Parallel Universes

Shangri La collections manager Maja Clark
Shangri La collections manager Maja Clark stands in front the Syrian Room. Images by John Hook

The history of Syria and its incredible architecture that lives in Shangri La.

For centuries, travelers have waxed poetic about the surprising lushness of Syria, and of Damascus in particular. In addition to being known as a trade stop for local damask textiles, Bohemian glass, Venetian mirrors, Chinese silk, and Middle Eastern spices, Old Damascus is famous for its architecture and wildly ornate interiors.

Within the walls of the Old City lies a labyrinth of homes, mosques, churches, and souks (markets). Duck down a hallway, make a turn or two, and hidden behind the plain facades of many of the historic homes are dramatic courtyards flourishing with fountains and fragrant plants; a few steps away lie reception rooms of great beauty.

Today, however, with civil war grinding on in Syria, travel to the Middle Eastern country to explore these interiors and the ancient ruins of Damascus, Aleppo, and Palmyra has noticeably—inevitably—declined.

Reviews of the country’s attractions, hotels, and restaurants on the travel website TripAdvisor are sentimental of earlier travels but ever dwindling, as if the country is slowly being rubbed off the map.

The only clue to Syria’s raging civil war is a blip along the header: “! TRAVEL ALERT: SECURITY CONCERNS”—quite an understatement given that the death toll has surpassed 100,000.

What began with a brutal response by government security forces to civil unrest and peaceful protests in March 2011 has spread into a full-fledged civil war that has divided much of Syria into militia-run fiefdoms, including some ruled by al Qaeda-linked factions of radical Islamists.

Residential and shopping areas have been attacked by Syrian government forces using chemical weapons and barrel bombs—oil drums or cylinders packed with explosives and shrapnel.

According to BBC News, “There are believed to be as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups in Syria, commanding an estimated 100,000 fighters.” With so many groups, conflicting reports, and occurrences of Islamist rebels seizing bases from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, world powers are deadlocked over a resolution.

The systematic destruction of cultural monuments and artifacts as a result of Syria’s civil war is of little immediate concern to most of the more than two million Syrian refugees who have fled their homes since the war began.

“Today, the majority of people live in satellite urban quarters, totally different from the historic Old City,” Anke Scharrahs wrote me in December.

Anke, an internationally sought-after art conservator and scholar from Germany who specializes in the restoration of Syrian interiors, has traveled to Honolulu on multiple occasions to study the two Syrian rooms that were acquired by late philanthropist and heiress Doris Duke for her Honolulu estate, Shangri La, where I have spent the last ten years as staff.

The estate is now open to the public as a center for Islamic arts and cultures and visiting provides a rare opportunity to see such elaborate interiors up close, as only a smattering exists outside of and within Syria.

“It is a lost urban culture that died decades ago,” Anke continued. “Most of the kids in Syria do not know the old homes. Also, most of the adults don’t know about their existence.”

In the decades before the war, many interiors in the Old City were destroyed by earthquakes or demolished during renovations and new construction. In 2008, the Old City was placed on World Monuments Fund’s watch list as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world due to redevelopment plans calling for demolition of historical buildings.

They were largely forgotten until, of all things, a popular televised soap opera Bab al-Hara—filmed in Old Damascus and broadcast throughout the Arab world—brought these historical interiors to the public consciousness.

“Many people were at first surprised seeing how I admired the old rooms,” Anke recalled. “Then they opened their eyes and could hardly believe that such wonderful things had been created by their ancestors.”


Shadi Khalil is examining a reception room for guests in Bayt Ajami, Damascus, in preparation for restoration.

In the last 20 years, auction prices in London and Paris for Syrian ‘ajami rooms have increased tenfold. This is a far cry from the 1970s, when the dealer Hagop Kevorkian (from whom Doris Duke acquired elements of the Syrian rooms) failed to find a buyer and finally donated an assortment of interior elements that he had purchased back in 1933 and 1934 to various institutions, including New York University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Now, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is in the process of acquiring its own Damascene interior, a first for the West Coast. Within Syria, some rooms are being restored for continued use in private homes, while others have been converted to restaurants and hotels as tourist attractions.

Teams of international experts both within and outside of Syria are working to restore and perpetuate the interiors, including Anke, who has traveled extensively to Syria since 1998, and Shadi Khalil, a Syrian-born conservator and colleague of Anke.

Part of Anke’s skill is her understanding of the creative force behind ‘ajami, the application of relief ornaments made from a mixture of powdered gypsum and glue to wood or canvas surfaces. There is a quick-wristed, happy energy to the brushwork.

“During my studies and visits to approximately 150 houses [in the Old City], I found in almost every one of them a single, specific item or detail that was rare, unusual, surprising or unexpected,” Anke wrote in her book Damascene ‘Ajami Rooms: Forgotten Jewels of Interior Design.

“[T]iny birds flying around the painted cypresses, softly rippling waves in a river, a hunter shooting birds, or even little monsters; a specific type of Indian cotton print painted into a wall niche; tiny jasmine blossoms falling likes snowflakes; a knife sticking out of a melon slice; lemon trees with fruits like balloons.”

‘Ajami-style artwork goes hand-in-hand with ablaq, a masonry technique prevalent in courtyards and interiors involving alternating bands of colored plaster on stones.

Courtyard of Jabri house (Bayt Jabri) in Damascus, one of the oldest preserved private homes in Damascus (dated 1740s). In the late 1990s it was transformed into a restaurant, the first of its kind.

Old Damascus has the highest concentration of ‘ajami interiors, with most dating to the 18th century when the technique was fully developed and widely used. Today, of the likely 4,000 houses in Old Damascus, it is estimated that at least 300 interiors with paneled walls and ceilings remain, many hidden in private homes.

Outside of Syria, there are but a handful of ‘ajami rooms. Most are scattered and displayed in museums from Europe to Asia, including the two here in Honolulu at Shangri La.

Merely the final stop on a honeymoon trip through the Middle East and South Asia in 1935, Hawai‘i would become Duke’s home when she purchased the 4.9-acre plot near Diamond Head in 1936 to build her 14,000-square-foot estate. Newly wed, Duke began traveling extensively to far-off places like India, Iran, Syria, and Morocco, furnishing her new home with Islamic art.

Duke first visited Syria in 1938 and returned in the early 1950s when she purchased her first Syrian interior, now called the Damascus Room. She purchased a second interior in the late 1970s, now called the Syrian Room, which is comprised of elements from the Quwatli family home, one of the wealthiest 19th century merchant families in Damascus.

Over the course of three years, Shangri La (likely named after the mythical land of perpetual youth and immortality from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon) was built from the ground up, and Duke eventually accumulated a collection of about 2,500 Islamic objects and artifacts from the Middle East, as well as Spain, India, the Philippines, China, France, and elsewhere.

Today, Duke’s Syrian interiors are lovingly cared for by art conservation staff and interns battling only against the sun, salt, and humidity. Every day at Shangri La looks much like any other here in an unbroken string of stunning views of Islamic art, ocean, and landscape. The museum’s Syrian and Damascus rooms have become my parallel universe to the war.

While they may not be considered to have mana in a Hawaiian sense, there’s no denying their power to communicate the richness of Syrian culture and a heightened sense of its people.

Anke piecing Quwatli
Anke piecing together elements of the Quwatli family home at Shangri La in 2012.

When Anke visited Shangri La in 2012 to give a talk in the Damascus Room on other interiors of its kind, she showed a photo of a lived-in room in Syria today. I was struck by what I saw: a plastic chair, ordinary curtains and a cup, a bit of disarray amidst a backdrop of worn yet elaborately-patterned ‘ajami walls and shelves.

Suddenly, Doris Duke’s Syrian rooms had a contemporary counterpart. I had no idea that some of these interiors remained in use anywhere in the world, let alone by Syrian families still living in them. I have long known how rare Shangri La’s Syrian rooms are and had somehow assumed that the few remaining were only in museums.

That photo also highlighted the nagging disconnect between the idyllic setting of Shangri La’s Syrian rooms and the worsening news of war in Syria. How could I continue to pad routinely in and out of these rooms while bombs regularly dropped on their country of origin?

The war put a halt on the travel of international restoration teams to Syria, and Anke has been unable to make it back since January 2012. Shadi is still there, however, continuing to painstakingly remove layers of dirt and varnish to release the forgotten vibrancy of the colorful paintings underneath that which would otherwise be lost.

“Shadi is fine. They have heating oil and olives to survive the winter … better conditions than last year,” Anke wrote me in November. “He restarted working in an old house, which was my first contract in Damascus; I am jealous and happy at the same time.”

In February, Anke will pay her fourth visit to Shangri La to further examine the Syrian elements she identified as from the Quwatli family home during her last visit. The home was disassembled in the Old City in the 1920s and sold in bits and pieces to interested buyers, some of which found their way to Shangri La.

Anke is so well-versed in the details of the photos of the Quwatli house that, as she walked the halls and storerooms of Shangri La during her last visit, she spotted Quwatli elements embedded over doorways and on storage shelves—inlaid stone-paste and carved stone elements that have for decades have been integrated into the collection at Shangri La.

During her upcoming visit, she will attempt for the first time to reassemble the Quwatli home. Many of the elements she noted have been photographed, printed to scale, and assembled into a foam core model of the historic home, which we have playfully dubbed “Anke’s doll house.”

It is a few feet long, and eventually, we will work with an architect to create a digital rendering of the final version. The rest of the Quwatli house elements are spread across a few other museum and university collections in the United States and other unknown locations. Slowly, we are beginning to see a portion of Quwatli house rebuilt for the first time since it was disassembled.

Maybe because it is like giving birth in a time of death; or that it offers renewal in a time of great loss; or more practically, that it is practice for what will be needed to rebuild the houses no longer standing after the war—but creating the Quwatli house model, Anke’s doll house, feels deeply relevant to current events.

Syrian Room interior at Shangri La.

Similar to Syria’s past, Hawai‘i’s ongoing history includes dark chapters of occupation, loss, and resurgence of culture. In these parallel universes of Old Damascus and Honolulu, there is an urgency and insistence to life. While Anke reassembles a house last seen in the 1920s, worlds away, Shadi continues to work on original homes in the Old City.

But if Syria’s history as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world has taught anyone anything, it is that its people are resilient. It has been colonized by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, British, and French—some brief reigns, others centuries-long rules—the population thus shaped over time to be tolerant of many ethnicities and religions. The region is prone to devastating earthquakes that seem to happen every 250 years or so. And now, civil war.

“Damascus was destroyed so many times, and the people suffered so many times, but they always come back!” wrote Anke. “This is what they believe in. It is strong!!! If you have such a long past, you think in another way.

“I believe in the advice from a wise man in Potsdam who studied and realized urban planning for decades,” Anke continued. “He told me I should write an Arabic version of my book together with Shadi, which was my first wish anyhow. It will be needed after the war for identity reasons. People seek such things.”

My concern for the destruction of cultural patrimony may be genuine but, by painful admission, idle. As every disaster plan will emphasize, human safety comes first, before rescuing buildings or art, and Syria’s residents and refugees are far from safe.

Like many Americans, I am susceptible to being oblivious of or saturated to the point of numbness by coverage of the war in the media, at times shutting down in self-defense to avoid discomfort.

But banking on the impermanence of all things, including wars, there will, undoubtedly, come a time when TripAdvisor reviews of Syria will bloom again, and Syrians will rebuild their homes and their lives, reclaiming and reviving their culture once their basic needs are adequately met. Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth.

Maybe the ‘ajami rooms in Old Damascus will make it through the war, and we’ll all get to visit one day.

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