The illustrated Guide to the Coptic Museum and Churches of Old Cairo; Gawdat Gabra and Marianne Eaton-Krauss; Supreme Council of Antiquities Edition, the American University in Cairo Press, Cairo New York 2007 is a handbook written by a great Coptologist and the former director of Coptic Museum. Dr Gabra is well acquainted with the collection of this museum. He launched several years ago the scientific cataloguing Catalogue Général, the two volumes of which one tackled the metal collection and the one the icons, in addition to several articles by Samiha Abd al-Shaheed, for the Coptic manuscripts acquired after the catalogue of Simaykah Abd al-Masih.
History of the Guidebooks of the Coptic Museum
Part of the collection of the Coptic Museum was studied by several scholars when this collection was located in the Egyptian Museum. These studies included Crum, W. E. Coptic Monuments (Catalogue général des antiquites egyptiennés du Musée du Caire), Cairo, 1902 ; Strzygowski, Josef. Koptische Kunst (Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire), Vienna, 1904 ; Munier, H. Manuscrits coptes (Catalogue général des Antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire+, Cairo, 1916.
When Simaika Pacha founded the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo in 1908 with the support of Patriarch Cyril V (1874-1927), he was able to acquire some painted ceilings, marble columns, mosaic floors, and fountains, as well as a few samples of elaborate carved woodwork from old palaces and private residences. Having collected enough material, Simaykah with the help of Yassa Abd al-Masih wrote the Catalogue of the Coptic Museum in 1932 and later added more material about the Chuches of Cairo .
After the death of Simaikah, Togo Mina became director but died shortly. His successor Pahor Labib, the son of one of the first Egyptian Coptologist Ikladius Labib, found there was need for a new catalogue. He wrote two catalogues , and published the first book containing photos of the Coptic Gnostic Papyri in the Coptic Museum at Old Cairo in 1956. Dr Labib encouraged the late Hishmat Messiha to publish a catalogue of the textiles, which appeared with the collaboration of Su‘ad Mahir Coptic Textiles in the Coptic Museum, Cairo 1957. This book was written only in Arabic, hence is less known in the scientific milieu.
When Raouf Habib became director of the Coptic Museum the catalogue of Pahor Labib was already out of print for long time. Habib wrote a Guide (in English and Arabic) to the Coptic Museum in 1967. He published separately another book on the Churches of Cairo. Victor Girgis, former curator of the Icons, wrote a book on the collection in Arabic only.
After the restoration of the Coptic Museum in 1984 a very brief catalogue appeared without any scientific bibliography.
Dr Gabra became director and launched the above-mentioned scientific catalogues. He formed groups of scholars from different countries, who, with the collaboration of many Egyptian colleagues documented, studied and published about all the pieces in the Coptic Museum.
Maher Salib in 1994 authored a guide to the Coptic Museum in Arabic only, which limited its diffusion.
Dr Gabra also wrote two books related to the Coptic Museum, one with contributions from A. Alcock in 1993 The Coptic Museum and Old Churches and another jointly with M. Eaton-Krauss in 2006 Treasures of Coptic Art in the Coptic Museum and Churches of Old Cairo.
What is new about this book?
The Coptic museum suffered severely following the 1992 earthquake. A project was initiated to find a solution for the problem of the rising ground water and to strengthen the old wing.
The collection of the Coptic Museum was rearranged according to a new philosophy, grouping the exhibits both chronologically and thematically, to help visitors grasp more information. The recent guidebook is unique in that it that follows the new concept. It begins with the Gallery of masterpieces, which allows the visitor to get an overview of the Coptic Art—textiles, stone works, wall-paintings and suchlike.
The following gallery depicts the beginning of the Coptic Art which was influenced by Greek mythology. The guide has the advantage of explaining the archaeological context; hence, there are chapters about Ahnas, Bawit, Saqqara, Kellia, Terenouthis.
The rearrangement allowed the use of the outdoor garden to exhibit some stone masterpieces and to free space inside the museum for other monuments. The quality of photos helps the visitor assimilate the ideas and helps specialist in their research.
The guide is in handbook size, allowing thus the visitor to take it in hand while visiting the museum, which was not the case for previous publications.
The plans of the churches of Old Cairo were done by experts in the field such as Dr Peter Grossmann and Ola Seif.
The Chronology and the Bibliography are excellent tools for the user. For the next edition, (I believe that there will more than one) I would like to have a map showing the different sites mentioned in this book.
In reading this book I enjoyed every word and photo. I congratulate the authors for a book that fill a lacuna in the Coptic library.
Dr Youhanna Nessim Youssef (Coptologist)
Australian Catholic University
The University of Melbourne