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Egypt’s Museum of Islamic Art Triumphantly Re-Opens

The museum has restored 160 artifacts damaged by a 2014 truck bomb and has expanded, putting three times as many artworks on display

The interior of the Islamic Art Museum after a car bomb damaged the museum in 2014 (UNESCO)
smithsonian.com

In January 2014, four bombs went off in central Cairo. According to reports from the time, the blasts, which were set off the day before the three-year anniversary of the uprising that deposed ruler Hosni Mubarak, appeared to target police officers. The first, a truck bomb that went off outside a police station, killed six people and injured at least 100, according to the BBC. There was other collateral damage: the explosion decimated the Museum of Islamic Art, one of the world’s greatest collections of artifacts from across the Muslim world. Now, Jane Arraf at NPR reports, the museum has reopened after three years of restoration and repair, and it’s better than ever.

After the bombing, it was difficult to imagine how the museum could ever recover. According to Peter Schwartzstein at Slate, the blast blew out the museum’s giant windows, shot a streetlight through the front doors and pockmarked the intricate façade of the building. The shockwave from the blast shattered some 250 displays, including priceless examples of ceramics and glasswork. As the sprinkler system went off, water then seeped into cases that curators struggled to open. “We cried so much when we first saw it, because really, what you see standing here was all in pieces on the floor,” Shahinda Karim, a professor of Islamic art at the American University in Cairo tells Arraf.

According to Caroline Elbaor at artnetNews, 179 of the museum’s artifacts were severely damaged. Over the past three years, 160 of them have been restored and gone back on display with a special gold label to mark them out. Repairing the museum was also an excuse to add three new galleries to the collection which now displays 4,400 artifacts compared to the 1,450 on display before the attack.

“The inauguration of the Museum of Islamic Art embodies Egypt’s victory against terrorism, its capability and willingness to repair what terrorism has damaged, and to stand against terrorist attempts to destroy its heritage,” Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Enany said during a televised dedication of the museum.

According to Agence France-Presse, Unesco, the United Nations cultural agency and other countries chipped in to aid restoration efforts, with the United Arab Emirates notably contributing $8 million to the cause. 

The jewels of the collection include paper-thin Persian rugs, an engraved astrolabe, a huge mosque door intricately engraved with silver and a sword believed to have belonged to the prophet Muhammad. The museum also houses priceless manuscripts, Korans, intricately decorated incense burners cataloguing 1,000 years of Islamic history, and pieces by Jewish and Christian artists, as well, Elbaor notes. 

The museum, Karim tells Arraf, is a way to show the world another side of Islam at a time when strained relations between Islamic nations and the West make headlines. “I think the reopening of the museum is extremely important because there’s been so much negative propaganda,” she says. “I think it will show people that this was one of the most advanced cultures—and how better to see it than through art?”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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