The cultural destruction of war in the Middle East

Lamps at the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo

Lamps at the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo

The cultural loss in the the last four years of political conflict in the Middle East has been staggering.  One of the world’s great ancient cities, Aleppo, has been the center of intense battle between rebel factions and the Syrian regime for years on end and the UN damage assessment of its historic core — possibly the world’s oldest continuously-occupied urban space — is heartbreaking to behold.

Damaged or destroyed sites in ancient Aleppo, Syria, source UNITAR

Damaged or destroyed sites in ancient Aleppo, Syria, source UNITAR

In Aleppo, as in the rest of Syria, the destruction was mostly collateral damage from the war rather than a goal in its own right.  But Islamic State has recently fetishized this cultural destruction as a tactical maneuver to goad outside parties into expanding their military intervention in the region, first with this horrific video of the Mosul Museum and then with word they were bulldozing millennia-old monuments at Nimrud in northern Iraq.  No one will know what the full extent of the damage is in Libya until the fighting settles down but if you look at my photographs from the trip I made through the Libyan Sahara for Travel + Leisure you’ll see a number of artifacts that were unguarded even in peacetime and now surely are at serious risk of looting.

But the loss that strikes me most personally is the damage to the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo that I wrote about when it happened a year ago.  This was my favorite museum in Cairo, with a collection of Islamic art (mostly, 7th-15th C) perhaps unrivaled in the world.  It had been closed for an extended renovation: it was dusty and neglected when I visited in the years before but the renovation was remarkably impressive when I visited it in 2012 and worthy of the art it presented.  Now Peter Schwartzstein gives an update on the status of the museum in Roads + Kingdoms (via Slate) that is equal parts encouraging and disheartening.  The piece has its flaws: it calls the museum “famed” which is true in certain circles but this museum was generally (and unfairly, I thought) overshadowed by the pharaonic art in the far better-known Egyptian Museum on Tahrir; also, Schwartzstein leaves it needlessly ambiguous whether the museum was the target of the car bomb that destroyed its facade, saying the responsible jihadi group “claims” it was targeting the police headquarters directly across Port Said Street when that is undoubtedly the case.  But where Schwartzstein does us a great service is in reporting the administrative incompetence that exacerbated the situation and the slow progress towards repairing the damage:

The problems began immediately after the blast. Amid the chaos, curators were unable to locate the distinctive Allen key required to lever open the intricate locking mechanisms for the few showcases that withstood the explosion. As water from the sprinkler system seeped into the cracks, desperate workers resolved to smash their way in, but succeeded only in chipping other valuables and mixing new glass among the fragments of 1,000-year-old lanterns and urns.
It was at this point that Egypt’s complicated political dynamic also intruded, according to several independent conservationists who asked to remain nameless. A pair of specialist German conservators arrived to offer their services, but police allegedly denied them entry due to their organization’s association with pro-democracy activism and the revolution of 2011, which many members of the security apparatus resent.

The good news, if it can be called that, is that more of the museum’s vast collection appears to have survived than I (and many others) had initially feared:

Fortunately for supporters of what many see as the world’s greatest collection of Islamic art, all but 17 of the shattered treasures look to be salvageable. As of December, 160 had been pieced back together.
But Hamdy Abdel Moneim, the head of the restoration department, is still consumed by the loss of various treasures.
“I was tearful when I saw the damage. So much history was destroyed,” he said, while surveying an eighth-century pot hailing from the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, which one of Moneim’s apprentices had been painstakingly patching up for three months.
Almost everything in the museum has since been moved out. Only a pair of bored security guards keeps watch over the dust-caked interior. A few large Mamluk-era floor tiles proved too heavy to shift, and so they’ve remained hitched against the wall. So too a seventh–eighth century Umayyad Quran, which is supposedly one of the earliest recorded examples of the use of vowels and consonants, and which somehow survived the blast unscathed.
“We believe its survival was a miracle,” said Ahmed el-Shoky, the museum’s director. “It was directly in harm’s way.”

It is worth reading in full.

First Quran to use vowels, Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo

First Quran to use vowels, Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo

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