The American Research Center in Eygpt

Islamic Museum Emergency Response

Islamic Museum Emergency Response

Islamic Museum Emergency Response

Updated: August 2014

An early morning explosion on January 24, 2014 was an unfortunate reminder that Egypt has not yet returned to the level of stability preceding the ouster of the Mubarak regime in 2011. The explosion, aimed at the Cairo Security Directorate on Port Said Street in the historic district of Bab el-Khalq, caused few human casualties but significant damage was rendered to the world-class collections of Islamic Period art and manuscripts housed across the street in the Museum of Islamic Art and the Manuscript Library and Manuscript Museum of the National Library and Archives of Egypt.

Unique Islamic art and manuscript collections and the museums that house them suffered infrastructure damage from bomb blast at Bab al Khalq. Photo: D. Deutsch

It was so depressingly familiar, another attack on an Egyptian building housing valuable and irreplaceable pieces of historical and cultural heritage. The building, constructed in Neo-Mamlouk Style, is located in an area included on the UNESCO World Heritage List known as Bab el-Khalq. It was completed and inaugurated by Khedive Abbas II Hilmi in 1904. Today, the Museum of Islamic Art, managed by the Ministry of Antiquities and Heritage (MAH) occupies the ground floor and the upper floors house the Manuscript Library and Manuscript Museum collections of the National Library and Archives of Egypt (Dar el-Kotob), under the management of the Ministry of Culture. Both institutions have undergone extensive renovations in recent years and both boasted state of the art exhibition spaces, storage, research and conservation facilities.

ARCE Fellows studying medieval Islamic manuscripts may still have access to the library resources, but the study carrels have been destroyed. Photo: D. Deutsch

Shortly after the bombing, a group of heritage activists rushed to the site to assess what had occurred, to form a protective line around the site to prevent looting if needed and to assist where possible in the collection and purchase of supplies required to stabilize artifacts. While the collections remained safe from looting, they discovered a cultural disaster. The façade of the building was badly damaged and the vacuum caused by the blast resulted in vast and extensive damage to both the museum and the library.

Among the first responders was the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Team (EHRT), a group of specially trained Egyptian conservers. The group was formed as a response to the threat caused by disasters to the nation’s heritage and fortuitously, had just completed a training course in disaster response. Working with the authorities, the EHRT and conservators from the Museum of Islamic Art collected and packaged objects for temporary storage that had survived the blast. The conservators sifted through the debris to gather as much of the broken, destroyed and water damaged objects as possible.  Upstairs in the library, conservators salvaged manuscripts put on display only days earlier for an event commemorating the inclusion of its Mamlouki Quran manuscripts into UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Register”.

Clearing up the damage at the Manuscript Library. Photo: Bab al-­Khalq

At the request of the Egyptian Government, a group of international experts representing UNESCO, The International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) arrived in Cairo on January 31, to assess the damage to the building and the collections as well as to provide proposals on how the building could be repaired.

A completely shattered glass roof at the Manuscript Library left its contents at the mercy of wet weather and sandstorms. Photo: D. Deutsch

By February 3, USAID contacted ARCE with regard to providing limited funding to assist the Government of Egypt with the damage wrought by this blast. On February 5, Dr. Gerry Scott, Jane Smythe, Janie Abdul Aziz and Djodi Deutsch (ARCE), Sylvia Atalla Ishak (USAID) and William Kopycki (Library of Congress) visited the Bab el-Khalq institutions. The Director of the Museum of Islamic Art, Mr. Moustafa Khaled, personally escorted the group through the damaged exhibition galleries and into the conservation room, where the devastation and senseless destruction of property was evident.  A further tour by then-Director of the library, Dr. Iman Ezzeldin, revealed the sad irony that the group responsible for the destruction of such beautiful objects of religious devotion and learning would be baying for retribution at this very act.

The following day Dr. Gerry Scott signed a contract with USAID for a one million Egyptian pound grant to support a response to the damage done to the Bab el-Khalq building. On February 10, this grant was announced to the media in fluent Arabic by the American Chargé d’Affairs, Mr. Marc Sievers on his tour of the destruction of the museum and library.

Things moved quickly from this point forward and by February 18, the UNESCO/ICOM/ICBS report and recommendations were submitted to the MAH and then to ARCE. After consultation with then-Minister of Antiquities Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim, it was decided that the most effective way to use the grant to benefit both institutes housed within the Bab el-Khalq building was to concentrate work on the building’s façade.

Working closely with the MAH Programs and Museum Sectors and a representative from the library, ARCE proceeded to list building specifications and advertise publicly for contractors to bid on the repair of the building’s façade. The call for bids closed in early August and bids have been delivered to the project engineer for selection by the end of the month. Once an agreed upon contractor is selected, work will begin. In the meantime ARCE has assisted with sealing the glass roof of the library to protect it from the elements while the long process of building repair gets underway.

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