The terrorist bombing which targeted the Cairo police headquarters on 24 January caused severe damage to the nearby Islamic Museum and the Egyptian national library and archives. The cost to humanity and to Egypt is distressing
The UNESCO delegates were ‘shocked’.
This is how the media reported the delegation’s reaction to the damage and ruin they saw at the Museum of Islamic Art and the Dar al-Kutub wal-Watha’iq al-Misriya—literally the Egyptian House of Books and Documents, known as Dar al-Kutub for short—in the heart of Cairo. The delegation had visited the two institutions on Friday 30 January to assess the damage and losses caused by a car bombing the previous week, which had targeted the Cairo Police headquarters across the street.
The bombing caused substantial damage to the museum and Dar al-Kutub, Egypt’s national library, and the priceless collection of artefacts, manuscripts, and books they house. UNESCO pledged to help finance the restoration process required to return the museum to its original splendour, and to launch a global campaign for donations for the project. News had initially circulated that UNESCO had allocated some USD100,000 for the restoration, but the final figure awaits the assessment of the damages. In view of the severe losses they witnessed, members of the delegation said UNESCO would launch a global campaign for donations to repair whatever is reparable of the damage.
The bombing, which involved half-a-ton of explosive material, was meant for the Cairo Security headquarters. It caused severe damage to the security building but also damaged nearby buildings, destroying façades and shattering glass windows. The magnificent 110-year-old Islamic-style building which houses both the Museum of Islamic Art and Dar al-Kutub was among the buildings that suffered severe damages.
The splendid stone façade and Islamic ornamentation were shattered, as was some 90 per cent of the Islamic style windows some of which are 7 metres high, and all the glass display cases. The galleries, wiring, audio visual and lighting systems, digital display and microfilm, water pipes, fire fighting network, and central air conditioning were ruined. A unique collection of Islamic-style lanterns was lost to humanity. All in all, some 74 pieces were lost. Much of the wooden, textile, metal and ceramic artefacts remain, as do the manuscripts, but more than 1000 pieces of some 1500 that were on display in the museum are in need of extensive restoration.
A declaration by the Culture Ministry revealed that, in Dar al-Kutub, seven Islamic manuscripts and three papyri were damaged because of the water which flooded the place once the water pipes and central air conditioning tubes burst. Also damaged was the collection that concerned Egypt’s president from 1954 to 1971 Gamal Abdel-Nasser, which was housed in a chamber that overlooked the site of the bombing.
Donations, also from Egypt’s children
In a recent press conference held at the museum, Minister of Antiquities Muhammad Ibrahim lamented the losses and damage, and called for donations to repair the damage, explaining that Egypt on its own was incapable of coming up with the necessary funds. He said that USAID has pledged a million dollars for the restoration.
The leading comedian Muhammad Sobhy donated EGP50,000 for the restoration of the museum, in a bid for his fellow actors and artists to join in a donations campaign. He said he wished the campaign would extend to include Egypt’s children, in order to raise awareness among them of the ultimate importance of preserving our heritage both for Egypt and for the whole world. “Even a one-Pound donation by a child can work to make him or her aware of the value of saving and preserving heritage,” Sobhy, who was among those who attended the conference, said.
The Culture Ministry, for its part, is also rallying international and local efforts to restore Dar al-Kutub. A bank account will be opened for donations once the assessment of damages and losses has been completed. Last weekend, an exhibition was held at the Museum of Modern Art in which a wide collection of 25 photographs of Dar al-Kutub before and after the bombing was displayed. Culture Minister Saber Arab expressed his dismay at the bombing, saying that whereas an attack against a political entity may be understandable, it is in no way acceptable that the heritage, culture and history of the nation may be targeted. “The loss is for humanity in its entirety, not only for Egypt,” Dr Arab said.
A documentary of the 2007 restoration of the building was screened. The event was held under the title “Culture of building versus culture of destruction”.
The celebration of 110 years on the foundation of the museum, marked joyfully and appreciatively by Egyptian cultural circles on 29 December 2013, is all-too-recent.
Some three years earlier, the museum had opened its doors to the public after a five-year renovation process which cost more than EGP70 million. The renovation was carried out jointly with the Islamic Department at the Louvre and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
The Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo is home to some 92,000 pieces of Islamic art collected from Egypt and from the world over. It is reportedly the largest collection of Islamic art in the world. It boasts a collection of rare wooden, metal, ceramic, glass, rock crystal and textile objects from across the Islamic world at large. There are also samples of calligraphy, one goes back to the 7th century and is scripted on deer skin, as well as manuscripts and a collection of magnificently decorated copies of the Qur’an from various Islamic eras. Among the museum collection are unique ceramics some of them coming from China made by Chinese Muslim artists and carrying Arabic script, mosaics, coins, woodwork, textiles, tombstones, mashrabiyas (lattice woodwork), metal and glass vessels, incense burners, pottery, metalwork and glass lanterns dating from different periods in Islamic history.
The museum has a rare collection of sand clocks, tools used for measuring distances and heights, and items related to astronomy, engineering, chemistry and surgery. A collection of pottery which was unearthed from within the remains of Fustat is displayed and includes pots and rich wood carvings from the Umayyad, Abbasid and Tulounic periods. One of the wonderful displays is a metal bronze pitcher which belonged to Marawan Ibn Mohamed, the last Umayyad Caliph; it stands at 41cm tall and 28cm wide.
One of the oldest
The National Archives of Egypt is one of the oldest and most important archives in the world. While the Archives Nationales (National Archives of France) was established in 1790 and the British Public Records Office in 1798, the Egyptian Archives was established in Cairo in 1828 and includes documents written in many languages including Arabic, Turkish, English, French and German in addition to some documents in Amharic. These manuscripts—there are some 57,000 of the most valuable in the world—cover the Fatimid (909 – 1171), Ayyubid (1171 – 1250), Mamluk (1250 – 1517) and Ottoman (1517 – 1798) eras and on up to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From the Mamluk era, a collection of 140 uniquely decorated copies of the Qur’an grace the Archives collection.
Moreover, the Archives hold a number of maps depicting Egypt’s eastern borders and proving without dispute Egypt’s right in the southern regions of Halayeb, Shalateen and the easternmost spot of Taba. The maps also draw the Egypt-Libya borders and the borders between the various nations of the Nile Basin. Such maps are priceless evidence in case of international disputes.
Meanwhile the National Library, an establishment of no less importance, holds 57,000 manuscripts in addition to 3,000 papyri some of which date back to 705AD, and were discovered in Kom Ashqao in the Upper Egyptian region of Tama. These papyri include contracts of marriage, sale and rent, in addition to official documents such as deeds of endowment, ministry and court records. The library also houses an impressive collection of Arabian coins.
Collections include a wide variety of manuscripts of the Qur’an written on paper and parchment, with some in the early undotted Kufic script, and others written by celebrated calligraphers. Ancient Persian and Ottoman collections are also housed.
An interesting story marks the foundation of the national archive centre in 1828 by Mohamed Ali, Viceroy of Egypt, in the wake of the loss of a collection of State documents. Frustrated by the reduction of their salaries, Albanian troops rebelled against the viceroy who fled his palace in Azbakiya and took refuge in the citadel. The Azbakiya palace was looted and many documents were lost in the process, including the treaty signed with General Mackenzie-Fraser, commander of the 1807 Alexandria Expedition to Egypt.
To compound matters, a large fire erupted on 18 June 1828 that ravaged the office of the viceroy’s deputy, where many important documents were stored, destroying them all. Mohamed Ali consequently established the Daftarkhana (House of Documentation) to store important documents related to State affairs, building it inside the Citadel as a measure of security. In 1870 the Minister of Education, Ali Pasha Mubarak, saw the necessity of establishing another store for books similar to the House of Documentation. The Egyptian Khedivial Kutubkhana (House of Books) was thus founded on the ground floor of the palace belonging to Prince Fadel, Khedive Ismail’s brother, in the neighbourhood of Darb al-Gamameez for the purpose of “collecting the precious manuscripts which had been amassed by sultans, princes, scientists and writers in mosques, mausoleums and science institutes”.
Over the years, the Daftarkhana and Kutubkhana collection grew extensively and moved several times till it settled down in what is today the Dar al-Kutub wal-Watha’iq al-Misriya housed in two massive buildings: the Dar al-Kutub in Bab al-Khalq in central Cairo and the National Archive near the Nile bank in Bulaq, Cairo.
During the one-year span from June 2012 to June 2013 when Egypt was under the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) rule, there were fears of attempts by the MB to sabotage the national library. The fear rose to dread proportions during May and June 2013 when the MB Alaa’ Abdel-Aziz was appointed Culture Minister and another MB, Khaled Fahmy, head of the national library and archives.
The fears held immense credibility given the MB’s history as a secret organisation with a history of political assassinations and attempts at overthrowing ruling regimes in Egypt, and were thus constantly hounded by the police. The National Archives contain classified documents of the secret police concerning the blood-stained history of the MB. These documents disclose, among many other incidents, the MB involvement in the notorious attempted assassination of President Nasser in October 1954 in Manshiya Square in Alexandria, and earlier in the assassination of Egypt’s Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashy Pasha in December 1948. It was not at all far-fetched that MB members would have sought to hide or destroy these documents.
The current director of Dar al-Kutub, Iman Ezzeddin, who was dismissed from her then post as supervisor of the library testifies to that. She says that some MB members asked to be handed all the documents of the past 80 years, including those that were directly related to the MB. This request was denied by the former director Abdel-Nasser Hassan and resulted in his dismissal along with the head of the National Archives Abdel-Wahed al-Nabawi and the heads of all the central administrations.
Since the MB documents are classified, screenwriter Wahid Hamed had to resort to references from the British Public Records Office while writing Al-Gama’a, a TV serial drama work about the MB, screened in 2010.
Other documents are often of great help for researchers. Historian Khaled Fahmy used such documents to give an account of Mohamed Ali’s strategy to build the modern Egyptian army and the tactics it used in wars in his book All the Pasha’s Men.
Another historian, Younan Labib Rizq (1933 – 2008), provided significant information leading to the retrieval of the district of Taba on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba from Israel following the 1979 Camp David agreement. There was at the time a dispute over Taba, which is close to the twin towns of Eilat in Israeli and Aqaba in Jordan, which Israel claimed was not Egyptian territory. Among the Egyptian national archives, however, were historical documents that proved beyond doubt that Taba was on Egyptian soil.
Reporting by Lucy Awad, Ekhlas Atallah, Robeir al-Faris, Nasser Sobhy, Mervat Ayad, Sanaa’ Farouk
Photos by Nasser Sobhy