Day Three with Mom, a Real Excursion

Our third day we were finally successful in actually leaving the house for something other than dinner or mail. Two blocks from our house is the Ceramic Museum. We cannot get home without passing it, and yet prior to Haitham’s arrival I had never gone in. But after visiting with Haitham, I knew that Mom would appreciate it. I wrote the following article for the embassy newsletter about the museum. It’s a little dry, but that’s what you get with pottery (get it, a pottery joke? - the possibilities for frivolity are endless!):

Cairo is a city brimming with more than 30 museums, the collections of which cover everything from agriculture, to military uniforms, and the history of the Egyptian post office. One lesser-known museum boasts ceramics from across the Islamic Empire, dating back to the 9th century, housed in a stunning 20th century palace.

The Museum of Islamic Ceramic Art (Gezira Art Center), located on Zamalek on Al-Gezira Street behind the Marriott, has a small but impressive and well-displayed ceramic collection that spans two floors and over a thousand years. There are more than 300 pieces and remarkable restoration has been done on many of the bowls, plates, pitchers and vases. This collection of Islamic ceramics is considered to be one of the best in the world.

The wide variety and styles of ceramics displayed represent examples from all over the Islamic Empire, including Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Egypt. They also show an interesting progression through Islamic history, starting with the Umayyads in 658 AD, the builders of Islam, who typically created pottery for utilitarian means. However, they were followed by the Abbasids in 750 AD, who were some of the first to import Chinese ceramics and thus changed the concept of pottery from purely practical to potential artwork. They often utilized a peacock-eye design, or repetitive dots and circles, and also created the luster process, in which pieces were fired a second time using a metallic oxide glaze that resulted in a shimmering metallic sheen. The designs of the Fatimids in 969 AD progressed to depict figural and animal styles, typically hares, lions and birds. Under the Ayyubids, in 1171 AD, who were primarily known for their woodwork and metalwork skills, the pottery designs became more intricate and delicate, and added new color variations. Mamluks (1249 AD) were influenced by an increase in Chinese imports, and their pieces reflect more Chinese animals and birds, as well as clouds and the lotus. The Ottoman designs, covering 1517-1919 AD, are some of the more recognizable ones (particularly to us novices), as they tend to utilize feathers, leaves and tulips or carnations, typically in blue, red and turquoise colors. The admiration for Chinese ceramics continued during this period and the influence and imitation can be seen in many of the patterns and styles of the pieces themselves.

The building enclosing these works, the palace of Prince Amru Ibrahim, was built in the 1920s in a mix of Turkish, Moroccan and Andalusian design features, which, to the layman means it’s a really beautiful building. The interior walls are decorated with intricate stucco patterns from floor to ceiling, the floors are marble and wood inlay, there are towering tiled fireplaces in several rooms, mashrabiya windows enhance the exterior, a dome topped with brightly colored stained glass speckles the central room with dots of color and a surrounding garden is currently used to display modern sculptures. The building underwent significant restoration in the late 1990s and has held up impressively.

But, if thousand-year-old pottery doesn’t get you leaping out of bed, and architecture induces yawning fits, come for the temporary modern art collection in the basement, which can include paintings or sculptures made of rusted bolts or performance art video pieces involving a Barbie doll, or just come and enjoy the peace and quiet in a lesser-known Cairo museum.

Okay, so I know it was rather heavy on the facts, but I felt it wasn’t appropriate to add in such details as the fact that Haitham and I were admonished for taking photos and were only caught because his flash went off. And that as an employee of the Met in NYC and a purveyor of museums world-wide, it drove Haitham crazy that despite being in large enclosed plexiglass display cabinets, the pieces were covered in dust and fragments of broken lightblubs. We left with Haitham fuming and swearing to write a letter to the head of the museum to offer his observations (I think he calmed down eventually and said letter went unsent). But, as museums go in Cairo, and not comparing them to the Louvre or the Met, the Ceramic Museum is a really lovely collection and the building is well-worth the visit.