Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
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Coptic Christianity recreated

By Amira El-Noshokaty

Museum

The Pharaonic Village on Jacob's island has been steadily expanding its function since Abdel-Salam Ragab took over directorship in 1984. It started off as a project to resuscitate the ancient art of papyrus production and recreate scenes of everyday life in ancient Egypt using actors and actresses to perform age-old customs and activities, but it now includes museums. The Coptic gallery is the latest feature.

It was a natural development from the earlier experiments; the success of the replica of Tutankhamun tomb was followed by preparation and opening of galleries covering the Islamic and Graeco-Roman periods. A gallery on the Copts was inevitable, and it was completed in record time. Within a year of its conception, Ragab carried out the necessary research, developed the idea and has now opened this remarkable gallery.

It is remarkable not only because of its replicas of objects from churches and monasteries (after all, one can see the originals in the Coptic Museum on the other side of the Nile) but also because, with the aid of large-scale maps and concise and informative biographies beneath portraits of important Christian personages, one can gain a clear perspective of the growth and development of Christianity in Egypt. In short, it provides a necessary link between the ancient Pharaonic and Ptolemaic civilisations, and the Islamic.

"Egypt was a Christian country for 600 years," said Ragab. "There is a lot to cover." The large gallery has been divided into three sections. The first displays models of monasteries and Coptic churches throughout Egypt, including a replica of the first school of theology, which was founded in Alexandria in 180 AD. The second section traces the coming of Christianity to Egypt by Saint Mark, the evangelist who is portrayed in a large painting, and there is also a plan of the biblical Flight into Egypt. A reddish, handmade cloth with the face of virgin Mary, an imitation of the original in the Coptic museum, adorns the dark wooden wall. The third section deals with Coptic rituals and the icons of Coptic saints and martyrs are accompanied by their biographies and miracles.

There is a clear advantage to visiting the new Coptic gallery on Jacob's island in addition to the Coptic Museum south of Cairo. For one thing, the objects in the latter -- founded in 1908 when Morcos Samaika obtained a piece of land from the patriarchate and set up the first collection of Coptic art -- are displayed according to media: stonework, woodwork, metalwork, ivory and icons. It has not been assembled in historical sequence because many of the objects have no details of provenance nor date. Therefore, while one is able to admire the great beauty of the textiles and stonework, for instance, the objects themselves reveal little apart from their artistic worth.

Ragab's gallery, on the other hand, provides details of saints and martyrs, the routes in the Roman empire along which Christianity spread, lists of Coptic terminology and its link with Pharaonic names and also the Coptic calendar. The silver goblets and crosses as well as musical instruments used in Coptic religious ceremonies are replicas, to be sure, but placed in thematic sequence they give a clearer idea of the Christian movement than the objects in the Coptic Museum.

Moreover, on touring the museum, one realises to what extent the arabesque designs usually associated with Islamic art came from the Egyptian domestic and religious architecture in the pre-Islamic period. The museum is well worth a visit.

As for future plans, Ragab says that galleries covering Napoleon's expedition to Egypt "right through to modern times ... from Mohammed Ali era onwards" are in the offing.

The Pharaonic Village
3, Al-Bahr El-Azam Street, Giza
Tel 571- 8675
571- 8676
571- 8677

e: mail: phara@brainy1.ie-eg.com


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