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January 25, 2014

Damage to Cairo's Museum of Islamic Art: Why Does Art Always Take in on the Chin?

By Lynda Albertson, ARCA's CEO

As news of the explosion affecting Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art has spread and images of the destruction were replicated across social media sites few people or news agencies paused to mention what objects were actually inside one of Egypt’s spectacular museums or talk about the heart of Islam the collection represents. 

Started in 1881, the Museum of Islamic Art initially was housed within the arcades of the mosque of the Fatimid caliph Al-HakimBi-Amr Allah. Commencing with 111 objects, gathered from mausoleums and mosques throughout Egypt, the original collection has grown substantially over the last 130 years. 

Today the objects in the Cairo museum represent one of the most comprehensive collections of Islamic art in the world. With more than 103,000 artifacts housed in 24 halls, its collection celebrates every Islamic period in Egypt covering the Fatimids, the Mamluks, the Abbasids, the Ummayads, the Tulunids, the Ottomans, and the Ayyubids dynasties.

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The museum’s glass collection alone counts 5,715 pieces in its inventory.  Some are very rare, others, like this glass vessel fragment, are more commonplace. Notwithstanding, each piece helps visitors and scholars embrace and understand the history of the region and its people.

Some of the glass enameled lamps in the museum come from the mosque of Sultan Hassan who ruled Egypt twice, the first time in 1347 when he was only 13 years old.  One of the most outstanding of these glass pieces is an eight-sided chandelier made up of three layers with a dome-shaped cap and detailed Islamic decorations imprinted on its glass.

Some of the museum’s glass comes from excavations undertaken at Al-Fusṭāṭ, on the east bank of the Nile River, south of modern Cairo.  As the first Muslim capital of Egypt, Al-Fusṭāṭ, was established by general ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ in AD 641 and was the location of the province’s first mosque, Jāmiʿ ʿAmr.

Glass vessels, phials and fragments excavated from the former capital and on display at the museum give the world an understanding of the chronology and origin of the Islamic glass industry as well as the history of Islam during the Umayyad and ʿAbbāsid caliphates and under succeeding dynasties.

Until the 9th century Islamic glass artisans used the Roman technique of making glass mixing calcium-rich sand and Natron, a salt substance used in Egypt to preserve mummies.  At the turn of the millennium, they opted to use plant ash for the soda component in their formula for glass making and experimented with colors, shapes, techniques, and surface decoration. 

From the piles of shattered glass, pieces of bricks and smashed cases seen in the first images released by Monica Hanna after the bombing it seems that the damage to the museum’s collection may be significant, though for now how significant has yet to be established with detailed clarity.  Talking heads on news sites triage the damage from horrifying to optimistic though without any formal inventory of which rooms were damaged and the objects purportedly on display in that room, it’s hard to know if the pulverized glass we see in initial photos comes from broken windows and collection storage cases or damaged artifacts. 

To rectify that gap in knowledge, museum staff and volunteers worked under difficult conditions and despite safety hazards from a partially collapsed roof before sealing the museum as per security directives.  Their goal: provide an initial assessment and to secure the collection to prevent further damage or possible theft.  Until a formal reporting is given, all we can do is hope that things remain calmer so that the Ministry of Antiquities can salvage as many of the museum's artifacts as possible.