Story by Julia Steele
Photo by Olivier Koning
In 1938 an American heiress named Doris Duke was traveling through Syria. Three years earlier, while honeymooning in the Muslim world, she’d fallen in love with Islamic art and architecture. Now she was in the Middle East on a collecting trip, snapping up art and ideas for the seaside manse she was creating in Honolulu. In Damascus she met Georges Asfar and Jean Sarkis, Syria’s most prominent antique dealers, and it was the start of a long and fruitful relationship for all three. In 1953, on Duke’s second trip to Syria, the pair told her of an entire qa‘a that could be had. Duke knew exactly what a qa‘a was: a reception room typically found in wealthy Damascene homes, a room distinguished by the ajami, or highly ornate wood paneling, that covered its walls and ceiling. The ajami that Asfar and Sarkis had in their possession dated to a qa‘a created in the 1780s during the Ottoman Empire. Duke agreed to buy it, and the finest crafts family in Syria, the al-Khayyats, set about restoring the ajami and reconfiguring it to fit the guest room Duke had in mind. In 1954 it was shipped to Honolulu, via Beirut, in nine crates and installed—a magnificent creation overlooking the ocean at Black Point.
When Duke died, her house, Shangri La, became a museum renowned for its fine collection of Islamic art. It opened to the public in 2002—but the Honolulu qa‘a did not. From 2004 to 2008 the room, now called the Damascus Room, underwent extensive restoration. Next, elegant curtains were created using Egyptian and Turkish fabrics Duke herself had bought, and the room’s five vitrines were filled with art, artifacts and archival materials. The room finally opened in July, and it offers an even deeper look into the odyssey Duke embarked on when she created Shangri La. Among the exquisite art on display there is even Asfar and Sarkis’ bill of sale for the room—proof that while Duke may have been the richest woman in the world in her day, she was not above getting an extraordinary bargain: For both the ajami and its restoration she paid a total of $6,500.