The Museum of Islamic Arts first opened in 1881 with an initial display of 111 objects gathered from mosques and mausoleums across Egypt. Its first home was in the arcades of the mosque of the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah. Because of the rapid increase in the size of the collection, however, a new building was constructed in the courtyard of the mosque in 1883. Construction began in 1899 on a building in Bab El-Khalq, a stone's throw from the centre of Islamic Cairo, that would give the museum its own space. This building opened its doors in 1903 with a collection of 3,154 objects. Since then the museum has become the primary home for the national collection of Islamic art.
When the collection swelled to include 100,000 objects by 2003, the Ministry of Culture launched a comprehensive restoration project for the museum in an attempt to reinstate its original function and grandeur. The renovation masterplan and the design for the new exhibition were drawn up by French designer and museographer Adrien Gardère in cooperation with the Islamic Department of the Louvre Museum in Paris, which has in the past advised on the reorganisation of the museum's collections.
The restoration placed the museum's main entrance at its original site on Port Said Street. An introductory gallery was installed just inside the entrance which offers visitors a brief overview of Islamic art and the Muslim nations of the world, as well as a guide to the museum's various collections and objects on display. Also presented are geographis of historic Cairo and the early Islamic city of Fustat, the oldest Islamic settlement in Egypt.
The museum is divided into two large wings. The first is devoted to the chronological exhibition of Islamic artefacts taken mainly from monuments in nearby historic Cairo, thereby showing the progression of Islamic dynasties -- the Umayyad, Abbasid, Tulunid, Fatimid, Ayubid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods.
The second wing displays materials from other countries in the Islamic world. These include calligraphy; manuscripts; ceramics; mosaics; textiles; gravestones; mashrabiya (latticed woodwork); wooden objects; metal and glass vessels; incense burners and caskets; pottery; metalwork and glass lamps dating from various periods in Islamic history. These objects are displayed according to both chronology and theme, provenance and material.
The renovated museum has state-of-the-art security and lighting systems, a fully-equipped restoration laboratory, a children's museum and a library.
One of the most impressive items on display is a Mamluk-era water fountain that has been renovated by Spanish restorer Eduardo Porta, who was also a member of the restoration team working on the tomb of Nefertari in Luxor's Valley of the Queens. The fountain, made of semi-precious stones, green onyx and coloured mosaic pieces, was originally bought for the Museum of Islamic Art in 1910 and placed in the museum's garden. Owing to ill-use and the faulty restoration work carried out in the 1960s and 1970s, the fountain fell into disrepair and it is only now being properly restored.
Porta described the fountain as one of the most unique in the world, and said it was one of the most important objects in the museum.