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Formation of museums in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Egypt

The Egyptian Museum, Cairo

The involvement of Egyptians in establishing an antiquities museum in Egypt dates back to the period of development of the antiquities museum in Europe between the 1780s and 1830s, with the conversion of the royal palace in Paris, the Louvre, into a museum, and the reconstruction of the British Museum in London as a building devoted substantially to antiquities. The early nineteenth century AD scholar al-Jabarti commented on the collecting activities of Europeans in 1817, but this was before European states had agreed to acquire large collections of Egyptian antiquities (Reid 2002: 39-40). Within a generation, the AD 1835 15 August decree by Mohamed Ali, inspired by Rifaa al-Tahtawi, included the following observation:

'It is well-known that Europeans have buildings for keeping antiquities - stones covered with paintings and inscriptions, and other such objects are carefully preserved there and show to the inhabitants of the country, as well as to travellers... Such institutions bring great renoun to the countries that have them.' (from Reid 2002: 55-56)

The decree envisaged a Museum in Cairo to house the finds of Egyptian antiquities inspectors, under the supervision of Yusuf Diya Effendi. Sadly, when the European scholar Richard Lepsius arrived from Berlin in 1842, Mohamed Ali told him that the project had not succeeded. However a collection had been begun, and there was a second antiquities collection, comprising finds from Luxor excavations, on display in one of the palaces of Ibrahim Pasha, son of Mohamed Ali.

In the reign of the next governor, Abbas I (ruled 1848-1854), official inspections are recorded for Upper Egypt and the Cairo area. The location and scope of the collection of antiquities seem not to be recorded in European sources: on one account it was moved to the School of Engineering in Boulaq in 1849, but another account has it moved to the Cairo citadel from a palace in the Ezbekiya quarter of Cairo in 1851. As recurrently in all museum histories, the government did not always respect the integrity of the collection; it seems that Abbas I presented part of the collection to Sultan Abd al-Aziz, and that his successor Said presented the remainder to Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1855.

These collecting and inspecting activities from 1835 to the 1850s form the background to the decision of Said (1854-1863) and Ismail Pasha (ruled 1863-1879) to support Auguste Mariette from France as head of a refounded Maslahat Antiqat (or Maslahat al-Athar) 'Antiquities Service' in 1858. On 1 June Mariette became mamur al-antiqat 'director of antiquities' on an Egyptian government annual salary of £720. The same month provides the first entry in the register for the refounded Museum. Following, consciously or not, in the footsteps of Yusuf Diya Effendi, Mariette employed foremen at key sites from Aswan to Gizeh, to clear out large monuments and send the sculpture finds to Cairo. There are limited European-language sources for Egyptian participation in and view of this period of the Antiquities Service and the Egyptian Museum, Cairo; archival material such as the lists of Egyptian foremen and workers on foreign excavations could help to fill this gap, but the story can probably only be written from publications and archives in Arabic and Turkish (until the mid-19th century the language of government in Egypt).

The expanding collection was moved in 1902 to a new building on Tahrir Square, where it remains today, an incomparable treasure house for Egyptian antiquities.

The key Egyptian Egyptologist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is Ahmed Kamal (1851-1923), who succeeded in his scientific career despite the French directorship of the Antiquities Service, down to the 1952 revolution, and the British military occupation of Egypt from 1882 to independence in 1922 and to a greater or lesser extent thereafter until the 1952 revolution. With the arrival of Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1952, all leading positions were transferred from Europeans to Egyptians.


The Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo

In 1869, Ismail Pasha issued a decree on preservation of historic monuments, at a time when he was remodelling Cairo. During the period when the nationalist Ahmed Urabi and his supporters dominated government, just before the British occupation, Khedive Tawfiq decreed the establishment of a Committee for the preservation of monuments of Arab art, with a Museum of Arab Art to house the materials salvaged in their work (1881). The committee members were mainly European, but Egyptians included the cabinet minister Ali Mubarak (1823-1893), and Ali Bahgat (1858-1924), who took over the directorship of the Museum when the Austrian Max Herz lost his position as citizen of an enemy state in the First World War. At the same time directorship of the library over the Museum moved from the German philologist Arthur Schaade to Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayyid.

The Coptic Museum, Cairo

Coptic was the name given by sixteenth and seventeenth century Europeans to the Christian minority in Egypt, and to their language, the latest phase in the history of the ancient Egyptian language. Following suggestions at the end of the nineteenth century, in 1914 the Coptic Museum was founded by Marcus Simaika (1864-1944), a wealthy Copt and leading figure in encouraging Coptic interest in the Coptic past. Simaika won the support of the traditionalist patriarch of the Coptic Church, Cyril V (in office 1874-1927). The Church provided the land for the Museum, in Old Cairo, against the walls of the ancient Roman fortress, as well as many of the exhibits. In 1946 king Farouk opened the new museum building.


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