Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—A visit to one of Egypt’s archaeological museums usually inspires a sense of wonder at the majesty of Ancient Egypt’s architecture. A visit to the first “torture museum” in Egypt and the Arab world, however, only leaves one with shivers running down the spine. Inside this “house of horrors,” sound and light effects add to the disturbing atmosphere amid the thousand-plus instruments used for human torture throughout the ages that are now on display.
The museum was founded by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, a researcher on torture methods and political execution, and was established to document and reveal to the wider public the various methods of torture used over the centuries. Abdel Wahab says the idea came about during a visit to Iraq, when he was given disturbing accounts, and shown various images, of such barbaric practices.
The museum, located in a house in Mariotia in the Haram district in the Giza governorate, consists of five rooms and contains a collection of torture instruments, photographs, and documents detailing torture methods. Abdel Wahab says that the process of collecting torture instruments was not an easy task because he would always have to deal with security officials. He toured the world visiting museums and scoured old books for images of torture devices so that he could either manufacture duplicates or track down the originals.
Abdel Wahab originally made an application to house the museum inside the old jail located in Saladin’s Citadel in southern Cairo. Sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that “he requested in 2012 to establish the museum inside [the jail], but the Ministry of Antiquities said he would need to pay 500,000 Egyptian pounds [70,000 US dollars] to hold the exhibition there for one day, due to its [the jail’s] being one of the most notorious places [in Egypt] where acts of torture were committed.”
The first room of the museum consists of a library of books dating back 200 years. A secret door leads into a second room containing rare instruments of war. Inside the third room is a collection of steel shackles and photographs of acts of torture. In the fourth room is a gallows, a collection of executioners’ clothing, a hangman’s rope, and tools for cutting off tongues and burning flesh. There is also a saw chair, a collection of lashes, and a cleaver for amputating hands. The fifth room contains a collection of swords, keys, a stick covered with nails, a chair of nails, and coffins with heavy steel bars—as well as a number of skeletons.
Also part of the museum’s collection is a chair with 2,000 nails that was used during the Spanish Inquisition, and called ‘The Impalement Device.’ “It was [originally] invented by the Mamluks and later developed by the Ottomans,” Abdel Wahab says. “This instrument would make a person wish for death to end his suffering. When used, it would be distanced from the organs to avoid killing the victim. Torture had to continue for one week and if the victim died before that time, the torturer would be punished.”
The museum contains various impalement devices including one that was used to torture Suleiman Al-Halabi, the assassin of Napoleon’s successor in Egypt, Gen. Jean Baptiste Kléber.
Abdel Wahab says: “Among the torture devices used in the medieval period was a machine used to smash the skull. There was also the body-squeezer, a steel machine akin to a coffee mill, and another small-sized pointed instrument that was inserted into the eardrum until it penetrated the other ear.”
Since 2008, Amnesty International has been calling upon all countries to end the practice of torture and cruel and inhumane treatment. In 1997, the UN General Assembly decided to designate June 26 as the ‘International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.’ A visit to Abdel Wahab’s museum would be enough to make anybody take up the cause.