My favorite museum in Cairo damaged by a car bomb

Museum of Islamic Arts, Cairo, damaged by blast, photo by AFP

My favorite museum in the Middle East, the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, was not the target of yesterday’s car bomb — the police headquarters are across the street — but early reports are that it has been severely damaged by the blast.  If this were the better known Egyptian Museum on Tahrir that focuses on pharaonic art and is visited by every tourist there might be more appreciation for what has been lost.  But the Museum of Islamic Art, which focuses on 7th-19th century art from across the Islamic world, is in an area called Bab al-Khalq that is a bit of a no man’s land, at the point where the winding, organic harat of medieval Cairo (to the east) give way to the straight, Cartesian streets of modern Cairo (to the west) that was built in the 19th century on a Parisian plan; consequently, this magnificent museum is often overlooked.

The museum’s collection abounds in such riches that it can be exhausting to visit: room after room of splendor, from Persia to the Ottomans to the Maghreb.  For many years, the display of these treasures was a travesty — dusty vitrines, inadequate security, negligent maintenance — but a seemingly endless renovation finally ended a couple years ago (ostensibly 2010, but it was intermittently closed after that) and the place was majestic, worthy at last of its collection.  Indeed, the only collection comparable in quality I’ve seen is the Islamic wing at the Met in New York but in Cairo there are a few pieces — now possibly destroyed — whose equal I’ve never seen anywhere.

Here is what I wrote on my last visit to the museum:

Cairo 7 September 2012

The Museum of Islamic Art was always my favorite but its breathtaking collection was presented in a way that could only be described as woeful: badly lit, long neglected, rarely dusted and lightly guarded, I lived in fear that a small group of ill intentioned men armed with just about anything could overrun the place at any moment.  That could still happen but an eight-year renovation would make that more difficult and makes the experience of viewing it much more pleasant.

Reportedly, they dramatically whittled down the collection on display but the building seems much expanded and a fatigue of riches sets in long before anyone can miss what was removed.  The thick-glassed cases are elegant and the pieces are given space to breathe, but the Fatimid, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods were ones of such extravagant cultural accomplishment that it is easy to overlook that, say, a couple rooms in the back related to Persia are, alone, enough to shame Peter Schjeldahl.  [This is a reference to the New Yorker art critic who totally missed the point of the Islamic wing at the Met, which I wrote about here.]  There is an incredible thirteenth century Mamluk door in wood and copper bearing the name of Prince Shams al-Din al-Tawil al-Mansuri and, in the same room, thirteenth century Mamluk glass lamps I remember from previous visits.  At the entrance, the earliest Qu’ran to use vowels, Umayyad 7th-8th century, and just to its right, randomly, an exquisite 16th century door in a soft creamy marble that was a gift from the King of Afghanistan.  In the wing to the left, a beautiful collection of seven cups and four vessels from 12th-century Iran with painted figures showing the influence of Central Asia, as well as the oldest metallic luster tiles dating to 1203.  Then, some amazing sixteenth century Mamluk and Ottoman tombstones as well as tile panels showing the Haram al-Sharif [in Jerusalem], from 17th-18th century Turkey.

I was practically worn out by this point, having underestimated the number of rooms, but just at the end a beloved piece I remember from years ago: a 17th century Safavid cotton tunic from Iran decorated with exceptionally fine geometry, talismans, and Qu’ranic inscriptions.

Lamps at the Museum of Islamic Arts, CairoFirst Quran to use vowels, Museum of Islamic Arts, CairoMuseum of Islamic Arts, Cairo, Egypt

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Update: There have now been four bombings reported in Cairo, all targeting the police.  No one has claimed responsibility yet but the regime has blamed the Muslim Brotherhood, as you would expect; the MB has condemned the attacks and denied involvement, as you would also expect.

It is easy to be cynical about the MB but, in fact, after violent origins they foreswore political violence in the 1970s and were not implicated in the wave of attacks in the mid- to late-1990s (when I lived in Cairo) by more radical Islamist groups that included the Luxor massacre in 1997 that killed 62 people.  The problem now is that some, maybe many, in the MB must be wondering what non-violence has gotten them given the massacre of their supporters in Rabea al-Adaweya following the coup d’etat that overthrew Mohamed Morsi.  The Sisi regime, for its part, seems to have concluded that relentlessly driving the MB into taking up arms is the best strategy for isolating it.  They are wrong about that and I fear that the recent bombings are what the consequences of that strategy will look like.

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Every update it gets worse. I can’t believe the claim that the entire collection has been lost, or even that it will be just the coins, etc to survive. Even if only the four lamps (presumably the ones pictured above, which were on display) mentioned in this update were truly destroyed that would be heartbreaking as I always marveled that something so delicate and beautiful as glass would have endured for so long; now, perhaps, they are gone in an instant.

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After the bombing at the Museum of Islamic Art, photo by Ahmed Gamil-AP

The New York Times finally has a more comprehensive survey of the damage (published 1 Feb) that, sadly, confirms the sense of loss.  The lamps were destroyed, as was much else.  The article also mentions the extensive looting of archaeological sites that has occurred during the post-revolutionary security vacuum:

A man in a white lab coat sat alone among piles of blown-off ceiling, mangled metal and splintered wood here on Thursday inside the Museum of Islamic Art — home to a world-renowned collection that covers centuries of art from countries across the Islamic world. He carefully separated ochre-tinted pieces of old glass from the clear shards of modern showcases.  The precious glass came from exquisite medieval lamps — or meshkawat — from some of Cairo’s most important mosques. They were among the biggest material losses from a truck bomb blast on Jan. 24 that tore through this 111-year-old museum, blowing out windows and sending metal and glass flying through its halls. The bombing, which was aimed at Cairo’s police headquarters across the street, killed four people and injured 76.

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“The explosion caused so much damage,” said Ahmed Sharaf, director of the Antiquities Ministry’s museum division. “So many pieces have been destroyed, ceramics, glass, wood.”

Egypt’s minister of antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim, said on Friday that 74 precious artifacts had been destroyed and that 90 were damaged, but repairable. The museum had nearly 1,471 artifacts on display in 25 galleries and 96,000 objects in storage. Situated near Islamic Cairo, the museum building, with its impressive neo-Mameluke facade, had recently undergone a six-year, $10 million renovation. The complex includes Egypt’s National Library on the second floor, where several rare manuscripts and papyri were also damaged.

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Elena Chardakliyska, writing in Mada Masr ten days after the bombing, describes the collection of magnificent manuscripts that were housed in the Dar al-Kutub Bab al Khalq on the second floor of the museum. The halls were badly damaged but, it seems, the manuscripts themselves survived.  She writes:

Just days before the blast, on January 19, 2014, a celebration was held at the museum commemorating the inclusion of part of its collection of splendid, monumental Mamluk Quran manuscripts in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, whose aim is to gather and raise awareness about collections of global importance. Before the Mamluk Quran manuscripts, a selection of the museum’s documents and decrees was added to the register in 2005, followed by the collection of Persian illustrated manuscripts in 2007. There are not many libraries in the world that have three different collections prominently featured on Memory of the World.

Fortunately for Dar al Kutub Bab al Khalq and for all of us, all the manuscripts have now been accounted for after the bombing and none of them have suffered irreparable damage. Most of them were actually fine, protected by the thick walls of the building and the reinforced glass of the exhibition cases. They were all evacuated to Dar al Kutub’s Corniche premises to be reunited with the rest of its collection until reconstruction plans take shape. In the meantime, we’re left with the visceral realization that these manuscripts could have been lost or destroyed in a second, manuscripts that, despite being on display in the center of Cairo and free to look at, not enough people knew about.

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