Opulent.
Hawaii is as far away from the Islamic world as
you might imagine. Since Captain Cooke visited the islands in 1778,
Europeans, Americans, Russians, Portuguese, Pacific Islanders,
Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Indians have populated the
islands in large numbers. The Muslim population among them is very
small. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and
Bahai'ism each have found a strong foothold in Hawaii.
But Islam is
represented by one mosque and a small number of students from Islamic
countries, a few immigrants, and some African-American military
personnel on temporary assignments in Honolulu. After 1949, a Muslim
Chinese Nationalist Ambassador to Saudi Arabia persuaded its
government to donate funds for the purchase of a house in Manoa. He
turned the house into a mosque and home for himself. He also served
as the first Imam until his death in the 1980s.
The improbability of a museum of Islamic arts in the
middle of the Pacific Ocean is compounded by it richness. Starting
in 1937, Doris Duke began to build on this spot one of the most
amazing collections of Islamic art and architecture. It was
essentially completed in 1938. The house brings artifacts from all
over the Islamic world, from Southeast Asia to North Africa.
honeymoon with her first husband James Cromwell, Doris Duke took a
trip around the world on a cruise ship. When she visited Taj Mahal
in India, she fell in love with its majestic beauty. Built by the
Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, Taj Mahal
radiates an eternal serenity. Inspired by its design, Doris
immediately commissioned a marble bedroom and bathroom suite for
herself. Under the guidance of such well-known figures as Arthur
Upham Pope, she set out next to collect art objects for her dream
house in Honolulu.
Her house contains precious Islamic doors,
chandeliers, carpets, prayer niches, and mosaics. Some of the
architecture is distinctly influenced by the Safavid palaces in
Isfahan, Iran. The Chehel Sotun (the Forty Columns) Palace is vaguely
replicated in a guest house. One descending staircase encases a
garden and a water flow that is spiritually uplifting. The house is
a mélange of Islamic artifacts and American imagination.
Doris Duke may be considered a pioneer of postmodern
sensibility and taste. Her home is a pastiche of elements from a
distant past but also an enduring present. It evokes an Islamic aura,
but it is clearly the fantasyland of the richest American lady of her
Following an adventurous but secluded life, Doris Duke passed
away in 1993. She dedicated the home to a foundation that has
currently turned it into a remarkable museum celebrating her global
citizenship. Building a house such as this took up her entire life.
With an unparalleled dedication, she and her assistants studied,
chose, bought, transported, unpacked, refined, and built it all
by mosaic. It was clearly a labor of love. But typical of our
contradictory world, it is a pastiche nonetheless.
Visiting the museum evokes many feelings and
thoughts. At a time that Islam is receiving a bad press in the
Western world, this small replica of a civilization that led the world
during 9-16th centuries is a reminder of the rise and fall of all
powers in history. The museum is a good antidote to the currently
negative image of Islam as a Jahadist religion. It demonstrates the
greatness of the Islamic material and spiritual achievements.
The museum also represents the Western romantic fascination with
the Orient that gave rise to Orientalism (1978), in which Edward
brilliantly analyzed this colonial phenomenon. On the negative side,
the Orient was conceived as the land of unbounded treasures and
As exemplified by the Shangri-La, on the positive side,
the Orient was perceived to be a domain of mystery and spirituality.
Each image was only partially true of the historical conditions of
declining civilizations that were being vanquished in the hands of a
younger and more vigorous rival in the Occident.
What can the museum teach us now? Its presence in Honolulu
is a reminder of the shrinkage of the world. We currently live the
trials and errors of an age of transition. Its mixed blessings
consist of global markets, communication networks, and increasing
mobility of people, objects, and ideas. But they also entail
proliferation of weapons of destruction, terrorism, and environmental
Our ideas are still framed by tribal and nationalist
loyalties. But the new world demands, nay necessitates, global
citizenship. Doris Duke was a pioneer of a new age to come. The new
age calls for fundamental changes in our international discourse, from
a blame game to joint responsibility and citizenship.
Majid Tehranian is Professor, School of Communications, University
of Hawaii at Manoa, and Director of the Toda
Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research in Honolulu,
Hawaii. His latest book is Bridging
a Gulf: Peace in West Asia (London, I. B. Tauris, 2003).
goodbye to spam!