A Few of Our Favorite Things: A Jewel in Its Own Right

The following is a guest post by Shangri La guide Susan Killeen.

While showing guests through the Syrian Room at Shangri La, one of my joys is lighting up the low tea table (65.9) under the nineteenth-century Moroccan embroidered and appliqued textile in the smaller room. It’s as if the table waits patiently in the dimly lit space to perform for visitors when the light shines, and it never fails to elicit a chorus of oooos.

Table (khwan) (65.9). Iran, late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Table (khwan) (65.9). Iran, late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

The table, or khwan, is a beauty from late nineteenth–early twentieth-century Iran, probably the Qajar period. When created, it very likely did not have the same legs, and may have had short ones to elevate it just slightly. Rather than a table, this ornate piece was most likely an elaborate tray or “trencher” as it might be called. One might imagine that it once carried an array of sweet and savory dishes to be shared with guests.

Detail of table (65.9). Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Detail of table (65.9). Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

An excellent example of the artistic genius found in Islamic art, the table asserts the details of geometry, calligraphy, floral, and figurative imagery—a visual delight. The surface is a painted, gilded, and lacquered wood graced with scenes of princely life. Exquisitely featured medallions or cartouches depict several figures in a forest landscape with a variety of birds and wild animals. A number of leisurely figures interact while two youths demonstrate their prowess on horseback. The overall dimensions of the piece are 11 3/8 x 32 5/8 x 62 inches.

A narrow, floral border frames the central panel. Inscriptions of Persian poetry surround the edges of the table, beginning in the upper right hand corner and continuing around to the left. True to the artistic culture and custom of the period, the poetry (translated by former scholar-in-residence Wheeler Thackston) praises the table for its beauty and service:

habbaza khwane ki naqshash bas khwash u zebasti
O what a marvelous table, the design of which is so pleasing! How beautiful you are!

hamchu chihr-i dilbaran janbakhsh u ruhafzasti
Like the countenances of charmers, you are life-giving and spirit-increasing.

rashk-i naqsh-i Azar u Mani ki naqshash chun nigar
A design so beautiful it would make Azer and Mani jealous.

dilsitan u naghz u khwash u zebasti
Ravishing, comely, beautiful, good, and charming you are.

inchunin alhaq qarin-i khanda khwan u naqsh band
Thus truly a table and design coupled with laughter.

diljo-i bazm-i shahanshah-i jahan-arasti
You are a comfort at the banquet of a world-adorning king of kings.

For me, the fact that an otherwise utilitarian object would be so charmingly embellished speaks to the fact that the arts have the power to lift us up and enrich the function and beauty of the everyday items we use. The artisans of Islamic culture certainly appreciated this concept as a way of life.

susanAbout the Guest Author: Susan Killeen is a writer and producer, having worked in television and on educational documentaries. She served as executive director of the Hawaii Consortium for the Arts and as President of the Honolulu Pen Women. She has taught creative writing and has worked as an interpretive guide at Shangri La since 2011.

A Few of Our Favorite Things: Mosaic Tile Panel

Mosaic tile panel (48.93) in the central courtyard. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Mosaic tile panel (48.93) in the central courtyard. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

The following is a guest post by Shangri La guide Stacy Pope.

As a tour guide at Shangri La, I feel lucky to spend so much time at such an exquisite place. The more I learn about the property and its vast collection of Islamic art, the more I love it—and that seems to be true for many of our visitors as well.

One of my favorite things at Shangri La is a colorful mosaic (48.93) located in the patio, or central courtyard. It is strikingly beautiful and grand, to be sure; it’s also a masterpiece of craftsmanship. But most of all, I enjoy observing visitors as I explain the inspiration for the mosaic’s design and the incredible amount of effort and skill its creation required. I watch as they gradually transform from passively appreciative to engaged, gathering around the mosaic’s gleaming façade for closer study and lingering even as we move toward the living room.

Handcrafted 75 years ago in Isfahan, Iran, the mosaic is young in comparison to many of Shangri La’s centuries-old works of art. The fact that it perfectly fits the patio’s protruding south wall—which is 11 feet wide and 20 feet tall—is no accident; Doris Duke and her husband, James Cromwell, commissioned the mosaic with this very spot in mind.

In 1938, as construction on Shangri La neared completion, the couple traveled through Iran (as well as Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Egypt) for artistic inspiration and to purchase pieces for their new home. In Isfahan, they were particularly impressed with the early-seventeenth-century structures framing Naqsh-e Jahan Square (today a UNESCO World Heritage Site), including several ornate palaces and the astounding Masjid-i Shah, or Shah Mosque. Archives at Shangri La and at Duke University contain Mr. Cromwell’s photographs and film footage documenting its intricately patterned portal panels. These panels, rich in floral and geometric designs and flanked by calligraphic cartouches, became the models for Shangri La’s patio mosaic design.

Work soon began on the Cromwells’ commission—but the process would be long and arduous. First, batches of stonepaste tiles were glazed in cobalt, turquoise, kelly green, mustard yellow, brown, brick red, white and black; then, each batch was fired individually, as each color demanded a unique firing temperature for maximum glaze brilliance.

The workshop that created the tile panel, Isfahan, Iran. March 20, 1939. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
The workshop that created the tile panel, Isfahan, Iran. March 20, 1939. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Then the cutting of the tiles began. Mosaics are something like jigsaw puzzles, requiring many small pieces that fit together to make one larger image. The more complicated the design and color scheme, the more pieces it can take. The patio mosaic called for approximately 17,000 pieces—each cut by hand into tiny circles, asymmetrical squiggles, half moons and every other shape imaginable. When the cut tiles were complete, each had to be placed upside down into the pattern. Plaster was then poured, bonding the pieces together into one work of art.

Then the Cromwells faced the problem of getting the mosaic all the way from Iran to Hawai‘i—in the midst of World War II. In 1940 it finally arrived, having traveled eastward by ship to New York before backtracking to Honolulu.

The finished mosaic features vibrant floral arabesques, interlocking leafy vines and four cartouches containing Koranic inscriptions that honor Allah and praise the god-fearing mortal. At its crown, a cryptic geometric design encodes the repeating message “May it be blessed” in Kufic script. The entire work is framed in serpentine vines.

What an artistic achievement—and what magnificence the mosaic adds to Shangri La.

About the Guest Author: Raised just down the road from Shangri La, Stacy Pope has worked as an interpretive guide at the museum since 2011. She is also a published travel writer and magazine editor. 

Nowrouz = New Day

Aid-e-Shoma Mobarak! Today is Nowrouz, a Persian holiday that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years. In the Iranian calendar, Nowrouz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year. This year, it occurs on March 20, in line with the vernal equinox. Nowrouz celebrations are characterized by family gatherings, sharing with friends, and expressing hope for the New Year.  Shangri La interpretive guides Farideh Farhi and Azadeh Rezaie Nikou were both born and raised in Iran and agreed to share some of their childhood memories of Nowrouz holidays.

Farideh remembers Khooneh tekooni (literally home shaking) or house cleaning, the setting up of the traditional haft seen table and family visits. “My childhood memories of Nowrouz in Iran are all associated with what I would call a bundle of newness. Nowrouz literally means ‘new day,’ but in practice it also meant making everything new or like new. Glass windows had to become squeaky clean; carpets, drapes, and even walls washed; and everything we wore had to be new at the moment planet earth turned (tahvil), replacing winter with spring. Last but not least, making everything new also entailed renewal of familial and friendship bonds through the highly ritualized practice of did-o-bazdid (meaning visit and re-visit).”

Haft seen table at Shangri La, Nowrouz 2009

Another Nowrouz tradition is the assembly of special items that make up the haft seen table.  The term haft seen means seven seen (a letter similar to ‘S’ in the Persian alphabet). The basic idea is to put on the table seven objects that start with seen. The haft seen items frequently include sabzeh (wheat or lentil sprouts, representing rebirth), samanu (creamy pudding made from wheat germ, regarded as holy and representing affluence), seeb (an apple, representing health and beauty), senjid (dried fruit of the lotus tree, representing love), sir (garlic, regarded as medicinal and representing health), somagh (sumac berries, representing the color of the sun and the victory of good over evil), serkeh (vinegar, representing old age and patience), sonbol (hyacinth plant), sekkeh (coins, representing wealth), aajeel (dried nuts, berries and raisins), lit candles (representing enlightenment and happiness), a mirror (representing cleanness and honesty), decorated eggs (representing fertility), traditional Iranian pastries like baklava, a bowl of water with goldfish, rosewater (said to have magical cleansing powers), national colors (for a patriotic touch) and a holy book or poetry book.

Decorated eggs, bowl with goldfish, and garlic presented on the haft seen table at Shangri La, Nowrouz 2009

“The setting of our haft seen table could only be finalized on the day winter turned to spring,” Farideh explained. “Mother was of course in charge of everything that had to be taken care of in advance, such as growing the sabzeh, which in our home included both wheat and lentil sprouts, and buying of the goldfish. But painting eggs was something everyone did on the last day of the year and so was the actual placing of the special haft seen items on the table.”

Farideh continues, “Mother would wake us up about half an hour before the moment planet earth turned (tahvil), replacing winter with spring. The children would excitedly wear their new clothes and stand in front of the haft seen table and wait for the radio or television to announce the moment of change. Kisses and hugs would follow; brand new unfolded paper money would be taken out of pages of the Quran, which was on the table and handed out to children. If tahvil was during the night, with daybreak there was serious business to attend to. The homes of the oldest members of the family had to be visited on the first day of the New Year. No complaining was allowed on those visits and, in any case, the lure of crisp bills—as well as wonderful sweets—was always there.”

Azadeh recalls baking special sweets, going on picnics and taking a road trip to Isfahan and Shiraz. “Nowrouz has always been very special to me,” she said. “Counting down the days to Nowrouz was a delightful preoccupation of all Persian kids. Right before the end of this festive period of celebrations, the majority of families and friends would get out of their homes and enjoy small and large community picnics all over the nation. At home, and prior to the first day of celebrations, women had to take care of their own preparatory rituals. I remember my mom always had her own way of preparing her little sweets for the occasion. Baklava, honey sweets plus garbanzo, rice, and fruit pastries were all made superbly and delicately, and they were always deliciously fresh.”

Lamp Stand, Iran, c. 1600, cast copper alloy (54.100). Portion of Persian poem inscribed on the base: I remember one night when sleep did not come to my eyes, I heard a moth say to the candle, “I am a lover. If I burn, it is appropriate. Why then do you weep and burn so?” (Sa ̒di, d.1291).

Azadeh also remembers trips to Iran’s cultural capitals. “After the first week of intense family visitations, people would often get out of the house and travel. One year, my parents decided to travel to Shiraz, the birth place of the famous thirteenth-century Persian poet Saadi. My father planned for us to stay in Isfahan, at the midpoint of our trip to Shiraz, for one night to rest and enjoy a theatrical play. A famous Isfahani comedian by the name of Arham e Sadr Arham would present specially crafted plays for his eager audiences, who would come from all over the country to visit Isfahan. My dad had arranged for us to see one of these Arham plays. That night, we watched the play and laughed ourselves to the end.  When we arrived in Shiraz, I realized why people had often called the city poetic and romantic. The city was clean and filled with colorfully organized public flower parks and open Persian gardens. Everywhere we drove I could see people smiling and exchange pleasantries. The city was friendly, lively and inviting. Our stay in such a beautiful city and my brother’s spacious new house were nothing short of heaven itself. For the next few days we cheerfully ate, played, and celebrated Nowrouz in a playground we could only have dreamt of.”

Ali Qapu (1590-1643), Isfahan, Iran. Photograph taken during the Cromwells’ 1938 trip.

The celebration of Nowrouz continues to be a joyous tradition in many parts of the world, including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia. We extend our best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowrouz around the world.