26 December 2010
The Coptic Museum in Cairo is one of four Egyptian museums representing the history of Egypt: the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir, Cairo, the Greco-Roman in Alexandria, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Bab al-Khalq, Cairo. The Coptic Museum was established in 1908 and officially opened in 1910. It underwent restoration in 1984 and 1992, and finally in 2006 at the cost of some EGP80 million. The museum encompasses priceless pieces of Coptic antiquity including architectural elements from Coptic-era buildings, rare manuscripts in different languages, exquisite textiles, icons, and even daily-life objects. The Coptic era extended form the first to well into the 8th century. The Coptic Museum houses a rare collection of Coptic-era findings which were handed over to the museum by the Supreme Council of Antiquities. With its 16,000-artifacts-rich collection, the Coptic Museum owns the most valuable collection for Coptic arts worldwide.
A museum is born
Marcus Pasha Simaika first established the Coptic museum in 1908 in two halls adjoining the Hanging Church. The exhibits were collected from the Coptic-era palaces, the old churches and monasteries. Simaika was the first manager of the museum. Since Misr al-Qadima (Old Cairo) encompasses six old Churches that date back to the period between the 5th and the 8th centuries, in addition to the Roman fort of Babylon and the Jewish temple, it made an auspicious choice as a site for the museum. The district is home to Abu-Serga church which was built on top of a cave in which the Holy Family took shelter during its flight into Egypt. The Virgin and St Dimiana’s church, better known as the Hanging Church, also in the area, is among the oldest churches in the world; it was built in the 4th or 5th century and was the seat of the Coptic Patriarch from the 11th to the 14th century. It was termed “the Hanging church” because it was built on the old watergate of Trajan.
The Coptic Partriarchate was the owner of the Coptic Museum until 1931 when it became a State museum, thus establishing its national character. At the time, the Egyptian Museum’s Coptic collection was transferred to the new museum.
One incident especially stands out. When the American President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Coptic Museum in 1908, some of the museum’s officials proposed to offer the American President a Coptic manuscript as a gift, but Simaika directly rejected this proposal. Years later, the Egyptian archaeology law was enacted, and it banned the offering of pieces of antiquity as gifts.
The first thing that meets the eye once one enters the museum’s outer courtyard and approaches the entrance of the building, which was built to resemble an old two-storey Coptic house, is a bust of Marcus Pasha Simaika. The visitor is greeted by a large hall which houses early samples of Coptic art as it gradually emerged from the bosom of its Greco-Roman predecessor. Termed pre-Coptic, the stone friezes, capitals, tombstones and the like carry plant and angel motifs, together with Coptic ones such as fishes, crosses, or kneeling worshippers. The visitor to that hall can see murals and a rare piece of Coptic textile. Maria Benyamin, assistant curator at the museum told Watani that although the museum has a special hall especially dedicated for Coptic textiles, the museum’s administration judged it important to shed light on this piece in particular, by exhibiting it in the fore of the museum. The rare textile is part of a linen-made drape which depicts an Ethiopian flute player, fighters and dancers. This textile goes back to the 4th or 5th century. Hung on the left wall of this hall is an interesting briefing on textiles during the Coptic era, most of which were made of linen or wool.
The visitor next move to Ahnasia sculpture hall. Ahnasia is a town near Beni-Sueif, which lies 100km south of Cairo. Many Coptic-era discoveries that go back to the 3rd and the 5th centuries, were made there. Coptic writings and symbols figure on these artefacts, with the names of towns and villages inscribed. The symbol of Onkh—the ancient Egyptian ‘key of life’—figures on many of this halls’ artefacts, as do Greco-Roman motifs such as the seashell. Added to these are Christian motifs.
Hall in, hall out
Mural paintings occupy another hall, where the visitor would find the remains of St Armiya Monastery in Saqqara. This monastery flourished during the 7th and 8th centuries and was deserted in the middle of the 9th century. Most of the murals exhibited were found in the monk cells, and to date still enjoy their vivid colours, since they were painted using tempra method. These frescoes paved the road for iconography since by that time the attacks by tribal desert-dwellers against monasteries in hope of finding supplies or treasure were gaining in frequency and bloodshed, and the monks realised that the attacks could in all probability ruin wall-paintings. They thus decided to paint on medium-sized pieces of stone, which could be carried away in case of emergency.
Among the most beautiful murals in the hall is one depicting Jesus Christ raising His hands in blessing while holding the Bible in His right hands, and another for Virgin Mary breastfeeding the Baby Jesus. On the left side of the hall, the visitor finds himself going into a wide space including some column crowns and cornices made of limestone from St Armiya Monastery.
The ground floor houses an inner glass-covered patio where the bigger stone pieces are exhibited.
Moving on to the second floor, the visitor encounters a showcase housing a collection of gold coins that go back to the 18th and 19th centuries the engravings of which are still very clear. Another showcase exhibits examples of embroidered linen garments which were usually worn by the public; as well as shoes from the Byzantine era. There are also articles of limestone, sandstone, metal, wood, ivory and bone, in addition to pottery, glass, crystal, textiles and manuscripts.
At the far end of the hall is a mural depicting Adam and Eve before and after the fall from grace. The vividly-coloured mural is full of intricately intertwined Coptic ornamentation, and the figures of Adam and Eve have the hallmark Egyptian almond-shaped eyes and large head.
The museum boasts a large, stunningly-beautiful collection of icons from various ages. The usual Christian themes and characters can be found, as well as the traditional inscriptions, brief explanations, and signatures of the iconographers, coupled with a prayer to ask for the Lord’s blessings.
Daily-life utensils, whether personal, household, or worker utensils are there in all shapes and sizes. It sharpens the sense that one is walking, not through a museum, but wandering along some home or building that has come back to life. The feeling of being transported in time is especially accentuated as one walks under the old, and intricately-decorated vividly-coloured wooden ceilings, the delicately-painted columns and cantilevers, and the lattice windows that catch the light and the pleasant breeze in summer.
Altogether, the experience brings to life the fact that Coptic art is a people’s art that blends naturally with daily life, as opposed to formal and probably more sophisticated forms of art.
Once in the manuscripts hall, the sight of all these Coptic manuscripts that go as far back as the 4th century and how well kept and displayed they are, awes the visitor. Among these manuscripts are various gospels and Gnostic writings discovered in 1945 and known as the Nag Hammadi manuscripts. The story of the discovery goes back to a peasant’s donkey that stumbled over some soft soil into a hole in the earth. Inside there lay 13 leather-bound codices, most of which were later handed over to the Coptic Museum. Most of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts were written in the Sahidic Coptic dialect, while a few other sections were written in the Akhmimmic dialect of Upper Egypt.
But no-one can argue that the most significant of the museum’s possessions is a complete copy of the Psalms of David dating back to the 5h or 6th century, discovered in 1984 in an ancient necropolis near Beni Sueif. At the time, archaeologists described the find as equally important to that of the tomb of Tutankhamun. A special room is dedicated to display this rare book. It is written in Coptic and is the oldest manuscript of the 151 psalms. “It is one of the most treasured items in the museum, and none like it has been found anywhere in the world”, comments Philip Faltas, former director of the Coptic Museum.