Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2006
Issue No. 778
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Coptic Museum countdown

With time running out before the official re-opening of the Coptic Museum, Jill Kamil is guided through the state-of-the-art, tourist-friendly structure that accommodates the richest collection of Coptic antiquities in the world

Nilotic scene ; Bearded Nile god with decorative headdress...

"The two wings of the museum are now connected by a corridor," says Gawdat Gabra, Egypt's foremost Coptologist and former director of the Coptic Museum, as he hurries me across the garden. We had met by appointment at the still-closed gateway, and he spoke as he sped ahead of me and sprinted down the stairs in front of the museum entrance. He had warned me that he could only give me half an hour of his time and, from the rate he was moving and talking at the same time, it was clear that he intended to give no more. "This is a totally new concept," he said. "For the first time there will be a smooth flow of visitors through the two wings of the museum because a corridor provides a link between them. There is a lift for the handicapped, and ramps for wheelchairs. No other museum in the world can boast such an exclusive collection of Coptic antiquities as ours, but it has not been our aim to put all our 14,000 objects on display. It has been to combine medium and subject matter, carefully to select each object for display and group them in a manner that casts light on Egypt's rich Coptic heritage and its continuity."

We pass through the entrance hall, still under construction ("it will be equipped with information desk, maps, graphic designs and books"), turn to the left, and on each side of the doorway leading to the first gallery we are confronted by a Coptic masterpiece, a famous textile to the left and a framed fragment of wall painting to the right. "Textiles and monasteries are two of Egypt's great contributions to the Christian world," says Gabra, moving first to the famous wool and linen tapestry showing a dark-skinned piper in bright clothing beside a vertical panel woven with warriors and dancers. "Look at the details of the figures, the skilful treatment of the piper, the harmony of colour and the high standard of workmanship," he says, his eyes glittering with enthusiasm, "Coptic textiles are the most characteristic product of Coptic art and this is a fine example."

"And here," he moves to the right of the doorway, "we have a rare early Coptic wall painting." He points to two figures of haloed monks and two church fathers with codices. "Almost all Coptic wall paintings are monastic," he goes on. "They were not intended to be great works of art. The colour was applied to mud-brick walls which had been plastered and white-washed. Look at this smaller figure kneeling at their feet." The choice of these two objects as the first focal point in the museum was well considered.

We pass into the first chamber and it is clear that care has been taken in choosing the brick colour of the walls, an ideal shade to set off the objects on display. I am reminded of the time Gabra first took me round the museum galleries, back in the 1980s; he was director and I was writing Coptic Egypt: History and Guide. He still exudes the same enthusiasm, and his familiarity with each and every object is apparent. The chamber contains niches, pediments and friezes from Ahnasia (Heracleopolis Magna near Beni Sweif in Middle Egypt), and the subject matter is typical of a pagan Greek community. While each piece is carved with Greek mythological characters such as Aphrodite, Dionysos and the goat- hoofed Pan, the work, he emphasises, has certain distinctive characteristics. "The front-view faces, almond-shaped eyes, and deep carving, point to their execution by Coptic artists. The objects date from the fourth and fifth centuries," he adds.

The following chamber contains objects in different mediums with an ancient Egyptian influence. "These stelae are from Egyptian burial grounds, and although the figures are dressed in Greek robes they are flanked by the ancient Egyptian gods Horus and Anubis, or the Christian cross in the form of the ankh, the ancient Egyptian Key of Life adorns the pediment", he explains. He pauses at a masterpiece showing a blend of Christian, classical, and Egyptian elements -- a limestone panel with a cross topped by a Hellenistic conch and flanked by two forms of the ankh. "There is evidence that Egypt exerted an appreciable influence upon the Hellenic world in which Christianity took shape," he says.

We enter chambers devoted to objects from the ruins of the fifth-century monastery of St Jeremias at Saqqara. Gabra walks more rapidly. He is very conscious of time. He takes me straight to the display of painted niches which have been professionally cleaned for the first time. He sees me draw in my breath in wonderment; they were blackened and hardly visible when I had last seen them. I am startled by the brilliance of the colour. "I recommended that they should be professionally cleaned because, if they were, they would attract as many visitors to the Coptic Museum as Tutankhamun to the Egyptian Museum," Gabra said. "Zahi Hawass agreed that such masterpieces needed special attention. He knows how to bring in the right people in to do the best job. He is involved in every stage of this museum, and it is thanks to him that the restoration of these magnificent works of art was carried out by ARCE (American Research Centre in Egypt) with Italian restorers. Can you imagine the care that had to be taken to remove the niches from the walls and consolidate each masterpiece prior to cleaning and conservation?" I move around the showcase in which the four niches have been placed, for a second look, but Gabra has already hurried ahead and is out of sight.

I follow and find myself in large atrium (originally a central garden), where the capitals of the columns from Saqqara have now been erected on fabricated columns of their original size, and where other selected objects like the unique sixth/seventh-century pulpit, the earliest intact example in stone, are on display. Rough mud brick has been used on parts of the side walls of the atrium to simulate the environment in which the objects were found. Gabra gives me a little time to take in the display. He smiles, and I am not surprised to hear him say, "my heart is in this my museum, even though I left it 10 years ago."

Gabra is proud to point out that the show cases were manufactured in Egypt. "We used to import them from Europe and they were extremely expensive. One of our engineer contractors, Abdel-Raouf Youssri, has managed to produce them locally for a quarter of the price. They are beautiful, as you can see, and we are now competing with German companies!"

He moves on and I follow quickly to catch his words. We come to a large wooden container in a small chamber, which he pats possessively. "This box contains the restored niche from the monastery of Bawait -- it will be unpacked next week. It is a masterpiece painted in clear bright colours, showing Christ enthroned in the upper part supported by the four creatures of the Apocalypse, and, in the lower, the Virgin and Child flanked by the apostles a two local saints whose names are written above their heads in Coptic. In this chamber we will also place objects carved with biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments, like the one showing Abraham and Isaac with the sacrificial lamb, three men in a fiery furnace with a fourth man who is probably a saint, the Virgin and Child, and others."

We have reached the stairway leading to the second floor of the New Wing. It is blocked by workmen. "Up there we will have manuscripts which include the biographies and teachings of the early anchorites, prayers, poetry, magical formulae and even popular romances -- written on papyrus, parchment, paper, bone and wooden tablets as well as on pottery and limestone. We will have all the covers of the Nag Hammadi codices on display for the first time. We will have paintings from Kellia and pottery. Up there is the new corridor leading to the Old Wing."

We have to exit the New Wing to enter the Old Wing from the little garden to the north of the entrance, which will be turned into a cafe area. The Old Wing is, of course, a museum in itself. Its architectural features include fine wooden ceilings, arches, and decorated tiles that were collected from old Coptic houses and placed in the structure of the building when it was first built by Morcos Samaika in 1910. The mashrabiya windows are of finely-carved segments of contrasting woods fixed together without the use of nails or glue, while allowing room between each piece for expansion or contraction of the wood. Other elements in the structure, including the ceilings, are made from a variety of woods. For heavy carpentry sycamore, acacia, palm, and doum was used; for finer work, cedar from Lebanon, pine and walnut from Europe and western Asia, and ebony from Africa.

As one enters this wing of the museum, the eye automatically moves up a flight of stairs, taking in the architectural features of the building itself, until it lights upon the remarkable domed ceiling, probably built in the early 20th century and rescued from an abandoned Coptic house. Now restored to its original bright colours, the scene of the port of Istanbul springs to life, with the red slanting roofs of the houses offset by the ships in port. It is immediately clear that great attention has been given to the museum structure, itself a masterpiece of Coptic art.

The objects that have been placed on display by no means distract from the exquisite elements that once adorned the houses of Cairo's wealthy Copts. This is a museum within a museum. The first artefacts are grouped, at different levels, on a central open display area. They include Nilotic themes in stone, plaster or wood. Gabra points out fragments of wooden friezes of Nilotic plants and water creatures ("including this one of a crocodile that has never been on display before"), part of a pilaster with the bust of a bearded Nile god whose annual celebration was observed by pagans and Christians alike for many centuries, part of a niche carved in a relatively flat technique beautifully decorated with a man in a skiff, fish, two birds nesting on papyrus, and lotus flowers. Unlike textiles and minor arts, a relatively large proportion of Coptic sculpture, all of which was originally painted, comes from known provenances. Each object is displayed to advantage and awaits only the labels.

"Officially I am in charge of the labels but I do more than that," Gabra admits. "You can say that I am the man with an eye on everything. We all collaborate: Hussein Shabouri, our brilliant designer whom Zahi Hawass brought into the project. Mahmoud Mabrouk, the head of the museums department of the SCA, who is consultant and director." It was Shabouri who saw the importance of linking the two separate wings of the museum through a corridor on the second level, and of redesigning the displays. He envisioned the artistic layout of the galleries.

" We decided that in order to simplify an understanding of Coptic art and architecture, we should put fewer objects on display, that we should concentrate on subject matter over chronology. Come, I will show you."

We move to a second display in the centre of the chamber, with scenes of daily life -- carvings of festive scenes, dancers, people playing various musical instruments ("here is an ancient flute"), toys and games ("many of unknown prominence but they may have come from infants' graves"), the gathering of crops, hunting and fishing scenes. "Many churches and monasteries were once adorned with elaborate wooden sculptures -- lintels, doors, panels and friezes were decorated with saints, water creatures, floral and animal ornaments, geometric patterns and scenes derived from the Old and New Testaments." Gabra talks as he moves rapidly around the display area to a section that has smaller items, including toilette equipment -- cosmetics, jewellery, combs with two rows of teeth and decorated with carvings. There are caskets and stamp seals. I am surprised to see two well-painted pagan portraits on wood, and Gabra explains that they have been chosen for display here in order to provide a link with what follows -- mediaeval icons. "We have carefully considered how to give visitors a sense of continuity, to fire expectation of what might come next," Gabra says.

A large painting of an equestrian saint leads the way to the next chamber, which contains some of the most beautiful mediaeval icons in the world. These sacred pictures include the Crucifixion, St Mark, Saints Bacchus and Sergius, St Barbara, the Archangel Michael, and the Virgin and Child. "They were once neglected, blackened and difficult to see," he says. "Their magnificence was revealed through the brilliant restoration of icon conservator Zuzana Skalova."

Gabra looks at his watch. It is clear that we are running short of time. He has another appointment lined up. He rushes me along a corridor -- I have lost the sense of where I am -- past cabinets containing metal and glass liturgical vessels, incense burners and gospel caskets. I catch the sight of pottery, metal and glass lamps dating from the sixth to seventh centuries through to Islamic times. My eye falls on a glass case with large keys, another with Coptic crosses. Gabra involuntarily stops at the cabinet containing jewellery to tell me that a recently-discovered a hoard of gold coins would be put on display. "The vessel in which they were found will be artistically placed in a toppled position with only one or two coins clearly visible," he says before he rushes on. Do I recognise an assortment of pottery flasks from the monastery of St Mena? Metal Islamic ware? There is no time to check. We are back at the entrance and Gabra is already shaking my hand and expressing hope that the article will be published in Al-Ahram Weekly before the official opening of the museum.

Unwilling to let him get away so easily I ask a question that I know is dear to his heart. "Where will the collection of antique objects retrieved from the churches in Old Cairo be placed?" I was referring to such unique pieces as the fifth- century rectangular altar from the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, the oldest Christian wooden altar found in Egypt; the impressive sycamore wood lintel from the Church of Al-Moallaqa, which features Christ's entry to Jerusalem and the Ascension; the two leaves of the sycamore and pine wood door from the Church of St Barbara, the most significant of the few existing doors from the Roman and Byzantine periods; and the pine wood altar supported by Corinthian columns and panels engraved with plants, birds and crosses.

He leads me to the small garden between the Old Wing and the Church of Al-Moallaqa, and points to the closed gatehouse of the Old Roman Fortress and to two carved and polished wooden doors. "They will be put on display in one of those chambers over there. They will be artistically arranged and we hope to encourage visitors, even the monks of the churches themselves, to see the treasures from their own churches. The other chambers will contain objects that are not on display in the museum. They too will be properly displayed, categorised and available for research."

The new vision of the Coptic Museum is an extraordinary achievement. Some 15 specialists, 150 SCA restorers and 200 workmen have been involved in the project. Located as it is in an area that contains a number of old Coptic churches, and which stands on the remains of the old Roman fortress of Babylon, we can be sure that it will become the major attraction -- to students and scholars, local visitors and tourists, young and old -- that Gabra confidently expects. "We will have a carriage on the Metro for the exclusive use of tourists to travel between the Egyptian Museum at Sadat Station and Mari Guirgis in Old Cairo. We will make it easy for them to get from one museum to another... we have many plans...." Gabra at last manages to get away. I am left standing in wonder at all I have seen.

Generations of scholars, amateur and professional, have tried to identify Coptic art and consider its debt to Egypt and the classical world. Each has been confronted with a test: to examine what they know about the Christian faith and see where, and how, the objects in the Coptic Museum fit into their preconceived ideas.

Before its current reconstruction the Coptic Museum suffered from many defects, and not only structural ones. For one thing there was no relationship between the building itself and the treasures on display, nor was there an appropriate use of space. With the reconstruction of the two wings -- the first dedicated to the treasures of the Coptic civilisation and the second largely to the museum building -- and with, moreover, careful selection and re-organisation of objects for the first time, we have, in Gabra's words, "A museum that fulfils its purpose, which makes suitable use of available space, and which casts light on Egypt's major contribution to the world of Christendom."

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