Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

After the attack

Can Cairo’s neo-Mameluke Museum of Islamic Art regain its allure after the recent bomb blast, asks Nevine El-Aref

Al-Ahram Weekly

The scene in Port Said Street in the Bab Al-Khalq area of Cairo was not as it usually is last Friday, not being buzzing with cars, pedestrians and peddlers as is usually the case but instead almost vacant except for a few pedestrians crossing the road and a crane and two yellow trucks filled with iron scaffolding. Workers in white and blue helmets were busy removing the scaffolding and fixing thick metal ropes onto the crane.

Last Friday in the early morning a car bomb exploded at the Cairo Security Directorate across the street from Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art, the blast rocking the capital and blowing a six-metre crater into Port Said Street while also ripping into the façade of the two-storey Islamic Art building, whose second floor is shared with the National Library and Archives.

Many of those who visited the area afterwards will have wondered how the awe-inspiring honey-coloured edifice will be able to regain its neo-Mamluke architecture and luxurious façade that features rich patterns and elaborate decoration in the Islamic style. The destruction is almost indescribable: many of the glass window panes that once decorated the building have been shattered, and damage has been caused across the façade, which has lost some of its decorative casing.

The authentic wooden gate of the Museum inlaid with silver and iron geometric motifs has been totally destroyed, while the adjacent annex built in a similar architectural style in order to house the administrative offices after the Museum’s restoration and re-inauguration in 2010 has also been damaged.

Stepping inside the Museum, the situation is worse. The picture that used to greet visitors, with the spacious galleries showcasing the Museum’s collection of rare wooden, metal, ceramic, glass, and textile items from across the Islamic world, has vanished to be replaced by ruin and ugliness. The floor is covered with pieces of broken glass, metal shards and wooden beams. Large segments of the gypsum board ceiling used to cover the electricity and security systems of the Museum have fallen down, and broken showcases and damaged mashrabiyya are scattered throughout the galleries.

Restorers and workers were scrambling earlier in the week to remove items to storage before the restoration could begin. The large artefacts are now the only pieces that have not been removed to other museums, and all intact and broken artefacts have now been wrapped in linen and plastic for inventory and restoration. Meanwhile, water was falling from broken pipes on visitors’ heads.

 “Don’t panic! The water comes from the automatic extinguishers in the National Library above,” curator Mahmoud Abdel-Raouf told the Weekly, adding that the force of the bomb blast across the street had impacted on the fire sensors and caused water to leak through the Museum’s ceilings.

“The force of the blast was very strong,” Abdel-Raouf said, adding that it had also wrecked the street lanterns and damaged the Museum’s stained-glass windows, showcases and artefacts. Even the internal iron gates of the storage area had been thrown off their hinges, though thankfully nothing had happened to the objects inside. “They are all safe and sound,” he said.

Abdel-Raouf told the Weekly that the Museum’s collection of carpets and textiles had not been affected by the water leakage and that it was in good condition. “Although the ceiling debris and street lanterns smashed the glass of the showcases, the framework of the cases protected many artefacts from damage,” Ahmed Sharaf, head of the museums section at the ministry of state for antiquities (MSA), told the Weekly. He explained that a definite number of damaged objects could not yet be announced, as the inventory carried out by the MIA curators and restorers was not completed. Sharaf expected that a number ranging between 80 to 90 damaged objects could eventually be announced.

“All the Museum’s windows were damaged, and the survival of the artefacts depends on where they were in relation to the windows and the materials they are made of,” he said.  Galleries close to the Museum’s street façade had experienced the greatest losses, he said, adding that according to early monitoring four out of the 14 galleries had experienced particularly severe losses, these displaying objects made of ceramic, glass, wood and plaster.

The Museum’s security, lighting and ventilation systems, as well as its monitoring cameras and air-conditioning, had also been damaged. “I am pretty sure that the damage is reparable,” Sharaf said, adding that if the required budget was available the Museum could be back on its feet within a six-month period.

MSA minister Mohammed Ibrahim described the destruction as “a black day for Egypt’s heritage.” He told the Weekly that although the structural condition of the Museum was undamaged, an initial assessment had revealed that the condition of the galleries was “topsy-turvy.” Among the destroyed treasures, he said at a press conference held in the Museum’s garden two days after the explosion, was a porcelain glass object that once belonged to Amir Abdel-Samad and dating back to 155 Higra that was decorated with a form of glaze believed to be pioneered by the Egyptians.

Other priceless pieces that were damaged or destroyed included a centuries-old wooden prayer niche (mihrab) used in mosques to point in the direction of Mecca during the five daily calls to prayer. Arabic inscriptions and verses from the Qur’an were carved on the piece, which had belonged to Ruqaya, a successor of the Prophet Mohammed.

A wooden mihrab inlaid with ivory motifs which had belonged to the Mameluke princess Tatar al-Hegaziya was also destroyed, as were glass lamps of Amir Almas al-Hageb and Falil Ibn Qalawoun, who led the last war against the crusaders and expelled them from Acre in the Middle Ages. Three of 15 rare painted glass lanterns of sultan Hassan Ibn Qalawoun had been damaged, but the unique gold and silver coins and daggers inlaid with precious stones also associated with the sultan were intact. Ibrahim said that the metal jug of amir Marawan Ibn Mohamed, the last Umayyad caliph, was intact and not damaged, as had previously been stated.

During the press conference Ibrahim said that UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova had condemned the terrorist attack and offered Egypt a grant of US$100,000 to be used as part of a larger campaign to rescue the world-famous Museum. In a spirit of solidarity, Ibrahim said, Bokova had appealed to UNESCO member states to support action to rehabilitate the Museum and its galleries and displays.

Ibrahim told the Weekly that Bokova had pledged to mobilise UNESCO’s experience and expertise in rebuilding the Museum and restoring the damage. At the end of this week, he added, a team of UNESCO experts in Islamic art, architecture and restoration would embark on an inspection tour of the Museum galleries in order to determine the losses and draw up a restoration scheme. Egyptian actor Mohamed Sobhi had also launched a campaign to help in the restoration of the Museum and establish a fund to collect the budget required for its restoration. “The estimated budget required is LE100 million,” Ibrahim said.

Similar destruction occurred in the National Library and Archives housed above the Museum galleries. Minister of culture Saber Arab told the Weekly that the losses were serious, as the equipment used for lighting and ventilation as well as the air conditioning devices inside the Library had been damaged, while the decorative façade had collapsed. “All the showcases and furniture inside the Library was damaged or broken,” he added.\

National Library head Abdel-Nasser Hassan said that seven unique manuscripts and three rare scientific papyri had also been damaged, and he estimated the losses as at least LE50 million.

The force of the blast also extended for more than 500 metres along Port Said Street and affected four Mameluke mosques, the Agha al-Hini, Al-Amen Hussein, Fatma al-Shaqraa and Abdel-Ghani al-Fakhri Mosques, the latter also known as the Al-Banat Mosque.

The buildings are beautiful example of Islamic architectural design, and painstaking work has been done over the years to reinforce the Mosques’ walls, replace missing and decayed stonework and clean and desalinate on-site masonry. The Mosques have large open courts where gypsum windows are inlaid with stained glass, and they contain lavishly decorated wooden ceilings, floors embellished with black-and-white marble, and doors which demonstrate the art of interlocking wood joinery.

The blast destroyed the Mosques’ stained-glass windows as well as parts of their wooden gates and latticed wooden windows. The most notable mosque of the four is the Abdel-Ghani Al-Fakhri Mosque, constructed in the Mameluke period by prince Fakhreddin Abdel-Ghani. The Mosque is known as the Al-Banat Mosque, or the Mosque for Girls, due to its once being a supposedly lucky place for ageing spinsters who believed that passing quickly between the rows of seats during the first prostration of prayer would reward them with a new partner.

The ministries of culture and antiquities are now working together to restore the Islamic Museum and the National Library and Archives.

 The Museum of Islamic Art

FIRST planned in 1869 even before the establishment of a committee of Arab antiquities dedicated to building a national collection of Islamic art, the Museum of Islamic Art first opened its doors in 1881 with an initial display of 111 objects gathered from mosques and mausoleums across Egypt, these being exhibited in the arcades of the mosque of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim.

Owing to a rapid increase in the size of the collection, a new building was constructed in the courtyard of the Mosque in 1883 to house what had now become a considerably enlarged museum. In 1899, the government began construction work on the present building, and in 1903 the Islamic Museum opened with a display of 3,154 objects originating from Egypt and other countries.

While the Museum’s name has been changed over the years, in 1952 its trustees settled on the institution’s present name, the Museum of Islamic Art, in recognition of the contributions of non-Arab Muslims. Since then, the Museum has become the main repository for the Egyptian national collection of Islamic art, and, owing to new discoveries, purchases and donations, this now boasts some 100,000 objects.

Nevertheless, by the time renovation work started on the Museum in 1999, the Museum of Islamic Art had become beset by negligence. In all the 100 years or so of its existence the Museum had never once been renovated, except for an attempt to clean the institution’s walls and renovate the displays in 1983, and attempts at a more comprehensive renovation were frustrated in part by the building’s upper floor being occupied by a separate institution, the National Library and Archives.

In 2003, the ministry of culture launched a comprehensive restoration project for the Museum in an attempt to reinstate its original function and splendour. The master plan for the renovation work and the new exhibition design was drawn up by French designer and museographer Adrien Gardère in cooperation with the Islamic Department of the Louvre Museum in Paris, which had advised on the reorganisation of the Museum’s collections.

The renovation master plan put the Museum’s main entrance on Port Said Street, as it was originally, and from here visitors first encounter an introductory gallery that presents Islamic arts and the Muslim countries and their locations in the world in a mixed display made up of panels, maps and objects from the collection. Visitors also gain an idea of the geography of historic Cairo and the early Islamic city of Fustat, the oldest Islamic settlement in Egypt.

In 2010, the restored Museum was officially inaugurated with 1,874 objects now distributed among 14 galleries and open courts.

National Library and Archives

EVER since the khedive Ismail took the initiative to build Egypt’s National Library and Archives on the model of the national library in Paris, it has been Egypt’s treasure house for manuscripts, rare books and ancient Egyptian papyri. Opened in 1870, it reflects the role of culture in enhancing the development of society as a whole. In planning the Library, Ismail offered all manner of support and assistance to the then minister of education to fulfill his ambitions. One of modern Egypt’s greatest rulers, he supported the international role of Egyptian culture with its cultural and literary outpourings, history, and heritage. Since its opening, the Library has nurtured and inspired thousands of thinkers and scientists.

After the 1952 Revolution, the institution continued to be Egypt’s most important library and archive, but it became so overwhelmed with books that in 1971 a new building overlooking the Nile was set up as the institution’s new premises, and the building at Bab al- Khalq fell into disrepair.

In the 1990s, a restoration project was launched and the building was reopened in 2007. In its new form, the building is a remarkable example of the integration of historical architecture with contemporary needs. It includes one main floor and two mezzanines, the main floor including a number of reading rooms and a three-storey high manuscripts museum. The first mezzanine has the microfilm and Internet locations, while the second has a research hall, a restoration lab and a hall of papyri. The basement and roof space are also used.

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