On January 24, 2014, an explosion targeting Cairo’s police headquarters, located in front of the Museum of Islamic Art, caused heavy damage to the museum. The museum also contains the Egyptian National Library and Archives. A group of volunteers from the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation, with a team of specialists from within the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), sprang into action to save the collection because the Ministry did not have a department of crisis management. The incident highlights the importance of developing mechanisms for preserving Egypt’s heritage and establishing a Department of Crisis Management in the Ministry especially in light of the current risks to cultural heritage.
The history of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) dates back to1869 when Egyptian and European intellectuals and scholars began to pay attention to Islamic monuments. The Islamic monuments were neglected compared to Pharaonic monuments, as was represented clearly in the publication of the “Description de l’Égypte, ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l’expédition de l’armée française [Description of Egypt, or The Collection of Observations and Research Which were Made in Egypt During the Expedition of the French Army, published between 1809 and 1829]). In 1880, the “Islamic Art Lovers” group was formed in Paris. Later in 1881, Khedive Tawfiq (who ruled from 1879–1892) ordered the head of the Ministry of Religious Antiquities (Awqaf) to establish the Museum of Arab Archeology. The Austrian engineer, Julius Franz, head of the technical department in the Awqaf, was in charge of establishing the museum in the Eastern Iwan (vaulted space) of the Al-Hākim bi-Amr Allah Mosque, next to Bāb al-Futūh. The construction of the museum was completed in 1902 and the second floor of the museum housed the Khedival documents/archives. However, the museum was later relocated before the end of its first year to a new location in Bāb Al-Khalq Square, to accommodate the large holdings of the museum. Khedive Abbas Hilmi opened the museum on December 28, 1903.
In 2003, the museum underwent major renovations, including restoring the building, its interior décor, and its collections, and restoring the museum’s antiquities from various eras. Experts from France undertook the restoration and the museum reopened to the public in 2010. The restoration included creating a museum school for children and adults and an administrative building next to the museum. After these improvements and the museum’s expansion, it celebrated its centenary.
On January 24, 2014, a car stopped in Bāb Al-Khalq Square; three minutes later, it exploded. The vehicle targeted Cairo’s police headquarters, located across the street from the Museum of Islamic Art. The explosion’s force caused a fire and extensive damage to the museum and the Egyptian National Library and Archives’ Khedival “Kutbkhana” situated inside it. The blast destroyed some of the artifacts in the museum and the archives, as well as the historical buildings themselves.
Before the explosion, the museum’s collections included more than 100,000 pieces, covering nearly twelve centuries. The Museum of Islamic Art is considered one of the greatest museums in the world and contains rare masterpieces of wood, plaster, metals, porcelain, glass, crystal, and textiles from various Islamic countries and different eras. It also has items from India, China, Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Egypt, and Andalusia. Moreover, its collection of rare books and manuscripts makes the museum an invaluable landmark. It also included great treasures such as Zainab Khatun’s collection, gold and silver coins, and gifts from kings.
Initial statements gave different estimations of the actual losses from the explosion. “There is no doubt that the losses are heavy” Hassan Abdullah, Director of Information at the museum said. “There are two critical items that have not been destroyed, though. The first is the copper jug of Marwan Bin Muhammad Bin Salim, and the second is the ‘Qur’an Othman.’ Currently, we are making an inventory of all damaged items, including the broken walls, ceilings, and doors. All the pieces will be kept in the museum until the completion of the restoration process, which could take up to four years.” He estimated that due to the extent of the losses, the restoration project would cost around $100 million. “UNESCO is expected to donate $100,000 of it, as part of an international fundraising campaign to restore the museum. No restoration plan has been drafted yet,” he added.
A committee from the Ministry of Antiquities also made a list of the damaged items, noting that many glass windows, ceilings, walls, air conditioners, and 15 Islamic niches were destroyed. The committee added that many artifacts were also severely damaged as a result of the explosion.
“The initial estimates of the accident indicated that most of the museum’s interior decor were destroyed,” the Antiquities Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, said. “The roofs fell, the outer glass of the archaeological building was destroyed, and many objects were severely damaged.”
He added that the museum’s collections had 92,000 items, but only 1,471 were on display. He also confirmed that the most damaged items were glass, wood, or ceramic artifacts. Of the 126 glass items, 42 were completely destroyed, 12 were damaged but can be restored, and 72 remained intact. Of 363 ceramic pieces, 10 were completely destroyed, 51 were damaged but can be restored, and 301 remained intact. Out of 178 wooden pieces, 18 were completely destroyed, and 160 remained intact.
All the display cabinets in the Egyptian National Library and Archives (ENLA), located in the same building, were shattered. A few manuscripts and books had water damage due to the sprinkler system and from the shattered glass debris. Cleaning and restoring those items is possible, but it could take many months of work.
UNESCO recommended covering the roofs and windows of the building as soon as possible to protect the building from the weather and to avoid further damage due to rainy days. It also urged that the decorative panels on the top of the building, which were dislodged by the explosion be examined and transported, lest they fall and hit pedestrians in the streets. Fortunately, most of the restoration laboratories and storage rooms did not suffer damages, and some had only minor ones, since most of them were either underground or located behind the museum. Those areas can be used now in the restoration and preservation process for the rest of the collection.
Just one day before the bombing at Cairo’s police headquarters, Dr. Zahi Hawas, the Minister of Antiquities at the time, had argued that it was time for the international community to help Egypt protect archaeological sites and target illegal excavations in Egypt, which had increased over the past three years. He also criticized officials in Egypt, saying that they are “not interested in antiquities and are not doing enough to protect our cultural heritage.” He described international laws to protect archaeological heritage as “very weak.”
Despite what Zahi Hawas said, Egypt was one of the first countries to sign the Hague Convention of 1954 for the “Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.” In 2005, Egypt also signed the second protocol of the agreement, issued in 1999. Some articles of the agreement mentioned the need “to prepare in time of peace for the safeguarding of cultural property situated within their own territory against the foreseeable effects of an armed conflict, by taking such measures as they consider appropriate [including] the preparation of inventories, the planning of emergency measures for protection against fire or structural collapse, the preparation for the removal of movable cultural property or the provision for adequate in situ protection of such property, and the designation of competent authorities responsible for the safeguarding of cultural property.”
Moreover, despite the importance of first aid for cultural heritage in times of crisis the Ministry of Antiquities had not established a specialized department to manage crises and intervene quickly and urgently in the event of an emergency. Yet, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM, established by UNESCO)1 had conducted an earlier “First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis” (FAC) training workshop in Egypt in June 2012.2 At this workshop, Egyptian experts in historic preservation established the first FAC Team to respond and intervene quickly to protect Egypt’s cultural heritage and named it the “Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation (EHRF).”
The team, who intervened immediately after the explosion to save the Islamic Art Museum’s collections was not drawn entirely from within the Ministry of Antiquities. Rather, it was composed of a group of specialists, both from within and outside the MSA. Immediately after the explosion, Abdel Hamid El Sharif, one of the founders of the EHRF related: “We heard about the explosion just like the rest of the Egyptians. Then, we called each other and agreed that those in Cairo should head immediately to the museum. The Minister of Antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim, was already there, and he had some background knowledge about our FAC training. This was important since our work requires special permits and approvals. The Minister himself has recognized the certificates of our 2012 and 2013 FAC trainings, so he was familiar with the team members and our work. He allowed us to enter the museum. One of the FAC trainees in the 2013 training workshop, held in December, was working at the Ministry of Antiquities and this made our job much easier. In addition to our team, there was a group of restorers and museum trustees who were already there.”
The team members were volunteers and they worked in cooperation with the director of the Antiquities Ministry as well as the head of the Museums Department. However, since this was the first time that the EHRF team had to intervene in an emergency, its full capacity was not utilized. It is expected, however, that the team will be more involved if similar crises occur in the future due to their record and success in collecting artifacts from the explosion site and putting them in temporary storage.
The team arrived at the damaged museum at 9 AM and entered at 10 AM. They divided themselves into three groups: one for the Islamic Art Museum’s collections, a second for ENLA’s, and a third for purchasing the materials to preserve the artifacts. They performed a rapid assessment and then the intervention began. They created a temporary storage area for their tools. The rescue operation began its work, which included opening display boxes, documenting each piece separately, wrapping it, and placing it in the temporary storage area categorized by the type of the item (glass, metal, wood…). The process took two days and included saving more than 1,400 pieces.
“The Ministry’s team had no prior training, and the Antiquities Ministry had no official department to deal with crises and conduct a rapid intervention at the time of an accident,” Abdul Hamid said. “We had previously requested, after the 2012 training, to establish a FAC emergency committee in the Ministry; however, we were asked to wait since the ministry back then was undergoing a restructuring. After this incident however, the ministry will start seriously to consider establishing a crisis management committee in the near future.”
As for how the team obtained the materials and tools necessary for the rescue operation, the team members explained that they had some of the materials from their previous training workshops. In addition, a group of locals was waiting outside the museum, ready to buy the requirements out of their own pockets. “Some of the materials we had were obtained through the Museum Sector,” a member of the EHRF said, “although it was a Friday [the weekend in Egypt] and the warehouses were closed, the relevant personnel provided us with the needed equipment as much as possible.” It is clear from this experience that it is necessary to establish facilities in museums for emergencies and equip them with the necessary equipment, tools, and storage space. In addition, EHRF recommends the creation of a mobile FAC unit capable of arriving immediately to an accident site during a crisis.
When asked if the design of the exhibition spaces in the Museum of Islamic Art had an impact on the extent of losses; some of the members of EHRF suggested that the museum’s vast empty spaces where one of the reasons behind the severe damages since they allowed the explosion’s blast wave to reach deeper inside the museum. The rooms separated by walls, however, took the hit and protected those rooms, which, in turn, did not suffer much damage. The same applied to the textile rooms and tombstones, which also did not suffer losses. The team pointed out the fact that they are not experts in designing or restoring buildings, and evaluating the museum’s structural problems requires specialists who can study the requirements of museum exhibition spaces, safety procedures, and risk prevention.
The idea and its origins
The idea of establishing the EHRF started after several incidents that occurred in the aftermath of the January 25th Revolution in 2011. First, the attack against the Egyptian Museum on January 28th and then evacuating the storerooms of the Giza archaeological area in March 2011 sparked the group into action. At that time, Dr. Zahi Hawas, the former Minister of Antiquities, asked for a group of volunteers to help transport artifacts in the warehouses to protect them from theft. Indeed, a team of archaeological volunteers, who were not employees in the MSA, was assembled the next day and cooperated with a group of workers in the Giza Pyramids area to transfer all the artifacts from the warehouses. Since the team was not adequately trained, this process was inefficient. Some archaeologists, therefore, began to think about ways to avoid these kind of problems in emergency situations. This move to establish a crisis committee was encouraged by an initiative started at ICCROM in 2010 to train experts in “First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis,” which was a new field in the antiquities sector.
In October 2011, Abdel Hamid Al-Sharif and others participated in a training workshop in Rome called “First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis (FAC).” The workshop was organized by ICCROM and funded by “the Prince Claus Fund” (PCF) and other entities.3 At the end of the workshop, the PCF gave five small financial grants to enable the trainees to transfer this knowledge to their local communities. Consequently, in June 2012, Abdel Hamid, in cooperation with the PCF, MSA, and ICCROM, organized a FAC training workshop for 30 participants in Cairo. The basic idea was to form a FAC team that had members from MSA with various specialties, as well as members from outside the ministry (individuals or civil society institutions whose work is related to heritage). The goal was to integrate these different parties for a more capable FAC. The EHRF-FAC team consisted of 36 individuals; 30 of them were employees at MSA and only six were from outside the MSA but interested in heritage. The training workshop lasted three weeks, during which the group developed its ability to carry out any FAC operation.
After the training, the same group met again and began discussing proposals to establish the group and define its goals. They decided that they should work along two axes: First, establishing a capable Egyptian institution for the protection and rescue of the heritage. Second, establishing a competent department in the MSA since no person or independent entity could work on protecting and saving heritage without approvals and coordination with the relevant ministry. The importance of the idea of capacity building and consolidating the foundations of knowledge in first aid techniques to save and provide relief for Egypt’s cultural heritage had also been discussed with government entities and civil society to enhance communication between them. Thus, all interested parties would have the same technical and scientific background, and the ability to coordinate with each other in times of crisis.
A year and a half after the first training session, in November 2013, the Ministry of Social Affairs legally registered the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation as a non-government organization with no membership fee (provided members obtained FAC training). Meanwhile, UNESCO had prepared a set of reports on the status of antiquities in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya following the upheavals during the Arab Spring, and how to develop a strategy to protect them. The EHRF was working extensively on archaeological sites while UNESCO was more interested in museums. Later on, both parties decided to work together to form teams with members from both sides to quickly intervene in any situation that damaged the antiquities. The idea of bringing foreign trainers into every training workshop was costly and threatened the continuity of the project. Therefore, it was necessary to form a team of Egyptian trainers and teach them to become trainers of trainers. In January 2014, the first trainer-of-trainers workshop was conducted and the first team of trainers was ready to train. They were certified as trainers and “First-Aid-Archaeologists” able to spread first aid science and technology to save and provide relief to heritage sites throughout Egypt.
EHRF’s future plans
The EHRF plans to conduct three training workshops during the year 2014. The first one, to train more trainers, was already held in January. The second will be held in March 2014 to form five FAC teams and the governorates of Upper Egypt will be the starting point. The graduates of the trainer-of-trainers course will supervise those groups. They are all Egyptian trainers and will not need the participation of foreign experts, except for evaluation and follow-up, as the training is still taking place under the umbrella of international institutions and centers such as UNESCO, ICCROM and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). These international institutions and centers will also work on the evaluation of the trainees, recognizing them as “certified trainers.” At the completion of these workshops, a qualified FAC team, capable of training and disseminating information, will be formed and certified internationally. One FAC team will be deployed in Greater Cairo, and five other FAC teams will work in Upper Egyptian governorates.
Moreover, the EHRF worked on the formation of “Crises Management and Rapid Intervention” (CMRI) Teams to quickly respond to any problems that threaten the museum collections, provided that these teams are present in all museums of the Ministry of Antiquities and also some museums affiliated with the Ministry of Culture. In December 2013, EHRF started the first training, targeting museums in Egypt with trainees from only 21 museums. EHRF is aiming to hold a training workshop in April and May 2014 to cover most of Egypt’s museums. It also intends to select a group of former trainees, based on their geographical locations, to become “Assistant Trainers” to work with the “Certified Trainers” before and during the workshops, with evaluation and follow-up from the foreign experts. After the month of Ramadan, two training sessions will be held: the first will be the main one for all Cairo museums. The training will discuss the concept of FAC in greater depth. The second will be for museums in northern Egypt and the north coasts. Consequently, by the end of 2014, all of Egypt’s museums will have teams of at least two or three individuals with FAC training.
In 2015, a large group will be formed with a background in crisis management and first aid as a result of the 2014 training. The EHRF also wants to create a group of people qualified enough to monitor the problems that museums’ collections may face before they occur. This requires training that group outside Egypt on crisis management in all its sub-domains while focusing on the areas of restoration and rehabilitation. It is hoped that this group will become the core of the “Crisis Management Team” (CMT) of Egyptian heritage within the MSA. This CMT can become the core of a larger team across the whole of Egypt, consisting of 80 to 100 members, who are primarily employees at the MSA, to ensure their ease of movement, access to monuments, and sustainability. It can also include those who are interested in preserving heritage from civil society.
Based on this plan, the EHRF aspires by 2016 to complete a comprehensive “Risk Map” for all archaeological sites and museums in Egypt. The goal is to prepare scenarios for expected risks and find a set of solutions and plans for mitigating them. In 2017, the EHRF hoped that these plans would come into effect and be completed in the best way possible. The EHRF will also follow up on these plans and continue its role in supporting the MSA through training in crisis management.
The EHRF seeks to support the upcoming the Department of Crisis Management at the MSA and coordinate with it in the future, but it will not be able to implement these plans alone, from EHRF’s viewpoint. EHRF is convinced that the upcoming DCM will be in need of continuous technical support. Unlike many government entities, EHRF has sufficient flexibility to provide that necessary technical support. The EHRF’s members volunteer not only with their time and money but also their ideas. Those ideas continuously contribute to generating more plans that help them to obtain additional resources for training, unlike government entities which are under more financial limitations.
EHRF’s ambitious plans go beyond Egypt. It hopes to spread the idea of emergency first aid to save heritage to the regional level, especially in North Africa and the MENA region in general.
Communication and addressing government entities
The EHRF’s contribution has already started by building the structure for an official unit for crisis management in the MSA in cooperation with the current Minister, who is familiar with the activities of EHRF, especially since its members are already working in the ministry’s sites and museums. The EHRF is also in the process of revising the DCM with ICCROM and UNESCO to give it an international character, similar to DCMs in other countries.
Some government officials also participated in EHRF’s training. For example, the director of the Antiquities Investigation Department participated in a previous training workshop. A group of individuals from the Ministry of Interior and the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (under the auspices of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 1999) also participated in a training workshop in 2011. At the end of the workshop, the group prepared a readiness plan that included a list of telephone numbers of the entities to contact during a crisis.
The EHRF also sends formal letters to the MSA regarding the dates of the training, detailing the criteria for the selection of candidates. MSA then sends a memo to relevant offices asking them to nominate the best candidates.
Despite these efforts, the scope of EHRF’s impact will remain very limited unless an official Department of Crisis Management in the ministry is established, since only then will this department be able to communicate and coordinate more authoritatively and efficiently with all other official entities.
During the 2013 training, trainees during a workshop at a museum, were asked to make a hypothetical plan to save the museum collections during a theoretical crisis, using what they had just learned. Indeed, a group of them created some plans which were later evaluated by a group of experts last January.
The EHRF team included the Secretary of the Effat Nagy Museum of the Fine Arts Sector in the Ministry of Culture, an official at the Center for Documentation of Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, an architectural engineer working at the National Folklore Archives, an archeology inspector in Al-Gamaliyya area, an official in ENLA, a restoration specialist affiliated to the MSA, and others. We asked them how they leveraged their workplaces to serve the goals of EHRF and they answered:
The Prince Claus Finance (PCF) supported the first training workshop on “First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis (FAC).” Then, the PCF announced that it would provide five grants to the trainees who have ideas for the protection of heritage and archeology in their countries. Abdel Hamid Al-Sharif was one of the trainees and discussed with them the possibility of transferring the same training workshop to Egypt, even on a smaller scale. The representatives of PCF informed him that they would provide assistance through one of those grants to transfer the experience to Egypt after adapting it to the local Egyptian situation. As for the second and third training, the EHRF proposed them to ensure the continuity of the project and PCF’s ideas. Both trainings were carried out in cooperation with the ICCROM. UNESCO also contacted the EHRF to provide the necessary support for the training workshop.
Types of support required
EHRF has technical support from ICOMOS, ICROM, and UNESCO. But the most critical support the institution needs is the continuity of the current group because they are the core of a bigger idea.
It is also essential to get the support from government entities, which is represented by the speedy establishment of a department of crisis management at MSA. As for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), they can support the EHRF by providing funding and the places needed to conduct trainings. The members of the EHRF hope that at least three FAC units and mobile laboratories are created for the MSA: one for the Delta, one for Cairo, and one for Upper Egypt. They also hope that these units contain the raw materials and tools required to move quickly in the event of any crisis.
After asking the EHRF team about the challenges they faced, they summarized their difficulties as follows:
To ensure continuity, the EHRF hopes that the training it provides for its members includes a stable and sufficient source of income in addition to their work in the Ministry to ensure that they will keep working in the field of antiquities and heritage instead of turning to other jobs to earn income. The EHRF also aims to train Egyptians to become experts, rather than relying on foreign experts only.
In light of the dangers the cultural sphere faces, in both Egypt and the Arab world in general, strategies must be crafted to preserve culture and to confront the potential risks to collections that are part of our global cultural heritage. It is essential to establish a Department of Crisis Management at the Ministry of Antiquities that is responsible for planning to face emergencies and work in coordination with various departments in the concerned ministries to develop a plan to prepare for rapid action in times of crisis. The MSA and civil society institutions or movements concerned with heritage must enhance interconnection and exchange experiences between the different offices of the MSA to take advantage of the diverse backgrounds in the field of culture, while finding better ways to cooperate, especially in times of crisis. MSA should also publish guidebooks about specific procedures to be followed in times of crisis and emergencies, including safety and security standards used internationally to preserve cultural heritage, as well as the relevant authorities to be contacted during disasters. Finally, it is essential that the Ministry of Antiquities develop regulations and standards for safety and security in cooperation with the engineering departments to ensure the preservation of the archaeological holdings and reduce any risk to the museum’s exhibition spaces to the maximum degree possible. For example, some of the regulations and proposals implemented abroad can be found here:
1. In the aftermath of World War II, UNESCO agreed to establish an intergovernmental center to study and improve restoration methods. The proposal was adopted at the ninth session of the General Conference of UNESCO held in New Delhi in 1956. After reaching an agreement with the Italian government, the International Center for the Study of the Protection and Restoration of Cultural Property was established in Rome in 1959 under the name, “Rome Center” or the International Center for Conservation of Monuments. In 1978, this name was changed to The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property or ICCROM. The center organized its first courses in preserving historical cities and buildings in cooperation with the University of Rome in the early 1960s. Since then, the center has contributed to protecting cultural heritage throughout the world in relevant spheres, the most important of which are training workshops for experts and other personnel. The list of these trainings included a new and unique topic: “First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis.”
2. The international training workshop for First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis (FAC) is a course organized by ICCROM and the Italian Ministry of Culture in cooperation with UNESCO, the Blue Shield Network, and other local institutions. The course enables the participants to develop their scientific skills and strategies required to provide an appropriate initial response and prevent further damage to cultural heritage in conflict situations, regardless of whether the damage was intended or just an accident. Participants were trained in a variety of materials including stone, wall panels, metals, textiles, and archival materials. Participants’ abilities are refined around First Aid interventions, liaison with relevant authorities, and regulatory procedures followed, as well as planning for both prevention and overcoming the severity of the crisis. The training workshop also examined the relationship between the conflict and cultural heritage from a variety of perspectives, enhancing their view on how to protect cultural heritage and how protecting and reviving it can play an essential role in overcoming a sense of loss and displacement.
3. The “Heritage Disaster Response” program is one of the programs funded by the “Prince Claus Funding for Culture and Development.” The program provides urgent and effective relief for all areas of cultural heritage affected or destroyed by human or natural factors. The program was established in 2003 as a reaction to the looting and destruction of art collections at the Iraqi National Museum. The program believes that saving cultural heritage gives hope and consolation to the affected communities, and thus contributes to restoring human dignity and promoting a sense of identity. The EHRF considers “culture and heritage” a humanitarian need, and therefore relief work in cultural emergencies must be regarded as part of humanitarian assistance.
Special thanks to the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation (EHRF) and Professor Abdel Hamid El-Sherif
The image chosen is provided by the Egyptian Foundation for the Protection of Heritage
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