In 1899, the first brick of the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo’s Bab al-Khalq district was laid. The Museum building was designed by Italian architect Alfonso Maniscalco in the Mamluk-style, which is characterized by lavish decoration and beautiful external facades adorned with inscriptions and engravings.
The Museum building is made up of only two stories, and we know the reason for this from the inscription on the Islamic Art Museum’s foundation stone. The inscription on the foundation stone reads “In the year 1317 Hijra, during the reign of Khedive Abbas Hilmi II, the foundations of the Khedivial Library and Arab Antiquities House were laid.” The Khedivial Library later became the Egyptian National Library and Archives. Khedive Abbas II decreed that the library should occupy the second floor of the building with the ground floor being reserved to what was then called the gallery of Arab Antiquities, which was the initial name of the Islamic Art Museum.
The Museum’s construction was completed in 1902. The antiquities and archeological treasures that were previously located in the Mosque of al-Hakim Bi Amrillah were transferred to the Arab Antiquities gallery where they were categorized and exhibited. An administrative staff, including a curator, a group of restorers, and security, were hired to look after the collection. The museum was officially opened in December 1903, becoming the first Islamic Art Museum in the world.
Prominent figures who were expert in the field of Islamic art succeeded each other as directors of the museum. The museum was not only a place for displaying the treasures of Islamic art but also an institution for publishing hundreds of books in several languages on the history and art of the Islamic civilization. The museum continued to follow its mission until the features of Cairo began to change, with overcrowding and urbanization taking its toll on the city. As a result the museum building began to age due to professional negligence and damage caused to it by pollution and earthquakes. Ultimately, the building declined to a state where it was impossible to simply restore it, and it was necessary for a decision to be made to change the situation. As a result of this I took the decision to shut down the world’s oldest Islamic Art museum in 2003. A lot of hard work went into restoring and improving the building which is located in one of the most crowded district of Old Cairo. We sought the assistance of all the available expertise in the field of architecture and restoration, sparing no expense. However regardless of the expense spent upon refurbishing the museum, this is nothing compared to the priceless treasures that are housed within it. These antiquities should be promoted on an international scale to restore the Islamic Art Museum upon the map of international tourism.
Among the treasures held in the museum are the valuables of Zeinab Khatoun which were accidently discovered in 1989 under the House of Lady Zeinab Khatoun [one of the few intact Mamluk-era houses in Cairo]. Two earthenware jars were excavated containing 3,611 golden dinars from different historical periods. Another treasure of golden coins, 701 dinars of solid gold, were found in 1992 among the ruins of an old house in Darb al-Qazazin in al-Sayyida Zeinab district.
However the Islamic Art Museum’s exhibitions include more than just gold and jewelry. There are collections of artifacts made of wood, gypsum, stone, porcelain, copper as well as other material exquisitely shaped by Muslim artisans testifying to the advancement of the Islamic civilization in terms of art, science and creativity.