CAIRO: 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 when 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 multimillion-dollar renovation.
The explosions, which targeted police and the main security headquarters, shook the museum located in the nearby old Cairo district of Bab al-Khalq, hurling steel and ceiling plaster at its glass cases and wooden artifacts.
“The museum was totally destroyed and needs to be rebuilt,” Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mohammad Ibrahim said.
“I am in a shock and speechless,” former museum official Mohammed al-Kilani said. “Imagine if an attack struck the Metropolitan, what would happen? This museum is just like the Metropolitan in its significance.”
Built in 1881, the Cairo Museum of Islamic Art is home to the world’s richest collection of artifacts 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 houses works from the seventh-century pre-Islamic era to the end of the 19th century, including carpets, coins, ceramics, jewelry, manuscripts, marble carvings and wood work. A water fountain made of colored mosaic is among the most impressive pieces on display and dates back to the 13th-16th-century Mamluk era.
A recently completed $14.4 million renovation included 25 exhibition halls, 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 during the holy month of Ramadan. Of the world’s 300 rare lanterns, the museum houses 60. Five of those, said Islamic antiquities professor Rafaat al-Nabarawy, were ruined.
Among other destroyed treasures, he continued, 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.
Other priceless pieces that were damaged or destroyed included a century-old wooden niche (mihrab) used in mosques to point to the direction of Mecca during the five daily calls to prayer.
Arabic inscriptions and verses from the Quran were carved on the piece, which belonged to Ruqaya, a daughter of Ali, a successor of Prophet Mohammad.
Estimates of the damage varied.
Kilani, the former museum official, and other archaeologists said nearly all of the collection was lost., while other experts said between 5 and 20 percent of the museum’s pieces were destroyed.
Nabrawy estimated that about 5 percent of the museum’s artifacts were lost because many of the textiles, coins and metal artifacts could be salvaged.
“Even if it is only one piece,” he said, “this is history and heritage that is priceless.”