A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to the reopening of the Islamic Museum in Cairo.
For the past few years, the external appearance of the building has been a sad reminder of the bomb blast—targeting the police headquarters across the street—which shattered the windows, blew off some of the facade, and reduced some fragile exhibits to little more than powder.
Such was the power of the blast that I remember it rattling my windows in Ma’adi on the morning of January 24th, 2014.
The news reports and photographs in the following days were not encouraging, and it is a great testament to the restoration and conservation staff of the museum, the commitment of the Ministry of Antiquities, and the financial and technical support of the UAE, Italy, Germany, the United States and UNESCO that the museum has been able to reopen so relatively soon afterwards.
The well-lit and well-ordered modern galleries somewhat belie the history of the museum and its collection. The idea for a museum of Islamic art was first mooted in 1869 by Khedive Ismail, only five years after the Egyptian Museum—housing an ancient Egyptian collection—had been built, and by 1880 a small collection had been assembled in a corner of the al-Hakim mosque.
For many of the pieces collected during this period, it was a race against time, decay and neglect. Often only relatively small parts of greater original artistic wholes could be saved, conserved and displayed—a characteristic that is still evident in the museum today.
Even so, the collection, and the need for a more permanent home, grew so quickly, that by 1898 the foundation stone of a dedicated ‘Arab Museum’ was laid, and the current building completed in 1903. The architect of the striking neo-Mamluk building, Alfonso Manescalco, was of Italian descent, but born in Egypt, and influenced by the late nineteenth-century style which had begun with the construction of the mosque of al-Rafa’i after 1869.
Today the Museum of Islamic Art contains over 100,000 objects, and those on display represent one of the world’s most impressive collections of Islamic art, expertly described by Bernard O’Kane in The Illustrated Guide to the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo.
As before in this column, I cannot lay claim to expertise in the field, but can only place before you a few pieces from this treasure-house that appeal to me.
The first is a simple wood panel that may have come from a palace door from the time of Ibn Tulun. It is in a subtle, curved style known as Samarra C—which can still be seen in the woodwork within the Great Mosque—and was probably imported to Egypt by artisans from the Abbasid dynastic capital, some 125 kilometers north of Baghdad, in which Ibn Tulun had spent his formative years.
The graceful lines of the abstract design at the bottom of the piece terminate in what appear to be the stylized heads of birds.
It is an elegant and subtle piece. These are ducks that are not quite ducks. While this may reflect the injunction in Islam against figural art, there are many examples that demonstrate that this did not hold particular sway in secular art, and it is more likely that the artist was simply demonstrating his virtuosity.
This is equally true of the Fatimid (11th century) ivory panels on display which probably formed part of boxes. Two of these came from the excavations in Fustat in 1918: the two others were bought in the 1930s. Two are particularly exquisitely carved, and the detail is remarkable. For me, they are on a par with other better-known examples from elsewhere on the Mediterranean. One panel includes a rider with a falcon on his wrist, a foot soldier carrying a lance, and a woman on a camel looking out from a palanquin. Another shows an intricately carved, crowned sphinx on a foliate scroll, with additional scrollwork on the crown and body.
There are, of course, many larger and richer objects on display in the museum, including a very fine 18th-19th century Ottoman door in wood revetted with silver, which came from Turkey, and other wood, stone and textile masterpieces, but let us stay, for the moment, with objects which come from Egypt.
Although not as immediately spectacular as the Ottoman door, the wood and copper alloy Mamluk door (before 1300) from the mosque of al-Ashraf Barsbay at al-Khanqah appeals to me particularly as it has weathered to resemble a finely tooled leather book cover.
The makers of the door certainly knew how to thickly lay on the compliments to their patron. The inscription at the top reads, in part, “The making of this blessed door was ordered by the auspicious, his lofty excellency, Shams al-Din Sunqur al-Tawil, may happiness never cease…”
This lofty gentleman is not thought to have commissioned any religious building in Cairo, though he did build a palace in the area opposite the Sultan Hasan complex. That the corner pieces include a large number of birds and animals suggests that the door may have come from this palace, before being acquired by al-Barsbay for his mosque (built in 1434).
But back to small exquisite objects.
The role that the medieval Islamic world played in the curation and development of mathematical, scientific and medical knowledge is often underestimated in the West, which was often the heir—frequently through Moorish Spain—not the originator. Nothing is more evocative of that role for me than the astrolabe—a device used in astrology, astronomy, navigation, and as an aid to determining the time of prayer.
These could be very fine pieces, as is this one made of copper alloy–inlaid with gold and silver–from Ottoman Turkey and made in 1486, probably for (based on a Persian inscription in verse on the back) Sultan Bayazid II (who ruled 1481-1512). Persian was the literary language of the Ottoman court at the time and until the mid-16th century.
That the Islamic world was also heir itself to the knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean world is beautifully illustrated by the early 17th-century manuscript on display in the museum of ‘Human Anatomy’ (’Tashrir al-badan’) in ink, watercolors and gold leaf on paper.
In 1396, Mansur ibn Ilyas, a physician from the Persian city of Shiraz, produced what is considered to be the first color anatomical atlas. He drew heavily on his own observations, of course, but he also included comments and observations from Hippocrates, Aristotle, and the most famous Greek physician of the Roman World, Galen of Pergamon (who was associated at one time with the great medical school in Alexandria).
There is so much else to see in the museum that these images offer a very poor selection, and the newly reopened collection deserves to be on the list of things to see for every visitor to Cairo.
It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, and is currently also open from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. on Saturdays.
All object illustrations from The Illustrated Guide to the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo (AUC Press).
This article was recently published in Egypt Today.