The Museum of Islamic Art recently reopened to visitors after being closed since 2002. In this article, we delve into the fascinating history of the museum, and learn about the treasures displayed in its revamped exhibition space.
Have you ever been in the vicinity of Bab al-Khalq and wondered about the building at the intersection of Port Said and Mohamed Ali streets, the one opposite the Cairo Governorate office? It is a beautiful rose-coloured Mameluke revival building with architectural details emulating its medieval namesake, examples of which can be seen a short distance away. The building in question is the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), one of Egypt’s four ‘National Museums’ that fall under the auspices of the Ministry of Antiquities (MOA); a museum whose holdings contain key objets d’art that reﬂect the wealth of artistic creation from Islamic lands. The MIA is a rather unique museum in Egypt not only because it covers a long historical period but also because its objects come from a wide geographic area, from southern Spain to Iran, Turkey and beyond. It is a museum located on the boundary that separates medieval from Khedivial Cairo, giving visitors the opportunity to contextualize ‘museum’ objects with the monuments and archaeological sites that they originally came from (mainly from nearby Historic Cairo and Fustat). This in turn provides a view of the close relationship between archaeology and the museum, as well as between objects and monuments.
Although the current building on Port Said Street dates to 1903 (designed by Alfonso Manescalo and called the Museum of Arab Art until 1952), the idea of creating a repository showcasing objects from Islamic lands was born a few decades earlier and materialized in 1881 when Khedive Tewfiq (r. 1879–1892) founded the Comité de conservation des monuments de l’art Arabe, a committee whose goal was to study and preserve the much neglected Islamic and Coptic monuments in Egypt. The Fatimid Mosque of al-Hakim (990–1013), located in the walled city of Fatimid Cairo, served as the museum’s first home. The role of the Comité was to asses these religious and secular monuments, propose restorations when needed, and transfer noteworthy architectural elements and furnishings to be stored in the Mosque of al-Hakim. Comité interventions were indicated by the inscription of the date when restoration work was carried out, and the assignment of a unique monument number to each building. As the holdings grew from Comité donations, the museum moved to its current location in 1903. This move precipitated the acquisition of several private collections and the well-documented Fustat excavations carried out by former MIA director, Ali Bahgat, in the 1910s and 1920s.
In 2002, the MIA closed its doors to the public to undergo the first major refurbishment since 1983. During the eight-year hiatus the collection was reorganized and the building was renovated. The MIA reopened in October 2010 (three months shy of the 25 January 2011 Revolution) to little international press and publicity. Egyptian governmental bureaucracy aside, one of the main causes for the eight-year closure was the quest to resolve many of the structural issues that affected the stability of the 110-year old building, which is itself a registered monument. In addition to the heavily congested surroundings of the Museum, the simultaneous renovation of the Egyptian National Library and Archives (Dar al-Kutub or DAK), occupying the upper ﬂoor, placed great stress on the building.
An international team was assembled by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (the SCA fell under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture at the time, but in 2011 became an independent ministry today called the Ministry of Antiquities or MOA), headed at the time by Dr Zahi Hawass, to work on the execution of the new design. The scenario, concepts and related circulation were conceived by a collective that included MIA curators, museographer and designer Adrien Gardère and his Cairo-based project manager Arnaud du Boistesslin, and Sophie Makariou, director of the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre Museum. The object labels and other didactic information were translated from French into Arabic by the Institut français d’archéologie orientale (ifao) in Cairo. The majority of the objects selected for display were treated by SCA conservators, however, the cleaning and conservation of a number of the larger marble and stone architectural elements – most notably the assembled fountain and surrounding stucco decoration in Gallery 23 – were carried out by a team of conservators employed by the Aga Khan Cultural Services (AKCS) – a gift from HH Karim Aga Khan to the city of Cairo. Two key players who are no longer with us also contributed greatly to this project: architect Dr Sayed el-Komi, whose firm carried out the refurbishment; and Farid Mansour, president of the now-dissolved Friends of the Museum of Islamic Art (FMIA).
So, what is different about the MIA today and what are the reasons to visit? For those who are familiar with the museum, perhaps the first noticeable difference is a result of the decision to revert back to the use of the original main entrance on Port Said Street, instead of the side entrance that was initially intended to access the Museum Garden. Since the main entrance is positioned at the building’s long north-south axis, thus splitting the exhibition space into two wings, the display collection was divided accordingly into a chronological and a thematic section. This change may not seem like a novelty to many, but it is worth mentioning that the earlier galleries were largely arranged according to material and mirrored the different curatorial sections: woodwork, metalwork, stone, ceramics, textiles, ivory, glass, coins, etc. Secondly, since a lot of display space was lost to DAK, all of the Museum’s administrative offices were moved to a newly built annex – located in the Museum Garden – that also houses a cafeteria, conference room, library and a small conservation lab.
Upon entering the museum, the first gallery seen by the visitor is the Introductory Hall (Gallery 00). At its entrance sit a pair of stone lions attributed to the Bahri Mameluke sultan al-Zahir Baybars (r. 1260–1277), and whose reverse side reveals that they are spoliate antique capitals that were cleverly reused in the thirteenth century. Twelve suspended enameled mosque lamps greet the visitor, most of which were made for the Bahri Mameluke Complex of Sultan Hassan (1356–1361), and are enclosed in a glass cube, meant to evoke the Ka’ba in Mecca. The trilingual
didactic panels on the walls, written by Sylvie Denoix and other historians at the IFAO, emphasize Egypt’s history since the arrival of Muslim general Amr ibn al-‘As in AD 641.
The lion on the right directs visitors to the north wing, which focuses on objects with an Egyptian provenance – mostly attributed to Cairo and its environs – starting with a single gallery devoted to the Umayyad, Abbasid and Tulunid periods (Gallery 01; eighth and ninth centuries). The artefacts have been collected in one space because these periods do not comprise the strength of the collection quantity-wise, and because objects dated to these periods are on display in the thematic wing. The highlights include the so-called ‘Marwan’ ewer excavated in Abusir (Inv. no. 9281); a wooden panel inlaid with bone and different types of wood (Inv. no. 9518), whose twin is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; carved stucco and wood from the Tulunid period; and an Abbasid goblet (Inv. no. 23284), one of the earliest pieces of lustre-painted glass excavated by George T. Scanlon in Fustat in 1972.
The next three galleries (Galleries 02–04) are devoted to the arts of the Fatimid period (969–1171), the founders of the city of Cairo (al-Qahira). One can circumambulate around many of these displays to see the artefacts in the centre such as the wooden panels that were reused in the complex of Qalawun (1284), built on the ruins of the Fatimid Western Palace. Some of the sub-themes addressed here include courtly life, lustreware, and the architectural furnishings from some of Cairo’s oldest mosques. Continuing with the chronology, the Ayyubid (1171–1250) galleries reﬂect a period of artistic transition, from the predominance of the angular Kufic script, to the preference for a more legible cursive one, and the introduction of inlaid metalwork. Perhaps my favorite piece is a fragment of a Syro-Egyptian ceramic dish showing Christ’s descent from the cross and Mary’s sorrowful embrace (Gallery 05; Inv. no. 13174). More highlights are on view in the next three galleries devoted to the arts of the Mamelukes (1259–1517), many of which (lamps, Qur’an boxes, and candlestick holders) came from Cairo’s numerous pious foundations. Not to be overlooked is a small ceramic display showing the various heraldic signs that refer to the office(s) held by a Mameluke emir or sultan, and which decorated buildings and many objects of daily life (Gallery 08). The thematic display in the south wing highlights the diversity of ceramics from the Ottoman court and Iran, as well as more universal themes in Islamic art, like the funerary arts, calligraphy and epigraphy, textiles and carpets (displayed in the only blind room), geometry, science and medicine, to name a few. Many of the artefacts in the thematic sections also have an Egyptian provenance.
Gardère (museographer and designer of the revamped MIA) drew inspiration from several of the objects in the collection when creating the new design. For example, the repeating pattern in the Museum’s pierced window screens was taken from a marble shadirwan (fountain; Inv. no. 16) in Gallery 23; and the Arabic font used in all the signage and carved skirting that identifies each gallery is based on a tenth-century inscribed cenotaph frieze (Inv. no. 2908) in Gallery 03.
While the renovation has received criticism from some specialists – those who are displeased with the sparsity of the current display lament the monolingual object labels (full text in Arabic and captions in English) and question the reasoning behind the selection and arrangement of the objects – I encourage Rawi readers to decide for themselves. Take a trip to Bab al-Kkalq and visit the oldest purpose-built museum in the world dedicated to Islamic art objects. And while you are there, walk around Historic Cairo to see the monuments for which many of these objects were endowed. The museum has not published a comprehensive catalogue since Gaston Wiet’s multi-volume tome of the 1930s , or the guide penned by Mohamed Mostafa in 1961. In the last few years, however, the American University in Cairo Press published an abridged catalogue, Treasures of Islamic Art in the Museums of Cairo (2006), and more recently, The Illustrated Guide to the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo: With the Museums of Islamic Ceramics and Islamic Textiles (2012).
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Iman R. Abdulfattah received her BA from New York University and an MA in Islamic art and architecture from the American University in Cairo. She previously worked for Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities as an Islamic art historian and was involved with several museum and heritage projects. She is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in art history and archaeology at the University of Bonn.