The past and future of the bomb-damaged manuscript museum
Circulation desk, The National Library of Egypt, Bab al Khalq, 1939 - Courtesy: All rights reserved. The National Library and Archives of Egypt ©

Early on January 24, 2014, a bomb exploded in front of the Cairo Security Directorate, just across the street from a neo-Mamluk building which many know as the Museum of Islamic Art. The first images that came out from behind the makeshift security cordon showed almost complete destruction of the exhibition halls. What many people didn’t realize then, and maybe still haven’t, is that those pictures were not of the Museum of Islamic Art, but rather of the institution housed on the second floor of the same building Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq, which showcased their world-famous collections of manuscripts, documents, coins, scientific instruments, and other precious objects.

By the end of January 24, it had become clear that the Museum of Islamic Art had suffered no luckier fate and that its collection and exhibition halls had sustained considerable damage. Still, even 10 days after the bombing, few realize that two different institutions were hurt in the bombing and even fewer bother to distinguish between them. The better known of the two, the Museum of Islamic Art, has been used interchangeably to mean the museum itself, the building, and the two institutions housed in it. While this article does not downplay what has happened to the Museum of Islamic Art and the importance of its collection, it will focus on Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq and the collection it proudly exhibited until 10 days ago. Understanding what was there and what was lost can help in repairing and reconstructing this special building that houses two of Egypt’s most important cultural institutions.  

What would grow to be the National Library of Egypt and Archives of Egypt, known today as Dar al-Kutub wa Watha’iq al Qawmiyya or simply Dar al-Kutub, was founded in 1870 as the Kutubkhana Khediwiyya, or “Khedival Library,” by a decree of Khedive Ismail. It officially opened its doors to the public on September 24, 1870, from the first floor of the Mustafa Fadil Pasha Palace in the Darb al-Gamamiz area in Cairo.

In the decades that followed, the library gathered private collections of manuscripts and rare books, as well as Quran manuscripts and religious texts from mosques and religious educational institutions. It was a bold project to collect the rich written heritage of Egypt in one place for study and research. One of the driving forces behind it was the reformer Ali Pasha Mubarak (1823-1893), minister of Public Works and Education during the second half of the 19th century.  

On January 1, 1899 Khedive Ismail Hilmi II laid the cornerstone for the building that was damaged on January 24, 2014, known today as Bab al Khalq, with the idea to give a proper home to two of the most progressive institutions at the time. From its inception, the neo-Mamluk building was to house the newly established Museum of Arab Antiquities on the ground floor (now the Museum of Islamic Art) and the Khedival Library on the two upper floors. This arrangement persists to today, even though the Museum of Islamic Art and Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq now find themselves under the Ministries of Antiquities and Culture respectively.

Main entrance, The National Library of Egypt, Bab al Khalq, 1939

Main entrance, The National Library of Egypt, Bab al Khalq, 1939
All rights reserved. The National Library and Archives of Egypt ©

Bab al-Khalq opened its doors to the public on September 1, 1904. Dar al Kutub remained there until 1971, when it moved to a modern, larger building on the Corniche in downtown Cairo that had been purpose-built to house an ever-expanding collection of not only manuscripts but periodicals, printed books, and a huge body of archives. The Islamic Museum on the ground floor continued to operate as before, while Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq assumed a secondary role to Dar al-Kutub’s Corniche premises.

In 2000 the Egyptian government decided to renovate Dar al-Kutub’s former seat at Bab al-Khalq and reestablish it as a center of learning and culture in its historic location. In 2003, the Museum of Islamic Art closed for renovations, which gave both institutions the chance to upgrade the entire building according to the latest construction standards.

The renovations on Dar al-Kutub’s side were completed in 2007 and it opened on February 25, 2007 (the Museum of Islamic Art would reopen in late 2010). With the main collections housed in the Corniche premises, Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq was given the mission to showcase the library’s rich manuscript collection. During the renovations, the premises were outfitted with a museum equipped with state-of-the-art technology designed specifically for exhibiting manuscripts. All sources of natural light were blocked, appropriate (in conservation terms) lighting was installed, and the exhibition cases were fitted with UV filtered glass to protect all items on display.

The manuscript museum at Dar al Kutub Bab al Khalq before the bombing.

The manuscript museum at Dar al Kutub Bab al Khalq before the bombing.

The collection includes not just manuscripts but early printed books, a coin collection, a monumental Quran bookbinding from India made of silver, and astronomical instruments. Curators, book conservators and technicians from Dar al-Kutub and the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation sought to ensure that the resulting exhibition space would not only show preeminent examples of calligraphy, painting, illumination, and bookbinding, but also tell more complex stories than the ones written in fine calligraphy on their pages. For example historically, the production of books was an  expensive endeavor  and commissioning them was a prerogative of only those with considerable financial means. Manuscripts were copied, traded, gifted, and transported across great distances just like the precious and semi-precious minerals and metals that were ground up to prepare the inks and illustrations filling them.

Walking into the Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq manuscript museum, the visitor was first exposed to the display of scientific books, showing original medical texts, ancient Greek translations, pharmacological writings, treatises on mechanics, and finely illustrated astronomical atlases showing the positions of stars and movements of heavenly bodies. All of these were created and produced by a pre-modern multi-ethnic and religious community unified by the Arabic language and script as a vehicle for disseminating knowledge.

One could also see early marriage and commercial contracts on papyri (8th-11th century), as well as one rare example announcing Al-Muqtadir Billah as the Caliph of the Abbasid Empire in Baghdad, on Jumada al-’Ula 295 AH/February, 908 CE, followed by 18th and 19th century maps of Egypt. One highlight was the display of several illustrated Persian manuscripts, including a 1488 copy of Sa’di Shirazi’s poem “Bustan,” meaning “fragrant orchard,” illustrated by the painter Behzad and written in the fine hand of the calligrapher Sultan Ali Mashhadi, both leading artisans in Timurid Herat.

One mission of the manuscript museum was to enable these objects, their stories and their power to transcend time for a wide audience. Last year, I had the pleasure of taking a mentor and former boss, one of the world’s leading scholars of Persian miniature, to the museum. She stopped in front of this particular manuscript for much longer than the rest, and without lifting her glance, vividly recalled the first time she saw it almost three decades ago, in a storage room in the library, as if recalling a life-changing encounter. It was a reminder of the power a tactile product of human creativity and thought can hold.

The fact that the museum, despite the treasures it held, was little known among the public was not lost on its current management. Since she became director of Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq in October 2012, Iman Ezzeldin has worked tirelessly to promote its museum and research facilities, and encourage students, researchers and artists to adopt the place as a center of interaction — with the written heritage it exhibited and with each other.

Over the past two years Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq hosted a number of public workshops on arts of the book and Islamic art and design, some led by world experts. One of them, London-based artist Anita Chowdry, traditionally trained in the techniques of Indian painting, created a model showing the stages of illumination copied from the opening page of a 16th-century copy of the “Canon of Medicine,” the encyclopedic work of Ibn Sina (or Avicenna as he’s known in the West) composed in the 11th century. Many a Sunday night saw a concert, discussion, or public lecture, and there were also some temporary exhibitions such as one by distinguished Turkish illuminator Gülhis Diptaş.

manuscript museum at Dar al Kutub Bab al Khalq

The manuscript museum at Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq after the bombing.

Just days before the blast, on January 19, 2014, a celebration was held at the museum commemorating the inclusion of part of its collection of splendid, monumental Mamluk Quran manuscripts in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, whose aim is to gather and raise awareness about collections of global importance. Before the Mamluk Quran manuscripts, a selection of the museum’s documents and decrees was added to the register in 2005, followed by the collection of Persian illustrated manuscripts in 2007. There are not many libraries in the world that have three different collections prominently featured on Memory of the World.

Fortunately for Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq and for all of us, all the manuscripts have now been accounted for after the bombing and none of them have suffered irreparable damage. Most of them were actually fine, protected by the thick walls of the building and the reinforced glass of the exhibition cases. They were all evacuated to Dar al-Kutub’s Corniche premises to be reunited with the rest of its collection until reconstruction plans take shape. In the meantime, we’re left with the visceral realization that these manuscripts could have been lost or destroyed in a second, manuscripts that, despite being on display in the center of Cairo and free to look at, not enough people knew about.

Entrance to the Exhibition room, The National Library of Egypt, Bab al Khalq, 1939

Entrance to the Exhibition Room, The National Library of Egypt, Bab al-Khalq, 1939. All rights reserved. The National Library and Archives of Egypt ©

*Elena Chardakliyska is assistant director of a cooperation project between Dar al Kutub and the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation that  focuses on the preservation, conservation and curation of Dar al-Kutub’s manuscript collection. For more information, follow the project’s activities on Twitter @TIF_DAK and subscribe to the Facebook page of Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq.

* Correction: This article initially stated that of the bomb of January 24 consisted of 500 kilograms of TNT, although this announcement by the minister of antiquities has not yet been verified. The detail was therefore removed from the article on February 6.

Elena Chardakliyska  

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