The Playhouse at Shangri La. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

Shangri La, Islam, and the Ocean: An Interconnected World

As I sit, with coffee in hand, enjoying the spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean from Shangri La, I recognize that Doris Duke’s choice of venue for a house filled with Islamic art was singularly appropriate.  After all, Arabs and Persians were the great seafarers of the eighth to fifteenth centuries. Their merchants traveled to Mogadishu in modern Somalia on the east coast of Africa to Calicut in India to the port of Quanzhou on China’s southeast coast. They linked Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.  Ships laden with cargoes of gold, spices, medicines, and numerous other products traversed the Indian Ocean and then on to the South China Sea.

The influence of these traders went beyond the simple exchange of goods. They introduced Islam to many regions in Asia and simultaneously exposed the Arab and Persian worlds to Chinese decorative objects. The 1998 discovery of the Belitung shipwreck, off the coast of Indonesia, of a ninth-century Arab dhow attests to the scale of the trade and to the splendid works of art that played a role in such commerce. Excavators found sixty thousand unique and high-quality Chinese ceramics and gold objects, many of which are now housed in a museum in Singapore. The Chinese ceramics that actually reached the Arab and Persian worlds would naturally have a significant influence on Islamic art.

The beauty of Shangri La and its idyllic location prompt many such reflections about art as well as about “globalization,” much before that term gained currency in the twentieth century. A spectacular museum of Islamic art in Hawai’i offers a perfect symbol of globalization.

2014.6_20140614_015About the Guest Author:

Morris Rossabi is Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York and Columbia University, and has taught and conducted research on Chinese, Inner Asian and Islamic culture. Author and editor of more than twenty books, including Khubilai Khan and A History of China, he has participated in exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He served as Chair of the Arts and Culture Board of the Soros Foundation also been granted fellowships and residencies from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution, the Smith Richardson Foundation among other organizations. In 2015-2016 he lectured at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Rijksmuseum, Salzburg University and the University of Colorado.  He has been an advisor at Shangri La periodically since 2002 and has presented lectures here in 2012 and 2014.

Photo credit: The Playhouse at Shangri La. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)