From elaborate Ottoman bonbonnieres to gold calligraphy and intricate wooden mihrabs, here are the must-see things at the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo.
The Museum of Islamic Art is a real Cairo hidden gem with an incredible collection of masterpieces from across the Islamic world.
It’s not on any tour group itinerary. And most visitors to the Egyptian capital head straight to the grand museums of Ancient Egyptian art.
But those who make the taxi ride into Bab Al-Khalq are rewarded with one of the world’s most impressive collections of Islamic art.
This is definitely Cairo’s most underrated museum.
And if you’re an art and architecture lover, you can easily spend a few hours wandering the galleries of rare woodwork, colorful ceramics and historic curiosities.
There are enamel lamps from old Cairo mosques, decorated Persian manuscripts and a gorgeous collection of woodwork, ceramics and textiles. Another highlight are the rare manuscripts of the Quran with decorated borders in golden ink.
The museum boasts a beautiful neo-Mamluk facade on the busy Port Said Street, where modern-day buildings have overtaken old villas.
Inside, there are thousands of artifacts from across Egypt, North Africa and the Islamic world.
The collection also includes pieces from across Cairo and further-off lands like India, Afghanistan and Iran.
There are 25 total galleries that house some 4,500 artefacts, with thousands more in storage.
Founded in 1903, the museum was curated by Abbas Helmy II, the last Ottoman viceroy who ruled Egypt and Sudan just before the British took over.
Getting around the museum
The right wing of the museum has art from across Egypt that’s arranged chronologically by period from Umayyad, Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk to Ottoman.
It’s a who’s who list of all the empires that have ruled Egypt, whether that’s the Shias from Tunisia (the Fatimids) or the slaves turned Sultans from the Eurasian Steppe (the Mamluks).
Start at the introductory gallery, just straight ahead from the main entrance. This gallery includes a few museum highlights including a centuries-old Quran and an ethereal Mamluk glass lamp.
Then head into gallery #1 for some of the oldest pieces in the museum like Tulunid carved wooden panels and pastel-painted ceramics. Continue your journey through history at galleries #2-13 that take you across Egyptian history from the Umayyads to Muhammad Ali.
If your Cairo itinerary includes lots of historic mosques (like it should), then these chronological galleries are a great introduction to the art you’ll see at various mosques around the city.
The museum also makes a great final stop on your Cairo itinerary. It gives you an overview of Islamic history that helps you put everything you’ve seen around Islamic Cairo into context.
It’s an incredible feeling to visit the Sultan Hassan Mosque, for example, and imagine (thanks to this museum) the artwork, ceramics and wooden tables that the Mamluk sultans used in their everyday life.
The left wing has thematic exhibits of art from across the Islamic world on topics like science, daily life, gardens, calligraphy and coins. This section of the museum also has some incredible pieces from Turkey and Iran.
There’s a breezy outdoor courtyard with benches if you want to take a breather, but sadly no cafe.
Do you need a guide?
The Museum of Islamic Art is labelled very well in both Arabic and English. There’s also audio guides available if you want to dive deeper into the collection.
You’ll find large and extensive displays at the front of all the chronological galleries in the right wing that tell you where the various empires (Fatimids, Mamluks, etc) originated from, who they were and how they ruled.
Some of the galleries have interactive exhibits.
Don’t miss the touch-screen display in the Fatimid galleries that lets you swipe through for 360-degree views of some of Cairo’s most important mosques. It’s a great way to see the mosques where many of the museum’s artifacts come from.
The left wing and its thematic displays on topics like calligraphy and gardens is also extensively labelled. The galleries have some general info about each topic, and individual artwork is numbered and labelled for easy navigation.
A restoration story
The Museum of Islamic Art was seriously damaged in January, 2014, after a car bomb attack targeted the Cairo police headquarters across the street.
The blast shook the museum and damaged about a third of its artifacts, including priceless ceramics and glass pieces. The building’s intricate facade was also hit hard.
Unluckily, the blast occurred just 4 years after a 10-million-dollar restoration project had been completed at the museum. It was a tragedy that undid years of conservation work.
But after years of painstaking restoration, the museum finally reopened in 2017 with the majority of all damaged artifacts back on display.
The artifacts that were damaged and then restored are marked with red circle stickers throughout the museum. Look closely at the ceramics and glass pieces to see how various fragments were put back together.
The restoration is so seamless that you won’t notice the repairs unless you look closely. And these red stickers offer a fascinating look into the work of museum conservators.
The Museum of Islamic Art has gold-colored museum labels that indicate its most important and significant pieces.
If you want to see the museum’s best masterpieces – or if you only have an hour and just want to see the highlights – then seek out these golden labels for the must-see pieces (the rest of the labels are silver).
Insider’s tip: Unlike many Cairo museums, the Museum of Islamic Art has a wonderful website that gives you lots of great info about individual artefacts.
If you’re an art lover – and if you have more time – then I’d recommend at least a few hours to visit the museum. For reference, it took me about 3 hours to leisurely go through all the galleries.
Here is my ultimate list of the must-see masterpieces at the Museum of Islamic Art:
1. Mosque lamp made of enameled glass
Egypt-Mamluk, 15th century Location: Introduction gallery (ID no. 328)
This ethereal glass lamp showcases how the Arabic language itself is used as a decorative element in Islamic art.
The lamp is made of multi-colored enamel and adorned with a Quranic verse from Surat al-Nur (or The Verse of Light), which compares God’s light to a shining crystal lamp inside a niche.
Because the Quran was revealed to Prophet Mohammed in Arabic, the Arabic language itself is regarded as a high art form that’s nearly sacred. The Arabic script was created by highly-revered calligraphers and molds itself into the curves of the lamp.
Mosque lamps during Mamluk rule were made in Egypt and Syria. And they were often presented to Mamluk sultans as gifts.
These oil lamps have a large round body that rises up to a narrow waist then flares upwards.
They would have been suspended from chains and used to light up mosques and other buildings inside mosque complexes. The enamel would have made a splendid sight that threw its silhouette on the mosque walls in the evening.
The decorations on Mamluk mosque lanterns often include emblems of whoever commissioned the lantern along with praises to the Sultan du jour.
These decorations testify to the strict hierarchial society of the Mamluks where titles, flattery and connections were everything.
Turkey, 15th century Location: Introduction gallery (ID no. 15360)
This splendid astronomical instrument is a handheld model of the universe that’s used to measure planets and stars, guide sailboats and calculate prayer times.
The 15th-century Astrolabe is made of copper alloy and inlaid with silver and gold. It bears the name of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II, who studied astronomy with his private teacher.
The Astrolabe consists of a main disk called the mater, which all other elements are connected. Its intricate network of wires and cutouts form an ancient GPS system that measures the altitude above the horizon of a celestial body.
An early astrolabe was first invented in ancient Greece. But medieval Muslim astronomers developed the astrolabe to its height, adding angular scales and circles to the design.
The astrolabe was crucial in the Islamic world to determine precise prayer times, find the Qibla (the direction of Mecca where prayers are directed), and navigate travel for trade routes and war.
The Arabs later brought the astrolabe to Europe via 11th-century Andalusia, from where it spread and contributed to modern science.
3. Holy Quran
Egypt-Umayyad, 8th century Location: Introduction gallery (ID no. 24145)
This 8th-century copy of the Holy Quran is written with brown ink on parchment – and it’s one of the oldest copies of the Quran in the world.
This Umayyad-era Quran was written in Kufic script, an early style of Arabic script that was preferred for Quran transcription.
Kufic is characterized by its angular, linear form that looks geometric and sparse compared to later more elaborate calligraphy. And this 8th-century Quran is a beautiful example of Kufic taken to an artform.
Kufic and its angular, austere style was commonly used in early copies of the Quran. It was the prevalent Arabic script used to reproduce the earliest surviving copies of the Quran from the 8th to 10th centuries.
Today, the beautiful geometric kufic script can be seen in the Muslim world from the text on the flag of Iran to the inscriptions inside the Dome of the Rock in Palestine.
4. Tulunid wooden panel
Egypt-Tulunid, 9th century Location: Umayyad/Abbasid gallery (ID no. 9518)
This intricate wooden panel inlaid with bone, ebony and ivory is a rare treasure from Egypt’s short-lived Tulunid rule.
The patterns across this gorgeous panel include geometric forms like circles and arches along with vegetal motifs like curvacious vine and palm leaves.
The panel was likely part of some furniture inside a wealthy residence or palace, and was excavated in the historic district of Fustat (around modern-day Coptic Cairo).
Fustat was known for creating masterful woodwork. And this craft flourished under the Umayyads and Abbasids when skilled artisans carved doors, minbars, dining tables, panels and partition screens in elaborate detail.
5. Ewer of Marwan
Egypt-Umayyad, 7th-8th century Location: Umayyad/Abbasid gallery (ID no. 9281)
This molden bronze ewer is a masterpiece of workmanship that’s famous for its loud, crowing cockerel with outstretched wings.
It was likely used by Marwan Ibn Mohamed, the last of the Umayyad caliphs, for washing and ablutions. The ewer was excavated around Fayoum near the burial place of the caliph who was toppled by the incoming Abbasids.
The cockerel is decorated with crescents, stars, rosettes and birds. And it’s thought to symbolize light or the morning Fajr prayer.
The cockerel takes inspiration from classical Roman style while the ornamentation is inspired by Byzantine and Sassanid art.
This collection of painted Fatimid ceramic dishes feature beautiful scenes of dancers, horsemen and musicians adorned with floral and geometric motifs.
You don’t usually find depictions of human beings in much of Islamic art because Sunni thought is largely against depicting living beings (it’s thought the creation of living forms is unique to God).
But the Fatimids were Shia and thus had a more relaxed view towards painting humans (similarly to Persians, who are also Shia).
Fatimid portraits are characterized by round, moon-shaped faces and almond eyes. They’re often wearing the turbans and toques of the period.
The collection also includes ceramic shards with portraits of a bearded, long-haired Jesus that testify to the Fatimid religious tolerance towards Coptic Christians.
7. Mamluk blazons
Egypt-Mamluk, 14th century Location: Mamluk galleries
This fascinating collection of blazons (or coat of arms) offer an insight into the culture and hierchial society of the Mamluk sultans.
Don’t miss the blazon of taster al-Gashinkir (above, bottom), who sampled the food before it was brought to the sultan to make sure it wasn’t poisoned.
Another blazon depicts two polo sticks. The Mamluks loved horsemanship and they loved to play polo in the big square next to the Mosque of Sultan Hassan.
The collection also includes the six-petalled rosette blazon used as an emblem for the influential Qalawun dynasty (above, top), builders of the splendid complex on Moez Street in Khan el Khalili.
Blazons are a huge decorative element of Mamluk art that appear on anything from enormous buildings to delicate glass lamps. They symbolize a specific office and were often used by amirs and sultans on buildings, objects and possessions to indicate ownership.
8. Mamluk copper table
Egypt-Mamluk, 14th century Location: Mamluk galleries (ID no. 139)
This hexagonal copper alloy table features vegetal and geometric motifs, kufic script and Quranic quotes in intricate filigree.
The table is inlaid with silver and bears the name of Sultan al Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun, who ruled Egypt during three different periods. It was likely made for the sultan and used to store Qurans or personal items.
The table includes an inscription that praises the sultan and calls him the “protector of the oppressed against the oppressors.”
A small richly decorated door is embellished with vegetal motifs and opens to reveal an internal shelf. The panels are decorated with intertwining stems and lotus blossoms while the bottom bears the artisan’s name and year of production.
Such tables were sometimes used to carry torches to illuminate Cairo’s mosques and palaces at night.
And they testify to the mastery of Mamluk-era metalwork. Cairo during the Mamluks even had an entire souq dedicated to inlaid metalwork.
9. Qaitbay candlestick
Egypt-Mamluk, 15th century Location: Mamluk galleries (ID no. 4297)
This beautiful candlestick was a gift from Sultan Qaitbay to the mosque of Prophet Muhammad in Medina, which was struck by a great fire and then completely restored by the sultan.
Sultan Qaitbay is known for his numerous architectural projects around Egypt from his fort in Alexandria to the mosques and sabils in the City of the Dead.
But he also restored the Mosque of Prophet Muhammad in Medina after a great fire struck the sacred site. Sultan Qaitbay completed a major restoration of the site and provided the mosque with chandeliers, lamps and candlesticks (including this one).
The candlestick is decorated with Qaitbay’s titles and blazons. An inscription says the candlestick was endowed to the shrine in Medina during the holy month of Ramadan.
10. Incense burner
Egypt-Mamluk, 14th century Location: Mamluk galleries (ID no. 15109)
This copper alloy incense burner is meticulously crafted with intricate details that contain leafy vines, animal motifs and Quranic verses.
Inlaid with gold and silver, the incense burner is made of pierced metal to diffuse the incense smoke through a space.
Such incense burners were used during Mamluk rule in both mosques and private homes to scent the air. They were characterized by their masterful craftsmanship and versatile decorations.
11. Marble mosaic panel
Egypt-Mamluk, 15th century Location: Mamluk galleries (ID no. 3075)
This marble mosaic panel decorated with mother of pearl features four pointed arches and an array of colorful geometric patterns.
Such marble panels inlaid with different kinds of stone were used for decoration in Mamluk architecture. The panels were used to embellish the mosque’s mihrab and qibla.
You can spot similar panels in Mamluk mosques across Cairo like at the Complex of Sultan Qalawun near Khan el Khalili.
12. Ottoman ceramics
Turkey and Egypt-Ottoman, 16th-19th century Location: Ottoman galleries
This colorful collection of Ottoman and Muhammad Ali ceramics are decorated with floral patters, lotus flowers, saz leaves and arabesques in brilliant blues and reds.
The collection includes Iznik pottery, which combines traditional Ottoman patterns with the Chinese tradition of blue-and-white porcelain.
Ottoman ceramics reached high levels of perfection and ranged from dishes and goblets to perfume bottles and pilgrimage flasks. They were also very popular on European markets.
Ottoman ceramics often used vegetal motifs and some patterns were symbolic to the Ottomans and held a special significance.
13. Iranian ceramics
Iran, 12th-13th century Location: Eastern Islamic World galleries
This beautiful collection of Iranian ceramics are adorned with flowers, fairy tale creatures and figures from Persian epic poems.
They’re made using the mina’i, or enamel, technique, which involves applying glazes in separate stages that all require different firing temperatures.
Some pieces are adorned with scenes from the Persian epic poem the Shahnama that depict Prince Bahram Gur hunting with his concubine Azada.
Other pieces illustrate scenes from The Seven Wise Princesses, a medieval Persian epic in which a king invites seven princesses from distant lands to each tell their story of magic and wisdom.
14. The calligraphy galleries
Location: Calligraphy galleries 17-19
The museum has three galleries in the left wing devoted to calligraphy with a beautifully curated collection of manuscripts.
Hand-painted masterpieces include texts on anything from horsemanship to the morals of Prophet Muhammad to gilded copies of the Quran.
Don’t miss the Hilya manuscript with its rounded medallion that gives a description of Prophet Muhammad’s features and appearance.
Other manuscripts depict fencing and other types of games popular during the Mamluk rule in Egypt.
15. Mecca ceramic tile panel
Turkey-Ottoman, 17th century Location: Calligraphy galleries (ID no 16645)
This Ottoman ceramic tile panel shows the Ka’aba inside the holy mosque in Mecca surrounded by minarets, flowers and suspended lamps.
It was donated to the museum in 1915 by Prince Yusuf Kamal, an antique collector and member of the Muhammad Ali family. Kamal donated a large collection to the museum including jewelry, textiles and woodwork.
The panel is 240 centimeters tall and likely made in Istanbul, where such panels were often produced.
16. Wooden heater
Egypt-Ottoman, 17th century ID no. 7321
This beautiful wooden heater is covered in painted ceramic tiles and decorated with interlaced stems and rosettes in a popular Ottoman style.
Such heaters were used inside homes and palaces across Egypt and Turkey during Ottoman rule.
The nature motifs seen across this heater were popular in both Turkey and Egypt – and the style is found in both Turkish and Egyptian artifacts.
You’ll see a similar wooden heater inside Cairo’s Manial Palace, the former residence of an Egyptian prince that’s decorated in a mix of Islamic and European styles.
17. Human anatomy manuscript
Iran-Safavid, 17th century ID no. 14709
This 17th-century manuscript shows the inner workings of the human body as studied by a pioneering Iranian physician.
It illustrates the blood circulation, digestive system, vertebral column and rib cage that were famously studied and illustrated by the 14th-century Persian anatomist Mansur ibn Ilyas Shirazi.
Shirazi wrote the first color illustrated anatomical book Mansur’s Anatomy. And this later 17th-century manuscript depicts his enterprising work.
18. Manuscript on medical herbs
Turkey-Ottoman, 16th century Location: Medicine gallery (ID no. 3907)
This beautiful manuscript illustrates the uses and benefits of medical herbs as studied by an Andalusian Arab botanist.
This 16th-century manuscript is a copy of the Kitab fil-adwiya al-mufrada, a huge compilation of botanical information written by 12th-century physician Abu Ja’far al-Ghafiqi.
It was likely copied in Turkey. And it’s richly ornamented with paintings of various plants and explanations of their medical benefits.
Abu Ja’far al-Ghafiqi was a botanist and pharmacologist in Muslim Spain. He’s often regarded as the greatest pharmacognosist of the Islamic tradition.
Need to know:
Tickets: 120 EGP per adult and 60 EGP for students. Audio tours are available for 30 EGP. Photography is free – yes, even with DSLR cameras. Though many of the glass exhibit cases reflect a lot of light so it takes some shuffling to find a good angle for photos.
Hours: Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. Shuts on Friday afternoon from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm (for Friday prayers).
How to get there: Take an Uber to the Museum of Islamic Art.
Nearby: There’s lots of great street food and good falafel stands within walking distance, in the lively neighborhood just up Port Said Street. The museum is between downtown Cairo and Islamic Cairo/Khan el Khalili, so both destinations are about a 20-minute taxi ride away. But keep in mind that traffic is often slow in this area.