Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 April - 4 May 2005
Issue No. 740
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A niche for Coptic identity

The Coptic Museum is approaching the last stage of structural restoration prior to its official re-opening this year as a state-of-the-art museum. Jill Kamil looks into what's going on

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Leda and the Swan - an example of artistic fusion produced in provincial workshops showing myths and legends of Greece in the style of Egyptian popular art; miracle of the raising of Lazarus (on ivory comb); oldest wooden alter found in Egypt ;decorated capital Remarkable Ivory panel of Christ

It was no easy matter to gain access to a building that was being restored -- or transformed, rather -- and even more difficult to find someone able, or willing, to talk about progress, plans and deadlines. The Coptic Museum has been off-limits to visitors for a long while now, and with rumour circulating that some galleries would re-open this year, Al-Ahram Weekly sent a team to investigate.

The reason for our interest was that no attempt had ever been made to sort out this huge jumble of Coptic antiquities of more than 16,000 objects according to historical sequence. This was understandable a century ago, when Morcos Samaika founded the museum, because provenance details for the bulk of the objects were not available. They had been collected haphazardly from abandoned burial grounds, derelict monasteries and ancient temple sites. Because Christian monuments were of little concern to early archaeologists, objects were trodden into the earth, covered by sandstorms, or used for garden decorations. In a word, neglected.

When in 1910 Samaika assembled the wide array of objects which revealed different ethnic influences, it presented him with a dilemma: how to put them into some semblance of order? He opted for the easy way out. He grouped the objects into media -- stonework, metalwork, tapestries, manuscripts, woodwork, pottery, glassware, etc. A few galleries were devoted to objects from a single source, like those from the fifth-century monasteries of St Jeremais at Saqqara and St Apollo at Bawit, but there were also galleries of "miscellaneous objects".

Today, with institutions that give more or less regular courses of Coptology in no fewer than 47 countries around the world, and in view of important achievements in the last three decades (which include the publication of a Coptic encyclopaedia, historical atlas, handbook of liturgy, and a history of Copto- Arabic literature), it was confidently expected that Coptic Museum officials had already drawn up a plan for the appropriate rearrangement of antiquities designed to provide a true niche for Coptic identity. Yet so far this is not apparent.

For generations, art historians -- largely Western -- have had trouble in identifying Coptic art. One of the reasons is that it includes works of diverse character -- from burial grounds, churches and monasteries as well as a wealth of utilitarian objects. Another is that Coptic art clearly reveals a debt to two main sources: Egypt and the classical world, as well as influences from Syria and Byzantium. The objects were roughly grouped into four distinct phases of Coptic art: the so-called pre-Coptic period from the first to the third centuries BC when Egyptian, Hellenistic naturalism, and Greek-Egyptian influences were strong, as well as Persian, Byzantine and Syrian; the period vaguely described as proto-Coptic (late third to fifth centuries) when paganism was outlawed, ancient gods no longer incorporated into works, and when there was more of a tendency towards abstraction; the Coptic Period (fifth to the seventh centuries); and the "final" Coptic period from the eighth to the 12th centuries.

The flaw in such classification is apparent. For one thing, it gives the erroneous impression of a rise and fall in Coptic culture, whereas the Coptic Church is in fact a living church, and continuity in its art -- as well as in its language, music and liturgy -- can be traced from the ancient past to the present. Furthermore, there is no such thing as a "final Coptic period", because some great works of Coptic art were produced under the Ottoman Turks in the 18th century -- and there is a revival today.

When the Weekly sent its team to the Coptic Museum it was with the express purpose of finding out what steps were being taken to remedy the faulty period categorisation and place the objects of the collection in historical sequence. It was also to find out what steps were being taken properly to classify Egypt's unique hybrid culture taken from Greek burial grounds.

Having successfully made our way, metaphorically speaking, through red-taped corridors, accompanied by a conservator and various officials, we first went to the Old Wing of the museum where we were delighted to see that attention had been given to the magnificent architectural elements salvaged from derelict Coptic houses at the turn of the 20th century and incorporated into its structure. Focus has been drawn by well-placed lighting to the restored wooden lintels and ceilings, ceramic tile decorations, brass chandeliers, mashrabiya woodwork and stained glass windows. The Old Wing is itself a virtual museum, even without the objects which will be displayed in the new modern cabinets but which were still in their wrappings at the time of our visit.

We were told that a committee of experts had been formed to deliberate on how this major museum could best achieve its goals, and that the first stage of the three-stage plan was now complete; structural and restoration on both wings was finished; there would be a smooth flow of visitors through the galleries, leading to a new outdoor section for large objects that originally stood in the museum garden. Research and study areas were pointed out to us.

The second stage of the plan -- to identify and categorise the various objects -- was already underway, we were told. However our queries as to whether this meant that patriarchal chairs in woodwork would now be appropriately united with patriarchal crowns and ecclesiastical vestments; and whether the wooden doors of ancient churches and monasteries would now be displayed with their metal bolts and keys, drew a blank. No direct answer was forthcoming. Yet we did learn, with pleasure, that at the helm of the team of experts for the third stage -- to supervise the placement of the objects with appropriate lighting and accurate multi-lingual labels -- was Gawdat Gabra, Egypt's foremost Coptologist and director of the Coptic Museum in the 1970s.

It was not difficult to contact Gabra, and despite the fact that he was flying to the United States two days later, where he was to present a course on Coptic studies, he was enthusiastic about sharing his innovative ideas with the Weekly. He said the entrance gallery would be transformed into an exclusive area for the display of objects from the churches in Old Cairo.

"This will be the first section of the museum to be opened, hopefully in the autumn," Gabra said, going on to say that the gallery would include such treasures as the fifth-century rectangular altar from the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, one of the most important pieces -- in fact the oldest Christian wooden altar found in Egypt, and decorated with panels engraved with rich foliate ornamentation of birds and crosses. Other unique objects destined for this gallery are a large sycamore wood lintel, also from the fifth or perhaps the sixth century, from the Al- Moallaqa Church (the Hanging Church), which features two scenes from the New Testament: the entry into Jerusalem and the Ascension; and the two leaves of the sycamore and pinewood door from the Church of Saint Barbara.

"This was discovered between two walls during the restoration of the church and is the most significant of the few existing doors from the Roman and Byzantine periods," said Gabra, who is already preparing a concise guidebook to these treasures to be published before the official opening of the gallery, and is also working on a comprehensive guidebook to all the monuments in the museum.

Sadly, time did not permit further discussion on the categorisation of objects, or indeed details of where the unique stone niches, pediments and friezes from a fourth or fifth-century churchyard in Ahnas, near Beni Sweif, hitherto in the entrance gallery, would be relocated. These monuments are of special interest to the Weekly because, when they were first brought to Cairo, scholars argued endlessly about where they belonged. Classicists tended to regard them as a debased form of art, while Coptologists questioned the advisability of identifying as Coptic art nude figures of Aphrodite in a shell, Leda and the swan, Europa and the bull, or the cloven-hoofed Pan seducing a dancer holding a sistrum. The creations were technically unsophisticated and nobody really understood them. The Graeco-Roman Museum made a claim to them based on the fact that the subject matter and mythology was Greek. However the Coptic Museum insisted that, subject matter notwithstanding, the pieces represented Egyptian popular art.

It so happened that from the sixth century BC an artistic fusion resulted from the encounter between the Greek and Egyptian worlds. Greek immigrants settled in the Delta, predominantly but not exclusively at Naucratis on the Canopic branch of the Nile. There and elsewhere, a mixed culture emerged long before the Greek conquest by Alexander. One of the results of this contact was the creation of a new art form that portrayed the myths and legends of Greece in the style of Egyptian popular art. This enigmatic art by anonymous sculptors bears the marks of Coptic workmen in their simplified features, treatment of hair and beard, front-view faces with large, wide open eyes, and deeply- carved foliate decorations.

It is hoped that these objects, classical in subject matter, Coptic in execution, will be appropriately identified -- not as the products of a pagan Greek community, nor as a mere stage in the development of Coptic sculpture, but as a unique hybrid art produced in Coptic provincial workshops in cosmopolitan communities in Egypt.

Another collection of important funerary stelae that should appropriately be placed in the soon-to-be-opened museum are those produced during a much earlier period -- during the transition from paganism to Christianity. They show the deceased clad in Greek dress, either reclining on a couch or standing with arms raised and bent at the elbows, frequently flanked by the ancient Egyptian gods Horus and Anubis, sometimes featuring both the ancient Egyptian ankh or key of life, and the Christian cross. These pieces are also historically important because they provide evidence of different styles of Coptic writing, idioms, and symbols as well as the names of many towns and villages.

The Weekly looks forward to the opening of the first gallery of the Coptic Museum before the year is out.

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