Items on display at Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art range from the second Arab Caliphate, the Umayyads, an empire that spanned from France through Tajikistan, dipped into the Maghreb and ruled parts of Egypt in the 7th and 8th centuries to the Ottomans. The collection is one of the largest in the world, with over 102,000 objects – make that 101, 199 objects for display – including rare manuscripts, a coin from c. 675 AD, ceramics and lots of amazing woodwork. Most of the art comes from Egypt, but elsewhere in the Arab World is also represented.
However, it is hard to walk away from the amazing collection without mixed feelings, especially in light of the current political situation in Egypt in terms of violence spurred by theological distinctions. Despite the fact that the museum was co-curated by a leading Western authority – a designer from the Louvre’s Islamic Art department – there is still an agenda behind the narrative arc of the displays. Religious art under Shia’a rulers is described as propaganda, while Sunni art is art. Tempting nuggets are thrown out but not fully expanded on to make complete ideas. Apparently, at some point the major ceramic centers of the caliphates decided to stop using the color red. This was noted but not explained (kind of like the red sails on boats here in Cairo, I still don’t know what that means.) Also, as Islam grows, the depiction of people lessens. This is actually, according to the notes for the exhibit, apparently because of a Persian trend.
One of the relics the museum should have is a shard of pottery, depicting Jesus. In a sad irony, given that last week, 12 people died in religiously inspired riots between Muslims and Copts, that this is the one shard in the display that was not available. The Museum reflects no only Egypts past in Pan Arab world, but all too clearly the present conflicts in this society.