Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 June - 5 July 2006
Issue No. 801
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Coptic treasures get the home they deserve

After a three-year restoration project the Coptic Museum was officially reopened by President Hosni Mubarak on Monday, reports Nevine El-Aref

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Mogamaa Al-Adian, Old Cairo's religious compound, is finally free of the roar of trucks and lorries that have blocked the entrance to the Coptic Museum for three years now. And the museum itself, with its limestone façade loosely based on the Al-Aqmar Mosque, has finally opened its doors to visitors in an area the attractions of which include the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-Aas, the Hanging Church and the Synagogue of Beni-Ezra.

On Monday President Hosni Mubarak formally opened the museum during a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and scores of Egyptian ministers and senior government officials. The president was guided through the museum's 26 galleries, containing 13,000 items, by Culture Minister Farouk Hosni and Supreme Council of Antiquities' Secretary-General Zahi Hawass. They also watched a 15-minute documentary film on the restoration of the museum.

"The restoration of the Coptic Museum was an ambitious project," says Hosni. "It is one of Cairo's oldest museums and its restoration is an illustration of the government's commitment to preserving the nation's Coptic, as well as its Pharaonic and Islamic, heritage."

Over three years, and with a budget of LE38 million, the museum has been comprehensively refurbished. The main body of the museum, which blends Roman and Fatimid forms, was built by Morqos Semeika Pasha in 1910. But by 1992 it had fallen into a state of disrepair, and after the earthquake of that year was closed for safety reasons, leaving only the new wing, added in 1947, open. In 2003 that too closed as the massive overhaul of the museum began.

Hussein El-Shabouri, the consultant engineer responsible for the restoration, says the museum building was in a critical condition when the restoration began. The walls of the old wing had developed cracks following the earthquake, the ceiling decorations were almost indistinguishable beneath the layers of accumulated dirt and much of the mashrabiya at the windows was broken. The floor of the new wing had been partially destroyed by subterranean water leakage and there were no emergency exits.

To rescue the buildings the foundations were consolidated and strengthened by micro-piles, sharply- pointed columns installed beneath the new wing.

To improve visitor flow the two wings have been connected by a corridor and their levels readjusted. A hydraulic lift and wheelchair ramps have been installed for disabled visitors.

The wooden ceilings in the old wing have been cleaned, revealing painted scenes of Venice and Istanbul. And in collaboration with the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE), a team of Italian restorers consolidated, cleaned and conserved the museum's most important frescoes.

"Two new exhibition halls have been created in the space between the wings," said El-Shabouri. The first, which is accessed from the New Wing, comprises an atrium in which capitals from Saqqara have been erected on replica columns. The display also includes a sixth century pulpit. Rough mud brick has been used for parts of the walls of the atrium, replicating the environment in which the objects were found.

The second hall, accessed from the Old Wing, can be used for conferences and also contains a book shop and a small cafeteria. It connects to the Roman fortress and the Amr Ibn Al-Aas gate which, after the completion of the drainage system project, will serve as the Coptic Museum's second entrance.

The museum now boasts the latest security system, a restoration lab, a children art school and a library, and the garden and fountain have also been restored to their original splendour.

The museum's displays have been reordered, and are now arranged according to provenance, chronologically ordered or grouped according to material.

Among the most impressive of the exhibits are the frescoes from the Monastery of Bawait, showing Christ enthroned in the upper part, supported by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, and in the lower section the Virgin and Child flanked by apostles and two local saints. Alongside the frescoes the gallery exhibits objects carved with biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments, including Abraham and Isaac with the sacrificial lamb and three men in a fiery furnace with a fourth, probably a saint.

The museum's holding of icons from the 13th to the 18th century are likely to prove a major draw. The sacred pictures include the crucifixion, St Mark, Saints Bacchus and Sergius, St Barbara, the Archangel Michael and the Virgin and Child -- once blackened, their magnificence has been revealed through the work of icon conservator Zuzana Skalova.

Metal and glass liturgical vessels, incense burners and gospel caskets, pottery, metalwork and glass lamps dating from the sixth century are also on show.

Perhaps the most prized exhibit, though, is a copy of The Psalms of David, given a gallery to itself. Philip Halim, director general of the Coptic Museum, told the Weekly that the copy is the only complete version of the psalms ever found. It includes 151 psalms written by David, and the psalms of other Old Testament Prophets, including Solomon and Essaf. Written in Coptic, on very fine vellum, the copy dates back to the fifth century and was found in 1987, buried in sand beneath the head of a child mummy in a tomb in the upper Egyptian city of Beni Sueif.

Along with the psalms is an ankh-shaped piece of ivory which was used as a book marker.

"The restoration of the Coptic Museum is an extraordinary achievement, executed by some 15 specialists, 150 SCA restorers and 200 workmen," said Hosni.

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