In Photos: Museum of Islamic Art celebrates 119th anniversary with temporary exhibitions

Nevine El-Aref , Thursday 29 Dec 2022

Visitors of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo’s Babul Khalq area can enjoy three temporary exhibitions throughout January as the museum celebrates its 119th anniversary.

The Museum of Islamic Art


The three exhibitions were inaugurated by Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), and include antiquities and art displays.

Waziri said that the first exhibition, titled ‘119 Years of Arts and Creation,’ is a collection of archived photos, history books, and artefacts that relate to Islamic arts and civilisation along the span of history.

The second exhibition is a collection of 100 paintings of Arabic calligraphy by renowned artists from countries including Egypt, China, Japan, Thailand, Iraq, and India.

The third exhibition comprises seven replicas of Islamic masterpieces carved in collaboration with the Beit Gamil for Historical Arts and the Cultural Development Fund.

On the fringes of the celebration, workshops and lectures on Islamic arts will be held throughout January, as will storytelling workshops for children and the disabled.

The Museum of Islamic Arts first opened in 1881 with a 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 SCA 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 geographies 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.

In 2014, the museum sustained severe damage when a car bomb exploded outside the adjacent Cairo Security Directorate building. The blast destroyed the façade of the building, several columns, display cases and artefacts, as well as the nearby Egyptian National Library and Archives building.

In 2015, nearly a year after the blast, Cairo received a grant of EGP 50 million from the United Arab Emirates to restore the museum, in collaboration with Egyptian and foreign experts from Italy, Germany and the United States.  

The UNESCO donated $100,000 for the restoration of the museum’s laboratories, while the Italian government contributed €800,000 to purchase new display cases and provide training courses for the museum’s curators.

The American Research Centre in Cairo, in collaboration with the Swiss government, contributed EGP 1 million to restore the museum’s façade.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, as well as the Metropolitan Museums in New York, Germany and Austria assisted with trainings for the MIA's curators and restorers.

In 2017, the museum was officially inaugurated after regaining its lure and allure.

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.

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