Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
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Coptic art steals the show

By Jill Kamil and Nevine El-Aref

Coptic
Objects from "2,000 years of Christianity in Egypt", on display at the Arab World Institute in Paris
Who are the Copts? What is their history? Who founded the famous monasteries on the Red Sea coast? With Coptic Egypt significantly overshadowed in the West by an unquenchable thirst for all things Pharaonic, these questions fail to figure on any considerable scale in foreign exhibitions of Egyptian antiquities.

Which is what makes the exhibition on Coptic art at the Arab World Institute (Institut du Monde Arabe) in Paris so exciting. Celebrating 2,000 years of Christianity in Egypt, it is the first exhibition of Coptic art in France for 36 years. An earlier exhibit, at the Petit Palais in Paris in 1964, was on a much smaller scale and did not include any objects from Egyptian collections.

The current exhibition, which will run at the Arab World Institute until September, features more than 350 unique objects, 105 of which are from the Coptic and Islamic museums in Cairo. In France, objects have been chosen from the Louvre, in Paris, and the Textile Museum in Lyon. Other objects hail from Italy's Turin Museum, the British Museum, the Egyptological Institute of Heidelberg, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, Russia's Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

"This is the first time ever that Coptic objects from Egypt have been selected for exhibition abroad," said Gaballa Ali Gaballa, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). The bulk of Egyptian objects are from Cairo's Coptic Museum.

The exhibition is in the central hall of the institute, one of the most splendid and prestigious locations covering an area of 1,200 square metres. The objects are divided into numerous sections that cover the gamut of Coptic history -- from icons to children's toys to funerary objects. Displays range from textiles and manuscripts to cosmetics, jewellery, ceramics, wall paintings, metalwork and stone and wooden statues. Visitors will also see Coptic literature, on papyrus and parchment, as well as stone fragments inscribed with texts (known as ostraca).

Among the documents on display are the letters of the Coptic alphabet. The word "Copt" is derived from the ancient Egyptian word hikuptah, meaning "the house of the spirit of Ptah" -- i.e., Memphis, the ancient capital (Aiguptios in Graeco-Roman times). The Coptic language is actually the last stage of ancient Egyptian writing -- called demotic -- but written in the Greek alphabet. Seven characters, for which there was no equivalent in Greek, were added, making 24 characters in all.

A wooden door from the collection of the Coptic Museum in Cairo
"Coptic art is a folkloric art, not a state-sponsored art, as in Pharaonic times," said Gaballa, stressing the importance of Egypt to the three main monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. "This exhibition reveals the important role played by Egypt in early Christianity," Gaballa noted. "The Holy Family escaped to Egypt and were protected from Herod's persecution. Here, Saint Mark the Evangelist preached the gospel in the middle of the first century AD. Through Saint Anthony, the first monk, Egyptian monasticism spread throughout the Christian world."

Entitled "2,000 years of Christianity in Egypt," the exhibition covers artefacts dating from between the third and 19th centuries. Some of the objects show an undisputed Egyptian influence, like an icon of the Archangel Michael holding a staff in one hand with cross bars that bear a marked resemblance to the ancient Egyptian djed pillar, the symbol of rebirth. In his other hand are the scales of justice, as depicted in the judgement scenes of numerous Pharaonic papyri.

There are stelae and ceramics showing Graeco-Roman influence, including representations of Hellenic gods and goddesses like Aphrodite and Heracles and a collection of portraits that trace the development of Coptic art in the Graeco-Roman era. A manuscript written in Coptic -- but in the decorative style of Islamic calligraphy -- is also on display, along with icons of soldier-saints showing a distinct oriental influence. In other words, the exhibition shows, for the first time, a link between Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman and Islamic culture.

The exhibition is both an introduction to Coptic history and an engaging collection of artefacts. On display is a Coptic calendar, which starts from the "Era of the Martyrs" in the third century (an homage to those who died for their faith) and various musical instruments from Antinoe (today's city of Al-Fayoum). Visitors can see the key of the so-called White Monastery at Sohag -- one of the most beautiful in Egypt -- as well as stone stelae and other funerary objects from the monastery of Bawit in the Western Desert.

"The exhibition, held within the framework of the Arab World Institute, is one of the first to promote Egyptian culture through the ages to the public at large," said Nasser El-Ansari, director of the institute. El-Ansari added that there will also be cultural activities to complement the exhibition, including poetry readings, musical entertainment and modern art displays.

Alongside the Paris exhibition, the Egyptian Information Ministry is screening two documentary films, one on the flight of the Holy Family through Egypt and the other on churches, including the Church of the Holy Virgin (the Al-Mo'allaqa, or "Hanging Church") and the church of Abu Sarga. The films will be screened in French, English and Arabic.

After its Paris run, the exhibition will be transferred to the l'Ephebe Museum in Cap d'Agde, in the south of France, and subsequently to Vienna and Athens.


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