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What’s New MUSEUMS

Islamic Ceramics

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | January 1999

Crafted by artisans centuries ago in Cairo and Tunis, Aleppo and Damascus, a unique collection of Islamic ceramics have found a home in the newly renovated Prince Amr Ibrahim palace in Zamalek, now renamed the Gezira Art Center and scheduled to open this month. The 315 pieces include bowls, lamps, plates, jugs and tiles adorned with Arabic calligraphy and intricate plant and geometric forms. “Islamic art marries aesthetic beauty with functional practicality,” explains Mohamed Resk, director of the Gezira Art Center. 


The collection spans 10 centuries and three continents, with more than a third of the pieces from Egypt, once a major center for ceramics production. There is also a large selection of Turkish, Persian and Syrian works and a few from Andalusia, Iraq, Tunisia and Morocco. One of the rarest pieces is a 16th century Turkish mishkaa (hanging lamp), one of three of its kind in the world. 


Previously in storage or undergoing restoration, many of these pieces have not been on public view for years. A large part of the collection formerly belonged to the Egyptian royal family (Prince Amr Ibrahim himself owned six of the pieces), while about 150 works are from the stored collection of the Gezira Museum, now under construction at the Opera House grounds. The remainder of the collection came from the Islamic Art Museum on Port Said Street in Bab El-Khalk. 


The domed palace compliments the collection with its Islamic-inspired architecture. The building is decorated with stained glass, mashrabiya and mosaic floors, with Quranic verses and ceramic craft adorning the walls and fireplaces. “The place perfectly suits the display of Islamic ceramics,” says Hamdy Mohamed Shehata, director of antiquities at the Ministry of Culture’s National Center for Fine Arts, which undertook the renovation of the palace, erected more than 80 years ago by Prince Amr Ibrahim. Following the revolution, the palace was sequestered by government decree in 1953. From 1979 to 1995, it temporarily housed the art collection of Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil. 


In mid-1988, the first stage of restoration began with structural repairs to the three-floor building and a new drainage and electrical system. The second phase started in 1995, establishing the Islamic Ceramics Museum on the first and second floor of the palace. Minister of Culture Dr. Farouk Hosni and Dr. Ahmed Nawar, head of the National Center for Fine Arts, set the transformation in motion at a total cost of LE 5.8 million. 


The challenge for architect Aly Raafat, consultant engineer for the National Center for Fine Arts, was to install modern lighting, security and air conditioning systems without destroying the hand-crafted decorations lining the walls of the palace. “If the decorations are harmed, nobody can correct them or return them to their original state,” says Raafat.


The basement level of the Gezira Art Center—originally the palace kitchen—has been turned into four galleries to be used for rotating exhibits and also houses an auditorium and audiovisual center. When the center opens, 99 European works of art from the mid-17th to the 19th century will be on exhibit, including paintings by Courbet, Delacroix, Sisley, Monet, Santerre and Renoir, in addition to bronze sculptures by Rodin and Degas. A fifth gallery for temporary exhibits is located on the first floor. Each of the galleries is named after a pioneer of modern Egyptian art: Ahmed Sabry, Ragheb Ayyad, Said El-Sabr, Kamal Khalifa and Al-Hussein Fawzi. 


An abstract painter, Resk has ambitious plans for the museum. “The role of the museum is not only to display objects. The goal is to establish a setting for dynamic discussion and the exchange of ideas,” he explains. An open-air theater has been built in the palace garden for outdoor music, poetry and theater performances. “All forms of art complement each other,” says Resk. He also plans to feature the work of new artists, organize cultural and educational events, and build bridges with art institutions abroad. Rezk hopes the Gezira Art Center will serve as a meeting place where academics, journalists, public figures and art connoisseurs can develop a dialogue on important issues. “Culture and art are not luxuries; they are necessities,” he says. 


Gezira Art Center, 1 El-Marsafy St., near the Cairo Marriott Hotel and the entrance to the Gezira Club, Zamalek. For an unspecified period after the museum opens admission will be free.

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