The former sanctuary of ‘the richest woman in the world’ is a mesmerising journey into Islamic art and culture.

Shangri La is the former sanctuary of Doris Duke (1912 – 1993), the daughter of wealthy tobacco and electric energy tycoon James Buchanan Duke. Situated in an affluent neighbourhood near Diamond Head just outside of Honolulu, the Islamic-style mansion was built in 1937 as a home of Islamic art and architecture. Today it is owned by The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art in cooperation with the Honolulu Museum of Art and it is open to the public for guided tours.

Appetite for Life

Doris Duke had an enormous appetite for learning and she spent most of her life travelling the world learning about foreign cultures. With almost unlimited funds at her disposal she pursued a wide range of interests such as writing, wild life conservation, competition surfing and art collection. After her marriage to James Cromwell in 1935 the couple went on honeymoon through the Islamic world that ended with an extended stay on Hawaii. During their journey, Doris, already and avid art collector, was introduced to various Islamic cultures and she brought back multiple artefacts from their travels. When architect Marion Sims Wyeth started designing the mansion in 1936 it was around these already collected artefacts that the building took shape.

Until her death in 1993, Doris continued to collect Islamic art for Shangri La, which today features original elements from Iran, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt and Syria amongst others. The estate is an eclectic blend between the Islamic world and the tropical environs of Hawaii, where tropical gardens and the view of the Pacific Ocean lend the formality of the art collection a welcoming fresh atmosphere.

Unlike a normal museum

I visited Hawaii and Shangri La in December on a crisp sunny day where the glistening Pacific Ocean looked particularly appealing in the sun. The tour of Shangri La started at the Honolulu Museum of Art on Beretania Street in Honolulu, itself home to quite a sizeable collection of Islamic Art. I had read on the Shangri La website that demand for the public tours is high and so had reserved my tickets online well in advance. After a guided tour of the museum’s Islamic art collection we were transported in busses to the Shangri La just a short drive away.

Shangri La is nothing like an ordinary museum. Compared to conventional museums, which I sometimes find a bit claustrophobic, Doris’ sanctuary is dynamic and adventurous offering visitors a life and a story of one individual’s love for and fascination of the Islamic world and its culture, traditions and customs. It is obvious no curator has put together this collection with the restrictions of conventional museum guidelines and it features a wide range of items from various time periods and areas made from different materials. The architecture is complimented by built-in elements made my artists that Doris herself commissioned such as the magnificent wood ceiling in the Foyer, which was gilded and painted by a Moroccan artist in 1938.

Private collection

Ceramics feature prominently with a large collection of Iznik ceramics and tiles. This specific type of decorated ceramic originated in western Anatolia in the end of the 15th to 17th centuries and is today recognised by its distinct cobalt blue colour and meticulous designs combining traditional Ottoman arabesque patterns with Chinese elements. The ceramics were especially popular in the Ottoman court where they served both as gifts and for every day use. In the Turkish and Baby Turkish rooms I find a collection of Iznik dishes dating back to the 16th century. Some of the dishes were added to the collection in 1937 when Doris bought more than a thousand dishes from a dealer in Venice, while others were bought at auctions in New York City in the 1950s and 60s.

Throughout the estate, Doris had whole rooms, furniture, ceilings, doors, or tiles commissioned especially for Shangri La. In the Central Courtyard I was mesmerised by the detail of a massive 6 x 3.35 metre tile panel commissioned in Iran in 1938-39. It derives from a pair of mosaic tile panels on the portal to the Shah’s mosque in Isfahan and is made of thousands of little pieces of tile of varying size fitted together in intricate patterns that makes the panel look like it’s made from just one large piece of tile.

It was evident throughout the tour that Doris collected not for monetary gain or for showing off. The collection tells a story of real passion and a desire to learn about Islamic culture and the fact that it was her private collection makes it so much more fascinating. If I ever come back to Hawaii I will definitely go again!


  • The Honolulu Museum of Art features an eclectic mix of artists in various genres throughout the year.  http://www.honoluluacademy.org/
  • In December Honolulu is lit by thousands of lights and decorations in a month long celebration called Honolulu City Lights. The event draws hundred of thousands of local and foreign tourists and is organised by the City and County of Honolulu and the Friends of Honolulu City Lights.  http://honolulucitylights.org/
  • Not far from the Honolulu Museum of Art, on King Street, lies the Honolulu Hale, the city hall and one of the most architecturally beautiful buildings in the city.  http://www1.honolulu.gov/moca/historichonolulu.htm
  • La Mer is a high end restaurant serving French-inspired cuisine combined with indigenous Hawaiian ingredients. If for nothing else, come here for the view.  http://www.halekulani.com/living/dining/la_mer/
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Lisa Lee
Lisa has travelled extensively throughout Europa and Asia writing for a number of publications and travel websites. She is an experienced diving instructor and when she is not chasing rays and whale sharks in remote island destinations, she can be found roaming around major cities in search of good food and entertainment.