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Violence threatens Egypt's cultural heritage

The Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo is struggling to rebuild after a car bomb destroyed over 100 precious artifacts.

Last updated: 26 Apr 2014 13:01
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The Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo needs $14m to restore its building and collections [EPA]

Cairo, Egypt - A brick wall now stands where the main door to the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, once home to one of the greatest collections of its kind in the world, used to be. The street ahead is closed by a security checkpoint. In front of the museum, the police headquarters is being reconstructed after a bombing in January left four people dead.

Now, the museum needs $14m to restore the building and antiquities.

"At the moment, the Ministry of Antiquities is suffering from a huge fall in its budget due to the decline in tourism and is not able to afford the expenses to complete the restoration," museum director Mustafa Khaled said.


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As the bomb blew a crater into Port Said Street, it ripped into the facade of the museum. More than 100 years old, the museum's intricate, Islamic-style designs were pulverised. "The explosion - caused by almost half a ton of TNT - completely destroyed the main wooden door, [and] the same happened to the glass vitrines," Mohammed Abdel Hakim, the museum's curator, told Al Jazeera.

"The explosion was at 6:30am and none of us [were] at the museum," Abdel Hakim said. "If it happened only half an hour later, it could have been a bloodbath."

Since former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, the Egyptian tourism industry has been hit by a consistent loss of revenues. In 2013, the Egyptian government reported that 9.5 million tourists visited the country, bringing in $6m, almost half the amount earned in 2010.

"2010 was already a bad year for us," Hisham Zazou, Egypt's tourism minister, said at the Milan Tourism Expo in February. As of September 2013, tourism rates were on the rise again. Commercial activities were completely shut down in August following the deadly clearing of the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in, where supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi had been protesting his toppling.

The force of the explosion blew out the museum's facade [EPA]

The current wave of violence is threatening the tourism industry and Egypt's archaeological heritage. According to the 2013 Global Terrorism and Insurgency Attack Index, released by Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (IHS), violent attacks in Egypt increased from 63 in 2012, to 431 in 2013.

The power vacuum following Mubarak's ouster saw the emergence of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based group that claimed responsibility for the Cairo police headquarters bombing. The group also took responsibility for assassination attempts and car bombings.

For now, the Islamic art museum must work to raise money for its reopening. "We launched a campaign and we opened a bank account to collect the money we need,” he said. "At the moment USAID [US Agency for International Development] granted $143,000 for the restoration of the museum, while an Egyptian actor, Mohamed Sobhi, has offered another $7,000."


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In a building next door to the museum, restoration experts, who have already recovered pieces of the damaged antiquities from the ruins, have started rebuilding the pieces. On the top floor, there are four rooms divided into categories, from ceramics to textiles. The glass shards are held in transparent plastic boxes while experts try to put them back together.

"We need at least a year and a half to recover all the items," said Mohammed, a restorer who did not give Al Jazeera his last name.

"We had to face a lot of damages because of the water coming from Dar al-Kutub [the National Library]," Galila, another restoration expert, added.

In a press conference at the museum in late January, the Egyptian minister of antiquities said that out of the museum’s 1,471 pieces (in 25 galleries), 74 were completely destroyed, 26 were reduced to tiny pieces and 64 were damaged. Many of the pieces were rare woodwork and plaster artifacts, as well as metal, ceramic, glass and crystal objects dating back to the 8th century from all over the Islamic world. The minister said 11 metal armaments and weapons, 18 manuscripts, 16 carpets, 63 tapestries and 67 ivory artifacts remained in good condition.


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The Islamic art museum in Cairo was built in 1902 in the neo-Mamluk style, with its upper storey housing the National Library. The building hosted the antiquities of an older museum, which was set up in 1858 by Khedive Ismail in the Bab al-Luq area of Cairo.

This heritage is part of the universal story of humanity, shared by all, and we must do everything to safeguard it.

- Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General

The museum, which employs 250 people, reopened in 2010 after several years of restoration.

The collection originally included one of the rarest copies of the Quran in the world and a gold-inlaid key to the sacred Kaaba in Mecca. Other items included Ottoman-era ceramics, Persian carpets, ancient scientific instruments, a dozen glass lamps used to light mosques in the 14th and 15th centuries, and a restored water fountain inlaid with semiprecious stones, green onyx and coloured mosaic tiles.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) condemned the attack. "This is as essential for the people of Egypt as it is for women and men across the world," Irina Bokova, UNESCO's Director-General, said in a statement.

UNESCO sent a delegation to visit the museum at the end of January. Representatives of the organisation will sit on a board that includes Islamic art experts to monitor the museum's restoration fund and to determine its spending priorities.

This is not the first time that an important part of Egyptian heritage has been a victim of violence since the beginning of the 2011 Egyptian uprising: During those 18 days, several items were stolen and damaged from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square.

"This heritage is part of the universal story of humanity, shared by all, and we must do everything to safeguard it," Bokova said.

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Al Jazeera
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