Shangri La – the hidden gem of Islamic art in Honolulu

One of the most difficult tours to secure a place on in Hawaii, but definitely one of the most worthwhile is the tour of Shangri La, a collection of Islamic art in a private house in Honolulu. Inspired by travels through the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, the collection and programs run at the centre aim to improve understanding of the Islamic world. Having spent time in these regions myself I have a great appreciation for Islamic art, and absolutely recommend a visit to this incredible collection.

The Shangri La villa is discretely tucked away at the end of a residential street. It would be easy to pass the bougainvillea-clad entrance and think nothing of it. This was clearly intentional. However, on passing through the gate and descending along the driveway, the beautiful villa and gardens stretch between you and the sea, and visitors are permitted to believe they have arrived in a little corner of paradise, a private paradise.

The woman that built the villa and created the collection was Doris Duke (1912 – 1993), an eccentric tobacco heiress who devoted over 60 years of her life collecting items of great beauty on her travels and incorporating them into her Diamond Head home on Oahu.

Bedouin inspired dining room, Shangri La, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, USA

The Shangri-la collection

The building and collection contains more than 3,500 objects including Duke’s Taj Mahal-inspired (and intricately detailed) marble bed and bath suite, a wall of Turkish Iznik ceramic tiles, Moroccan carved wooden ceilings and stained glass, Iranian mosaic tiles, Syrian tiles dating back to the 13th century, a Veramin mihrab from Iran, Moorish open-air private courtyards, fountains, an 18th century wooden Syrian room interior, Egyptian embroidery, glasswork, paintings, ceramic art, jewellery and other objets d’art.

Ancient tilework, Shangri La, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, USA

The collection raises the question of how appropriate it is to remove cultural objects from their original settings. The British Museum in London (and others, no doubt) has long been condemned for this. While these days we tend to disapprove of removing such items (especially items of cultural significance), it is worth remembering that had Duke not brought her collection to Hawaii, given recent world events, such as ancient artworks destroyed in Syria in recent years, it is likely many of them would have been lost forever.

Outdoor dining, Shangri La, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, USA

Visiting Shangri-la

Visitors are asked not to photograph the art inside the house in order to protect it from the fading effects of flash photography, so I have not been able to share as many photos here as I might have liked. However, this rule definitely makes the property and the collection seem extra special, a bit like a well kept secret. Anyone with an appreciation of, or even just an interest in, Islamic art will find a visit to this property is both delicious, and passes too quickly.

Shangri La pool and gardens, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, USA

Tours are operated by the Honolulu Museum of Art, and are the only way to visit the property. The tours run Wednesdays – Sundays and fill up days in advance, so if you are keen to join one make sure you book in advance.

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