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Three Years After A Car Bomb Damaged It, Cairo's Islamic Art Museum Reopens

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Incense burners covered in enamel, gold and diamonds are part of the 10,000-piece collection at Cairo's newly reopened Museum of Islamic Art.
Jane Arraf, NPR
Incense burners covered in enamel, gold and diamonds are part of the 10,000-piece collection at Cairo's newly reopened Museum of Islamic Art.

It took a car bomb to get the funds to renovate Egypt's Museum of Islamic Art, but three years later, a restored museum with modern galleries has reopened to showcase the museum's historic treasures.

The 2014 explosion outside police headquarters near the century-old museum in downtown Cairo heavily damaged the stone and wood façade and smashed 179 priceless objects.

"We cried so much when we first saw it, because really, what you see standing here was all in pieces on the floor," says Shahinda Karim, a professor of Islamic art at the American University in Cairo.

The exhibits reflect the culture of an Islamic world that, at its height more than 1,000 years ago, stretched across Central Asia, the Middle East and north Africa to continental Europe.

Cairo was one of its capitals.

Inside the renovated museum, dark gray walls, marble floors and new lighting highlight gleaming glass display cases and towering architectural pieces – including intricate wooden panels with repeating patterns of interlocking geometric shapes.

As she leads a tour through the museum, Karim points out the silver work on a huge 18th century mosque door engraved with the name of the Jewish silversmith.

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Gold-covered incense burners embellished with diamonds sparkle in display cases. But the real treasures are pieces displaying craftsmanship that reached its height in the capitals of the Muslim empires.

There are floral-patterned Persian carpets so finely woven they are almost paper-thin, and exquisite miniature paintings of palace life that illustrated ancient manuscripts.

There's also an engraved astrolabe – one of the first devices used to navigate by the stars.

At the opening ceremony on Jan. 19, Egypt's antiquities minister, Khaled el-Enany, called the reopened museum a victory over terrorism. Sufi dancers dressed in billowing white robes whirled to religious chants and the music of drums, tambourines and reed flutes.

The U.S. government provided funds to help restore the museum façade, while the United Arab Emirates paid for the multimillion-dollar museum renovation.

With 4,400 pieces on display and more than 5,000 more in storage, the museum houses among the largest and widest ranging collections of Islamic art in the world.

"The bombing damaged 179 masterpieces of Islamic art," says museum director Ahmed Shoukri, standing next to an 800-year-old Syrian glass bottle glued back together. He says museum staff managed to repair all but 10 of the pieces.

The exhibits illustrate a shift from figurative art to an emphasis on calligraphy and geometric and floral designs that is the hallmark of Islamic art after the 9th century.

While some conservative Gulf Arab countries consider depictions of people or animals blasphemous under Islam, Karim says the Quran does not ban figurative art.

"There is nothing in the Quran that says you cannot have [a] figurative representative. It says you cannot have idols," she explains. "If I pray to that statue, it's an idol. If I don't, it's art."

Karim, who is Egyptian, believes the museum will show people a different side of the religion.

"I think the reopening of the museum is extremely important because there's been so much negative propaganda" about Islam, 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?"

The exhibits also illustrate skills that declined with the industrial age and waning empires, when craftsmen could no longer spend months on a single piece.

"Today, how long can an artist work on one piece?" she says. "Before it was the sultans paying for these pieces. Who is going to pay for this now?"

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