The temporary exhibition “Martyrs of Egypt” opened on 2 February 2017 at the
Coptic Museum in Cairo at the hand of Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anany and
Bishop of Old Cairo churches Anba Yulius. The exhibition ran till 20 February.
“The idea of the exhibition was born out of the suicide bombing which took place
at al-Boutrossiya church in Cairo during Holy Mass on 11 December 2016, and
which left 29 Copts dead,” Atef Naguib, General Manager of the Coptic museum,
“We chose the pieces carefully so that they would represent all the martyrs in the
history of the Copts, especially those who fell during the Roman persecution in the
first three centuries. We placed on display old manuscripts of the Coptic
Synaxarium, the book that narrates day by day the stories of the saints and martyrs
commemorated that day.
“We were not sufficiently lucky to have the part of the Synaxarium that includes
18 Misra (24 August),” Dr Naguib said. On that day the Coptic Church
commemorates the martyrdom of St Eudaemon (Wadamon) in the southern city of
Armant. St Eudaemon is known as the first martyr in Egypt, and is believed to
have been martyred at the time of the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt from
Herod the King who wished to kill Baby Jesus.
Among the antiquities on display are icons and Coptic manuscripts that tell the
story of Saint Julius of Aqfahs (Yulius al-Aqfahsi), martyr and martyrologist, the
writer of the biography of martyrs during the Roman persecution. He used to care
for the bodies of those who were martyred for their faith, to shroud them and send
them to their hometowns or villages for proper burial.
Also on display is the book of al-Difnar, a manuscript on linen that includes a
collection of short stories of the saints for each day of the year, and dates back to
1445 on the Coptic calendar, 1729 on the Gregorian calendar, as well as three
pottery flasks carrying images of saints, and a number of lamps and ceramic
Some of the icons on display are shown for the first time. Among them is an icon
dating from 1746 of Saint Basilides, defender of St Potomiana. Basilides was a
soldier who, when involved in the execution of St Potomiana, protected her against
a mob. Receiving the faith, Basilides was also martyred. The icon was created by
Yuhanna al-Armani (cca 1720 – 1786, Cairo) an icon painter of Armenian origin in
Ottoman Egypt. He is most notable for his religious works, especially his Coptic
icons that adorn the Hanging Church in Old Cairo.
Among the exhibits are lamps that go back to the persecution era; a number of
them carry the names of martyrs.
“The exhibition is the fruit of the work of all the colleagues of the Coptic
Museum,” Dr Naguib concluded. “It is an extension to the cooperation between
us—the museum’s administration—and the churches of Old Cairo.”
This year will witness a great celebration to commemorate 70 years of the New
Wing of the museum, and 107 years since the Coptic Museum was established.
The celebration, Dr Naguib says, will shed the light on the history of the museum,
its evolution and the pieces first displayed, and will review the most prominent
figures who were directors of the museum. Topping the list is Marcus Simaika
Pasha who founded the museum in 1910; and Gawdat Gabra; Togo Mina; Victor
Girgis; and Pahor Labib (1905 – 1994) who was the museum’s director from 1951
to 1965 and one of the world leaders in Egyptology and Coptology. His time in
office saw the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls; these were published in 12
volumes and placed in the museum.
During Dr Anani's visit, Dr Naguib put before the State minister all the problems
confronting them at the museum, major among which is the malfunction of the air-
conditioning system which was installed during the last museum renovation in
2010 when the windows were all closed permanently and natural aeration was
stopped under the pretext of protecting the antiquities from dust. Now the air
conditioning is out of order and there is no natural aeration, making the situation
intolerable. Dr Naguib also said the museum needed a plexiglass roof to cover the
open-air display to protect against rain. Dr Anani said that there had been no funds
available for repairs, but promised that he would now allocate the funds necessary
for the Coptic Museum.