The Museum of Islamic Art, damaged by a car bomb explosion in 2014, will once again light up Bab Al-Khalq in downtown Cairo, writes Nevine El-Aref
On Port Said Street in the Bab Al-Khalq neighbourhood of Cairo stands the lofty, honey-coloured edifice of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) with its neo-Mameluke architecture and luxurious façade hidden beneath iron scaffoldings and large green and gray sheets.
A car bomb in January 2014 at the adjacent Cairo Security Directorate rocked the capital and blew a six-metre crater into Port Said Street while also ripping into the façade of the two-storey MIA building whose second floor is shared with the National Library and Archives.
However, inside the institution the picture is totally different from what was the mess outside. Work is at full swing to complete restoration in time for a new opening.
Workers are spread out everywhere inside the MIA's exhibition halls fixing the lighting, erecting new showcases in the newly created galleries and placing artefacts in others.
"I cannot give a specific day the museum will open but I can affirm that it is very soon," Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Eldamaty said the United Arab Emirates was working hard in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities to rescue the MIA and its priceless collection that reflects the glory of Islamic civilisation. He said the UAE was the first country to respond to the Egyptian campaign, launched shortly after the bombing, to finance the work and took responsibility for rehabilitating the inside of the museum.
"We are thankful to the UAE for its full support in bringing the museum back to its former glory in collaboration with Egyptian and foreign experts," Eldamaty said, adding that UNESCO had contributed $100,000 while many countries, NGOs and the private sector provided additional support. The Italian government gave €800,000, the American Research Centre in Cairo will restore the museum's façade, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Germany and Austria trained museum curators and restorers.
"Ninety per cent of the MIA restoration works have been completed," Elham Salah, head of the Museum Section, told the Weekly.
Salah said the façade, building and halls had been restored and new state-of-the-art security and lighting systems were installed. All the mountings required to erect the large artefacts displayed out of showcases were replaced and new showcases were put in their display positions.
Now, Salah added, the collection is being rearranged the way it was with the exception of the souvenir hall, previously located at the centre of the museum, "which will now be relocated to another place at the end of the visitors' path outside the museum". A hall displaying Islamic coins and weapons was built as well as another hall for Islamic manuscripts. One hall exhibits the daily life of people down the Islamic ages, instruments and children's toys.
"After the addition of these objects the MIA collection increased to 5,000 artefacts from 1,874 items," Salah said, adding that among the items are 2,000 coins.
"What remains are the final touches," MIA General Director Ahmed Al-Shoki said, such as the iron shades on the façade's windows as well as a polish and retouches of a few walls.
Al-Shoki said 90 per cent of the showcases had been erected and that the curators were currently putting the treasured MIA collection inside them.
Al-Shoki said the original plan was to re-display the MIA collection according to its previous exhibition scenario but that a few changes had to be made in order to introduce a new display concept to MIA visitors.
Before the changes, Al-Shoki told the Weekly that a study had been carried out by the museum's curators and restorers to see what was amiss in the MIA's original exhibition. The gift shop has been relocated to the MIA museological garden outside the museum halls. In its place has come a hall for Islamic weapons and coins.
All open showcases have been closed, he said, to prevent dust affecting the artefacts. A collection of 14 new showcases has been installed and a new display concept designed for the museum's entrance hall to reflect the contribution of Islamic civilisation.
The entrance hall now has five showcases, Al-Shoki explains, displaying objects reflecting the main elements that made up the birth of Islamic civilisation.
In the middle is a showcase displaying a huge book of the Holy Qur'an from the Omayyad period and near it, the oldest key of Al-Kaaba from Al-Ashraf Shaaban's tenure representing the pilgrimage. The remaining three items are lamps decorated with Kufic writing representing Arabic literature, a pot from Iran to show the contribution of non-Arab countries in Islamic civilisation, and an astrolabe showing scientific Arab development. A wooden door decorated with foliage and geometric elements is also among the objects on display at the entrance.
"Artefacts that were damaged in the explosion and restored are also put on display within the collection but are distinguishable from the other objects by a golden label placed beside them," Al-Shoki said.
He said the blast had damaged 179 pieces; 90 were completely restored while 10, all carved in glass, are beyond repair. Among the most important were a rare decorated Ayyubid jar and an Omayyad plate carved in porcelain.
A three-month exhibition for damaged and restored objects will be held at the opening of the MIA, with written narratives showing the efforts being exerted to return the objects back to their original look and the restoration carried out to return MIA to life.
He said a showcase displaying objects from Mohamed Ali's family reign is also being added to the exhibition. It includes a gold book of the Holy Qur'an which is exhibited for the first time ever, the collars of kings Fouad and Farouk, and documents concerning Farouk's marriages including wedding invitations.
As for the funerary arts hall, Al-Shoki said it was converted into a hall for handwritings because there was no funerary art in Islamic arts. The new hall shows the different styles of Islamic handwriting through a collection of manuscripts, wooden and stone inscribed.
Al-Shoki pointed out that the hall originally dedicated to Islamic handwriting was converted into a hall showing instruments used in daily life.
The hall, he said, looks like a residential house during the Islamic era, and shows a chimney, children's toys, jewellery-laden pots and pans and musical instruments.
The void in front of the hall will be dedicated to a three-dimensional sound and light show narrating stories about distinguished sultans, scientists and artists of the Islamic era.
The narration, Al-Shoki said, would be in English, French and Arabic according to fixed times during the week.
"MIA storages were not affected by the explosion. All are safe and sound except gallery No 16 which had not been touched since 1903," Al-Shoki said, adding that the gallery has been now improved by the Emirates team.
He said MIA's name would not be, as rumours have it, changed to the Museum of Islamic Civilisation. "Such rumours are unfounded."
The MIA was first thought of 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 opened its doors in 1881 with an initial display of 111 objects gathered from mosques and mausoleums across Egypt. They were initially 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, it had been 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. 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 plan 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 recommended the reorganisation of the museum's collections. The plan shifted the museum's main entrance to Port Said Street, as it was originally. From here, visitors first encounter an introductory gallery that presents Islamic arts and Muslim countries and their locations in the world in a mixed display made up of panels, maps and objects from the collection. Visitors also get 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 distributed among 14 galleries and open courts.
The National Library and Archives which takes up the second floor of the MIA, has not yet been restored but its façade was polished and widows restored in order not to disfigure the appearance of the building after restoration.
Ever since Khedive Ismail took the initiative to build Egypt's National Library and Archives along 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, Ismail supported the international role of Egyptian culture with its vast cultural and literary work, 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 became the institution's new premises. The building in Bab Al-Khalq fell into disrepair. In the 1990s, restoration led to the building's reopening 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 includes a number of reading rooms and a three-storey-high manuscripts museum. The first mezzanine has microfilm and the Internet, while the second has a research hall, a restoration lab and a hall of papyri. The basement and space atop the roof are also used.