Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 December 2010
Issue No. 1027
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Egypt's illustrious Coptic heritage

The first-ever locally curated exhibition on Coptic art highlights the contribution of Egypt's Copts to the nation's heritage, Nevine El-Aref takes a look at this rich past

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Clockwise from top: painted manuscript written in Coptic and Arabic; a representation of the archangel Michael on a wooden chalice; Simaika Pasha; Hosni with Hawass and Sharif; a copper cross; a fragment of a linen tunic with two tapestry wooven insets in coloured wool

Last week Cairo's Saliba Street was even more crowded than usual. Cars by the dozen edged their way through the hundreds of pedestrians swarming in the street to buy and sell goods. However, around the corner in the Suyufiya alley just off Saliba Street, where the Mamluk Palace of Al-Amir Taz is situated, the atmosphere was serene and enchanting. Soft Oriental tunes filled the evening air of the open court at the centre of this vintage palace and a light winter breeze frisked the softly-lit trees and foliage.

In the open courtyard of the palace Culture Minister Farouk Hosni and Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Secretary-General Zahi Hawass welcomed guests who included the Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa; Father Hani Aziz, the representative of Pope Shenouda; the famous Egyptian actor Omar Sharif and a number of foreign ambassadors, businessmen and officials. The occasion was the inauguration of the "Coptic Art Revealed" exhibition, which had been set up in three rooms of the palace to celebrate the centennial of the Coptic Art Museum.

The museum was founded in 1910 by an influential Copt, Marcus Pasha Simaika, who created it as a permanent home for some of Coptic Egypt's heritage artefacts in a building next to the Hanging Church in Old Cairo. The Coptic Art Museum was renovated by the SCA and reopened to the public in 2006.

"This exhibition shows Egypt's cultural diversity as well the nation's unity, as it is a Coptic exhibition in an Islamic monument," Hosni told reporters at last week's opening ceremony. He denied that there was any link between the timing of the exhibition's opening and the recent sectarian violence in Omraniya. Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly that the organisation of such a notable exhibition was not a predetermined event to demonstrate that there was no crisis between Muslims and Copts in Egypt; on the contrary it was planned six months ago -- well prior to the trouble at Omraniya -- to highlight the splendour of Coptic art and civilisation.

"This exhibition is a beautiful, artistic picture of Egypt's cultural diversity and the influence of Coptic art in society. It also highlights Egypt's continuous and linked heritage," Hosni said. He added that the exhibition was a good opportunity to show Egyptians an aspect of their heritage. "The exhibition is a message to show how to protect a nation," Hosni stressed.

Hawass told the Weekly that the exhibition was a call for all Egyptians, both Muslims and Copts, to show their love of and support for their country. It also illuminated the importance of the Late Antiquity period of Egyptian history.

From Cairo, the exhibition will go on to Austria and Germany before returning to Egypt for a local tour to Alexandria and Aswan.

Nadjia Tomoum, the exhibition's creator and director, told the Weekly that the Amir Taz Palace was chosen as the venue for the Coptic Art Revealed exhibition not only because it was a very splendid building, but also because it gave a clear indication of the diversity of Egypt's history. What was so unique about Coptic art, Tomoum continued, was that on the one hand it showed the multi-cultural character of Egypt in Late Antiquity, and its extensive exchange with the Mediterranean region, and on the other it showed that the Copts managed to reshape and maintain the local artistic tradition.

"I am overwhelmed and really happy with the result," Tomoum said. She said that working on the project for the past 18 months had not been an easy task, but that the success of the evening when she could finally see the exhibition come together, and witness the appreciation of the assembled guests, was a very special moment.

Visitors to the exhibition will be taken back in time to the early centuries of the Christian era in Egypt, where they will be introduced to the most significant features of Coptic culture and art. They will have the opportunity to admire colourful icons painted by renowned icon-painters; stone and wooden friezes with intriguing designs recovered from ancient monasteries and churches; illuminated manuscripts from the archives of the Coptic Museum -- among them an excerpt from the famous Nagaa Hammadi Library; ancient letters which open a window to social and monastic life in the Coptic era; precious metalwork and pottery ware; beautiful textiles and other splendid objects of daily life.

The 205 artefacts chosen to represent the period in the exhibition are arranged either chronologically or thematically. They begin with an event of the utmost importance for the history of Christianity in the country: the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Two thousand years after the event this biblical story is still commemorated by Copts, and the sites that are said to have been visited by the Holy Family have evolved into focal pilgrimage centres. The Holy Family's journey through Egypt has led to the Virgin Mary's being afforded a special place in the Coptic liturgy and in the daily lives of the faithful.

The Flight into Egypt, and the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, have become the most popular motifs in Coptic art. The exhibition continues to relate how this new religion survived in Egypt while older religions and cults did not, as is illustrated by some striking artefacts chosen clearly to show the overlap of Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman and early Christian motifs.

Coptic art drew upon the visual language of preceding eras to help represent the concepts of the new religion. One of the remarkable features of Coptic art is the blending of influences from a multicultural milieu and its intensive exchange with the Mediterranean region, while maintaining and reshaping its local artistic traditions. As a consequence, the Coptic Egyptians created a unique identity and a distinct artistic style.

The early years of Christianity form a major part of the exhibition. The gospel is said to have been brought to Alexandria by St Mark, who in 68 AD became the first martyr to lose his life on account of his Christian faith. Egypt was then a province of the Roman Empire, and Egyptian Christians were persecuted by their Roman masters. During the reign of Emperor Diocletian the persecutions were so severe that the Copts chose Diocletian's accession to the throne in 284 AD as the first year of their calendar, also known as Anno Martyrum (AM) or Year of the Martyrs. Until this day the Coptic Church commemorates its martyrs, and Copts believe that the martyrs can actively intervene in the life of faithful believers and serve as their guardians and protectors. The most popular martyrs venerated by the Copts are represented by some refined artwork.

The exhibition also sheds light on the lives of the Desert Fathers, the early hermits and men of spiritual wisdom who moved to the desert to live in solitude and devote their lives to God. St Antony is called "the father of all monks", and is credited with initiating the monastic movement in the Christian world in the third century AD. From textual sources we also know that even women chose an ascetic life and lived in convents. Some of the first monasteries in Egypt were founded in the early fourth century by Pachom, an Upper Egyptian Christian convert, who during his lifetime established 11 monasteries and two convents. Depictions of the early hermits are represented in the exhibition by famous pieces from the Coptic Museum's permanent collection.

Coptic Egypt was inextricably interwoven in the pilgrim routes to the holy land. There were many sacred places in Egypt that offered pilgrims a place for worship, Christian teaching and renunciation of their worldly goods. As they are today, sacred places were a gateway to heaven for pious believers. Remains from ancient Coptic monasteries and churches reveal a splendour quite contrary to anything that could be imagined for a life devoted to asceticism. Impressive remains from the monasteries of St Jeremias at Saqqara and St Apollo in Bawit (Deir Abu Abullu, north of Assiut) exemplify the outstanding skills of Coptic artists and architects. Recent discoveries from Bawit form the highlight of the exhibition and vividly attest to the many fascinating Coptic monuments still to be recovered from Egypt's monastic sites.

Stories from the Bible played a crucial role in the life of the faithful and were used to decorate liturgical equipment, manuscripts and the walls of churches and monasteries. Biblical stories were even worn as decoration on garments. Popular narratives of the Old Testament include the sacrifice of Abraham and the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace. New Testament stories comprise miracles performed by Jesus such as the healing of a blind man and the raising of Lazarus. Stories from the holy books were to give hope for mankind and strengthen the believers in their Christian faith. Biblical stories are represented in the exhibition by precious manuscript illuminations, as well as decorated textiles and other items.

The Coptic Divine Liturgy is one of the oldest celebrated religious services in the world. From an early date it was carried out through the performance of fixed symbolic gestures. Prescribed prayers and benedictions and selected scriptural readings accompanied the Coptic Divine Liturgy. The intensive use of incense and the visual effect of the icons decorating the walls of a Coptic church were to engage all the senses of the faithful. Relying primarily on the human voice for melody, the Coptic liturgy is chanted, with minimal use of musical instruments. Cymbals and triangles maintain the rhythm and beat. Diverse pieces of liturgical equipment, icons and manuscripts from various centuries are displayed to create the ambiance of a Coptic church.

The exhibition provides a kaleidoscope of items that were at one time in daily use, since Copts produced beautiful crafts, far more than in any other part of the early Christian world. They developed a refined skill in textile manufacturing and produced beautiful metal and pottery ware, luxurious toiletry articles and items of personal adornment made of various materials. Personal letters were written on papyrus, parchment, paper or limestone and pottery shards.

After the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642 AD, Tomoum said, Coptic artefacts were exposed to the culture of Islam, and by the 11th century manuscripts were written bilingually in Coptic and Arabic. "This Islamic influence can clearly be seen on some of the artefacts displayed," she said.

The objects on display have been carefully selected from several museum collections in Egypt. They include treasures from the Coptic Museum's storage department and significant artworks from its permanent display, as well as pieces from the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat and the Museum of Islamic Art in Bab Al-Khalq. Items from the National Museum, the Graeco-Roman Museum and the Museum of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria were also selected, as well as others from the Beni Sweif and Arish museums.

The geographical setting of the Coptic era is illustrated in the exhibition by maps pointing to the location of important religious and economic centres throughout the Eastern Mediterranean region as well as renowned monasteries and towns in Egypt during Late Antiquity. "A timeline gives an overview of crucial events that shaped the history of the Coptic period," director-general of the scientific affairs and graphics at the museum department, Elham Salah said, adding that in each thematic section of the exhibition a special atmosphere was created by a unique exhibition design. Objects are displayed individually, in separate showcases, to emphasis their uniqueness. Detailed text information in the banners and labels give the broader context of all the artefacts displayed. A 240-page illustrated catalogue has been issued to accompany the exhibition.

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