Sorting Through the Rubble of Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo
Restorers work inside the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. Ahmed Gamil/Associated Press
CAIRO — 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. It occurred a day before the third anniversary of the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. The museum’s staff was struggling to cope with the devastation wrought on this collection of artifacts, many of them from Islam’s Golden Era and representing Islamic history from the Umayyads in the seventh century to the Ottoman period in the 19th.
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Workers inspecting damage at the Museum of Islamic Art. Mohamed El-Shahed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“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.
Egypt’s tumultuous post-revolution period has taken a disastrous toll on the country’s cultural heritage, as upheaval following the Arab spring — as well as conflicts in Iraq and Syria — have damaged the entire region’s artistic patrimony. In Egypt, museums and monuments have suffered from the spillover of street violence. More alarmingly, with a huge security vacuum since the 2011 revolution, looting has become rampant.
Looters have dug a honeycomb of holes around the famous Black Pyramid of Dahshour, in Giza. They have stolen an entire minbar, or pulpit, from a Mameluke mosque near Cairo’s Citadel, as well as beautiful brass details, marble plaques and wood inlays from some of the city’s most splendid mosques. Last August mobs attacked the Mallawi museum in Minya, 190 miles south of Cairo, stealing 1,050 of the 1,089 artifacts on display, including Pharaonic statues and jewelry and Greco-Roman coins.
Almost immediately after the bomb blast, Unesco said it would donate $100,000 to help with the eventual restoration of the museum and provided a team of experts to inspect the damage and assist with repairs. The United States has also pledged around $140,000. The Egyptian government says it needs $14 million to repair the museum and bring it to international standards with sophisticated security systems, bombproof glass and other protective measures. The blast also burst a pipe in the fire-prevention system, causing water from the library to pour into the museum galleries below.
“It could take years,” Mr. Ibrahim said. “We need funds. With financing we can do anything.”
Government specialists have been painstakingly collecting the pieces of damaged items, sifting through the piled debris, counting, categorizing and assessing what’s intact, what’s repairable and what’s lost forever.
Upstairs in the museum’s third-floor restoration labs, specialists stood hunched over slabs from an ornate wooden mihrab, or prayer niche, of intricate lattice, trying to fit dozens of tiny pieces of wood together in the same way medieval craftsmen worked, creating exquisite pieces of woodwork that stayed together simply because the pieces fit so perfectly.
Amid the rumbling of heavy machinery clearing out the police headquarters across the street, other restorers diligently pieced together another badly damaged wooden mihrab, dating to the Fatimid era of the 10th to 12th centuries; a Fatimid chair of ornate inlaid ivory and ebony; and a Quran box of painted wood from the 13th-to-16th-century Mameluke era.
The Islamic Museum’s collection also includes fanciful wooden friezes of Fatimid court life, the only remaining pieces from two palaces that flanked an impressive processional ground in the center of the caliphates’ forbidden city, the area between Bab al-Futuh and Bab Zuweila in the heart of Islamic Cairo today. The friezes survived. There’s also gold Mameluke jewelry, Ottoman-era ceramics, Persian carpets, marblework, stonework and mosaics.
“Not only are there beautiful artifacts,” the Islamic art historian Shahira Mehrez said of the collection, “but there’s also the first manifestation of the arabesque design, the first dated lusterware, the first geometric star pattern. These objects are invaluable not just for their unique artistic value, but as a documentary of artistic development of the Islamic world.”
While Egypt has always had its share of antiquity theft, now it’s more frequent, more efficient and more outrageous. Thieves have struck Pharaonic, Greco-Roman and ancient Christian sites from Abu Rawash north of Cairo to Luxor in the south. And they’re selling these treasures faster than ever, sometimes within hours.
“The last three years, there’s been a drastic situation, where you see at every archaeological site excavating without permission,” said Saleh Lamei Moustafa, a conservator of Islamic architecture. “They’re even bringing loaders. There are only 300 in the antiquities police, armed with pistols, and they’re fighting people with heavy weaponry.”
In October, Mr. Ibrahim, the antiquities minister, asked the United States for help in an op-ed article in The Washington Post, noting that Egypt’s antiquities are flooding international markets.
“Imagine a world in which the stories of King Tut, Cleopatra, Ramesses and others were absent from the collective consciousness,” he wrote. “And with much of our history still waiting to be discovered under the sand, the potential losses are staggering.”
These threats to Egypt’s heritage have inspired some to act. People rushed to help after the bombing near the Islamic museum.
“I couldn’t get inside, so I ran around buying supplies,” said Yasmine El Dorghamy, the publisher of Al Rawi, a magazine about Egypt’s heritage and history, who brought surgical gloves, foam to cover artifacts — and helmets, because of falling debris.
Ms. Dorghamy said she was part of a group of restorers, historians and activists who rush to endangered sites. “When there’s a firebomb or an attack, we’re the first ones there,” she said.
Abdel-Hamid El Sharif, who founded the nonprofit group Egyptian Heritage Rescue soon after the revolution to train volunteers in artifact rescue management, was also on the scene. His team got to work, wrapping up the most vulnerable artifacts and packing them in storage. “They called me the Disaster Man,” said Mr. Abdul Hamid, who pays Egyptian Heritage Rescue expenses out of pocket.
Members of the Islamic Museum’s advisory board warned the government after demonstrators began attacking police stations in 2011 that the museum was in grave danger because of its location near the police headquarters. Some argued that nothing could have saved the museum from the enormous bomb.
“It was 500 kilograms of TNT,” Mr. Ibrahim said, “just 25 meters from the museum.”