Egypt: Museum of Islamic Art is back in Action

October 31, 2010

Museum of Islamic Art is back in Action

By Mona Ibrahim

Museum of Islamic Art Sign
Sign upon the entrance of the Museum

After a seven-year hiatus due to extensive restorations, the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo has finally re-opened its doors to the public again. The Museum, which originally opened in 1903, has undergone restoration once before in the 1930s. The last seven years have been spent in an immense overhaul, completely gutting the interior of the building, installing new flooring, changing the interior design, and adding a new lighting system to better display the touched up artifacts. The overhaul cost an estimated US$ 10 million.

Of over 100,000 artifacts at the Museum, on display are only about 3,000. Viewing and understanding all of these artifacts can be a daunting task; luckily there are archaeologists (athareyeen in Arabic) employed by the Museum, who are fluent in English, Arabic, and French. They can give you a tour of the premises at no additional cost.

I decided to take a trip to the Museum early the first morning it was open to the public. Though I own a car, I thought the best way to make the trek down to the museum would be by metro, since I had read that there was a stop nearby. I took the metro down to the nearest stop, Ataba, and when I got off, I walked around asking where Port Said Street was. The people in the street were surprisingly very helpful in my quest to find this main road. Once I found it, there were signs leading all the way to the Museum. With all my confusion on directions, it took me about 20 minutes to arrive. The first thing I noticed upon entering the Museum was all the security measures in place. The Museum of Islamic Art has focused greatly on security, given the recent theft of a van Gogh painting at the Mahmoud Khalil Art Museum in Cairo. At the entrance there are state of the art ticket machines, a metal detector, a security x-ray machine, and several guards there to check bags and purses to ensure that the only things leaving the museum are the same things that went in. Aside from all the security, the next thing any visitor is likely to notice is just how clean and modern the building is. The air has a neutral, new car scent to it, and everything is in its place, usually either behind glass panels, or with a security guard nearby to make sure nothing is touched. Walking around, its impossible not to notice the Islamic architectural details that are strewn all around the building. Most windows are arched at the top, and recovered and restored wooden arches from the 14th century are incorporated into the structure of the building, helping to separate the halls. There are a total of 25 halls in the Museum, and they contain artifacts from all over the Islamic world, dating back to the very beginning of Islam. Though this museum deals with Islamic history, all dates on the description cards are based on the Gregorian calendar, which was quite unexpected. To clarify, the seven dynasties are the Ummayyads (661 750), Abbasids (750 1258), Fatimids (909 1171), Ayyubids (1171 1250), Mamluks (1250 1517), Ottomans (1299 1922), and the Iranian Safavids (1501 1786).

Marble Fountain in the courtyard of the Museum of Islamic Art
Islamic Facade on a Building inside the courtyard of the Museum of Islamic Art

The Museum does a good job of ensuring that each item on display has a description card below with the date/time period of its origin, country of origin, and Islamic era from which it originates. This short description is only available in Arabic and English; though the long descriptions located at the entrance of each hall, with an explanation of the significance of the items displayed in that hall, are in Arabic, English, and French. Unfortunately, these halls arent arranged according to Islamic periods, of which there are seven. These seven arent even clearly stated in the museum; they are only listed on the description cards. The haphazard organization of these halls is based on the type of item on display as opposed to the era. For example, there are cloths and textiles grouped together, wooden items are grouped together, marble and ceramic together, etc., as opposed to all Mamluk items being together. The only hall that is grouped by era is the Iranian Safavid hall, which has all the Iranian artifacts. What struck me as probably the most impressive item on display was the first artifact I saw. At the entrance there is a 7th 8th century copy of the Quran found in Egypt from the Ummayyad dynasty, said to contain the earliest recorded example of vowels and consonants. After seeing this at the entrance, its clear that the rest of the Museum will be remarkable. The Museum even comes equipped with a beautiful courtyard with a marble fountain in the middle, probably from the time of the Mamluks in the 15th century, as the other two fountains inside the building are from the same time period.

Marble Fountain in the courtyard of the Museum of Islamic Art
Marble Fountain from the Mamluk period on display in the courtyard of the Museum of Islamic Art

All in all, the Museums extensive collection is quite impressive. I spent around an hour and a half walking around the museum on my own, discovering the artifacts at my own pace. It was quite interesting to see that the basic design of the prayer rug Muslims use to pray on hasnt changed much in 1400 years! I was also quite shocked that there was battle wear included in the Museumsomehow it never crossed my mind that Muslims would have decorated their armor differently! I would have loved to take pictures of some of these items, but unfortunately all photography is banned in the Museum, so youre left taking mental pictures of these fascinating works.

The museum covers such items as glassware, ceramic, porcelain and marble, metals, woodwork, and even battle gear, so there is definitely no shortage of things to be seen! In the end, all of the adjustments made in the last seven years have paid off, and this museum is one of the more impressive museums in Egyptdefinitely a must see!

*The Musuem of Islamic Art is located at Port Said Street (Shar'a Bur Sa'id) at Ahmed Maher Square (Maydan Ahmad Maher) in Cairo, opposite Cairo Security Office (Modereyet Amn El Qahira). The Museum is open daily from 9:00 to 16:00, and tickets are LE 50 per person.

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