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 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, told Watani.
“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 pieces.
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.”
The exhibition runs until 20 February; the day 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.