Cairo's Islamic Art Museum totally destroyed in bombing, minister says

Scramble to save artefacts after Islamic Art Museum 'totally destroyed' by bomb

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 5:36am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 5:36am


Centuries-old glass and porcelain pieces were smashed to powder, a priceless wooden prayer niche was destroyed and manuscripts were soaked by water spewing from broken pipes after a car bombing wreaked havoc on Cairo's renowned Islamic Art Museum.

Experts scrambled to try to save thousands of priceless treasures as ceilings crumbled in the 19th century building, which had just undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation.

The explosions, which targeted police and the main security headquarters, shook the museum, located in the nearby old Cairo district of Bab el-Khalq, propelling steel and ceiling plaster onto its glass cases and wooden artefacts. An Al-Qaeda-inspired group - Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Partisans of Jerusalem - claimed responsibility.

Violence continued yesterday as the country marked the anniversary of the 2011 Arab spring uprising. Seven people were killed during anti-government marches while thousands rallied in support of the army-led authorities. Violence was also reported in the canal city of Suez.

Built in 1881, the Cairo Museum of Islamic Art is home to the world's richest collection of artefacts from all periods of Islamic history. It houses nearly 100,000 pieces representing different Islamic eras, 4,000 of them on display and the rest in storage.

"The museum was totally destroyed and needs to be rebuilt," Egypt's minister of antiquities, Mohammed Ibrahim, said.

"I am in a shock and speechless. Imagine if an attack struck the Metropolitan, what would happen? This museum is just like the Metropolitan in its significance," said former museum official Mohammed el-Kilani.

A recently completed US$14.4 million renovation included 25 exhibition halls, as well as state-of-the-art security and lighting systems, a fully equipped restoration laboratory, a children's museum and a library, much of which was gutted by the blast.

Ceramic and gypsum pieces dating to the Fatimid and Mamluk periods suffered the most damage, along with ancient lanterns once used in mosques. Of the world's 300 rare lanterns, the museum houses 60, and five of those were ruined, said Rafaat el-Nabarawy, an Islamic antiquities professor. "This is a very sad day for antiquities," he said. "These are rare and irreplaceable."

Among other destroyed treasures, he said, were glass pieces dating back to 750, including an ornate pot of a rare type of glass believed to be pioneered by the early Egyptians. Former museum official el-Kilani and other archaeologists said nearly all of the collection was lost.

But El-Nabrawy estimated that only about 5 per cent of the museum's artefacts were destroyed because many of the textiles, coins and metal artefacts could be salvaged. "Even if it is only one piece, this is history and heritage that is priceless," he said.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse