Experts rally to save Egypt’s heritage amid unrest

A volunteer with the Egyptian Heritage Rescue group at Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art.
 
In late January, a car bomb targeting the Cairo police headquarters damaged a number of antiquities housed across the street at the Museum of Islamic Art. This was far from the first time that Egypt’s cultural heritage has suffered from the security problems plaguing the country since the revolution. This time around, however, a volunteer brigade of antiquities experts was standing ready to jump in.
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“The Egyptian authorities don’t provide us with any financial support”

Abdel-Hamid el-Chérif, 33, restores artwork and is in charge of the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation, a non-profit organisation.
 
I came up with the idea of creating a rapid intervention task force to save Egypt’s heritage after the acts of vandalism against Egypt’s national museum that took place on January 28, 2011. [Editor’s Note: These acts of vandalism, which occurred on the third day of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, created a scandal: revolutionaries accused the Mubarak regime of orchestrating the incident in a bid to discredit the revolution].
 
After this, I felt like I needed to step up to save my country’s heritage. I travelled to Italy, at my own expense, to receive training on how to carry out emergency safeguard measures to preserve antiquities. In Rome, I took part in two training workshops at the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM).
 
I learned how to save damaged pieces of art, or at least how to limit the damage while waiting for a real restoration to be undertaken.
 
When I returned home, I created the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation, and I organised three training workshops in Cairo, thanks to funding from the Prince Claus Fund and UNESCO. I’ll soon be organising new sessions with volunteers in other parts of the country, who will then be in charge of disseminating their new knowledge in their respective provinces.
 
Egyptian Heritage Rescue volunteers during their intervention at the Museum of Islamic Art.
 
Our first intervention took place at Museum of Islamic Art. We went there just hours after the attack. We cleared the area and set up a security perimeter. We then stocked and packaged the antiques that were not affected. We dried and set aside those objects that had been damaged.

Luckily, the explosion caused relatively minimal damage. The most important pieces of art were spared, and we will be able to restore the majority of those that were damaged, except some made out of glass, which are now lost forever. [According to the minister of antiquities, 74 artefacts were destroyed and 90 were damaged, out of a total of 1,471 objects on display.]
 
Volunteers with Egyptian Heritage Rescue at the Museum of Islamic Art.
 
We worked in coordination with the Ministry of Culture and with the Museums Directorate, both of which were very cooperative on the ground. However, the Egyptian authorities have not given us any financial support.
 
Abdel Hamid el-Chérif at the Museum of Islamic Art.
 
We currently have 36 volunteers, a majority of whom are staff members at the Ministry of Antiquities. For practical reasons, we don’t accept just anyone interested in volunteering, only those with some expertise in antiquities.”
 
The Museum of Islamic Art is home to one of the largest collections of antiquities in the Arab world. The museum was first conceived in 1881 as a smaller gallery that brought together objects from mosques and mausoleums throughout the country. The current building – which was badly damaged in the blast – was erected in 1899. UNESCO, in coordination with Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, has launched a campaign to raise funds in order to renovate it.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Wassim Nasr (@SimNasr).

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