The Coptic Museum, nestled between the Hanging Church and the Roman towers of Babylon, is one of Cairo ‘s main attractions (daily 9: 00-17: 00, daily 9: 00-15: 00 in Ramadan. Keep in mind that the location and composition of exhibits in each room may differ from those specified in this article. The unique collection of Coptic artifacts is complemented by beautiful carved ceilings, beams and stained glass domes in the side wings, decorated with Mashrabiya and surrounded by quiet gardens. Through the gate you can go to the courtyard of the Hanging Church.
The museum, founded in 1908 with the support of Patriarch Kirill V and Khedive Camille, was originally intended to save Christian antiquities from plunder and neglect by foreign collectors, but soon his collection began to replenish with secular exhibits. Artifacts from Old Cairo, Upper Egypt and desert monasteries traced the evolution of Coptic art from the Hellenistic to the Islamic era (300-1000 years of our era). Despite the fact that Coptic art owes much to the ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman culture, there is no monumentality in his works.
Stanley Stewart called it “realistic, sometimes humorous,” noting that it reflects “the tastes of the poor and rural people.” Coptic works of art often seem rude in comparison with the works of ancient Egyptian artisans and Islamic masters; it is noteworthy that it reached its true heights in the works of weavers. Although the collection occupies three floors, in a couple of hours it can be examined in detail, and in half an hour – a quick look at the main exhibits.
If you enter the museum from the side of Marie Girgis Street, then the New Wing, built in 1937, is right in front of you. The exposition of the first floor is organized in chronological order, it should be inspected moving counterclockwise from the hall 1. The second exit from this hall leads to the garden, where there are tombstones and funeral steles. From here you can get to the stairs leading to the Water Gate under the Hanging Church and up to the old wing.
Hall No. 1, in the center of which stands the fountain of one of the old houses of the quarter, shows pagan reliefs and statues of characters of classical mythology. Incorrect body proportions and too large heads give Aphrodite, Daphne, Pan and Leda an African rather than a Greco-Roman appearance. Flat reliefs with a two-tiered composition and a torn pediment with a sink are characteristic of monuments of Protocoptic art.
The exhibits in Hall No. 2 reflect the shift towards Christian symbolism that has taken place since the third century. The ancient Egyptian sign-ankh is transformed into a cross with a loop, and images of real crosses appear on the gables and coexist with the Hawks on capitals with wicker ornaments.
Coptic art flourished in the 6th-9th centuries, as exemplified by stone carvings and frescoes from the Bavit monastery near Asyut . In the center of the right wall of Hall No. 3, in a magnificent apse, Christ is depicted on the throne, surrounded by creatures from the Apocalypse, images of the moon and the sun; below is the Virgin and Child with apostles resembling simple modern Egyptians.
In Hall No. 4 (this section of the exhibition is designated as “Miscellaneous”), pay attention to the figure of the eagle on the right – it is an early Christian symbol of the resurrection, like the peacock. Hall No. 5 is also filled with a wide variety of objects, the most attractive of which is a carved painted capital with a curving ornament of leaves: this motif was borrowed from the Greeks and Romans, but, apparently, for the Copts it was devoid of any symbolic meaning.
In Hall 6, dedicated to the monuments from St. Jeremiah’s Monastery in North Saqqara , you will walk in front of a row of capitals decorated with acanthus leaves and vines that are intertwined with ancient Egyptian motifs of palm leaves and lotuses. At the end of the hall is the earliest stone pulpit known to us, possibly made under the influence of thrones for the hebsed festival from the Joser funeral complex.
In the fresco to his right, as in the apse from Bavit, one can notice the barely perceptible similarity between the Virgin Mary and Isis. Other examples of continuity in iconography can be seen in the corner of Hall No. 7: a frieze depicting a grape harvest (a favorite theme of images in the tombs of ancient Egyptian nobles), a small lion figure resembling a sphinx between two stylized images of the same animal.
Hall number 8 goes to biblical scenes (Abraham and Isaac, Christ and angels) and friezes with images of animals framed by plants – this motif was subsequently perceived by the Fatimid woodcarvers. Entering the hall number 9 you will see on the right a panel of the 10th century from Umm al-Birgat (in Fayyum), which shows Adam and Eve before and after the fall: in the second scene, Adam blames Eve, and the snake enjoys this denouement at this time. In the center of the hall there is an elegant capital, decorated with interweaving of stems of papyrus and lotus: hollow from the inside, this capital served as a font for baptism.
Climbing the stairs to the second floor, you will go to the stands with ostracons (inscribed with shards and fragments of stone, bones and wood) and manuscripts from the monastery scriptures, among which are several sheets of papyrus with texts from the Gnostic Gospels from Nag Hammadi. The 1,200 pages of this manuscript shed light on the history of early Christianity and its mystical tradition. The Gospels (translated from Greek to Coptic) were apparently hidden during the persecution of the Gnostics in the 4th and 5th centuries; the peasants dug up a sealed jug in 1945.
Walking clockwise from room 10 to room 11, you will see a towel at the entrance, which is 1600 years old, and an ancient book with a preserved cover. Next begins the collection of textiles. Starting from the 3rd-4th centuries, Coptic weavers (mainly women) used various techniques and achieved a high level of craftsmanship. Patterns of tapestries and pile fabrics are a mixture of anthropomorphic forms with figures of birds and plant motifs. Tunics were decorated with belts and buckles. Hall 12 exhibits a luxurious silk dress embroidered with scenes from the Acts of the Apostles dating from the 18th century.
Room 13 features ivory items in the Alexandrian style and more primitive items from Upper Egypt, as well as a selection of icons from Old Cairo , Aswan and Kharg Oasis . Some scholars believe that the transition from wall paintings to icons was due to the need to hide cult values from the pursuers. In the next three rooms there are shop windows with metal products – from crosses and incense burners to musical instruments and tools.
Hall 15 shows the crowns of the patriarchs, a lamp decorated with a Christian cross and an Islamic crescent, and an eagle from the Babylon fortress. The upper floor ends with an exhibition of Nubian paintings in Room 17, collected in the 1950s and 1960s in villages that were supposed to be flooded by Lake Nasser. As a cult of Isis in ancient times, Christianity for several centuries remained the predominant religion in Nubia, even when in Egypt itself it was in decline. The human figures in these works are darker, with larger eyes and rounder heads than Copts.
The old wing, which can be accessed from the sculpture garden, boasts even more beautiful ceilings and Mashrabiya grilles. To the left of the entrance to the hall number 22 is the original altar of the XIV century and the dome of the Fatimid era from the church of St. Sergius. In the other direction, there are two halls filled with Nubian wall paintings, plus two tympans from the Bavit monastery (hall No. 23). Around the corner, a genuine screen from the church of St. Barbara is exhibited in the section of wooden products.
Fragments in the following niche demonstrate the same mixture of Hellenic mythology, ancient Egyptian symbolism and Coptic naturalism, as well as stone carving exhibited in another wing, and later exhibits show scenes of various works. The central exhibit of Hall No. 25 is a panel depicting the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, originating from the Hanging Church.
In hall 26, several portrait images are presented along with Coptic toys and household utensils – this is a later version of the famous Fayumian portraits of the Roman era exhibited in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo . In the far right corner is a wonderful Early Coptic crucifix (one of the few surviving), which simultaneously depicts the beardless Christ, the Hawk of the Choir and the solar disk.
Byzantine and Sassanid (Persian) influence is noticeable in friezes with hunting scenes and mythical creatures – motifs that remained in Islamic times until the restoration of Sunniism. The bishop’s chairs, exhibited in the side room of Hall No. 27, are similar to the grand thrones of wealthy emirs.
In the last section of the Old Wing, pottery is exhibited, grouped by vessel shape, not by epoch. Ancient motifs are widely used: fish, ducks and plants. At the end of Hall 29, there were jars of pilgrims with images of St. Manas between two camels. Among the later items in room 30 are majolica items, similar to the work of Muslim potters from Fustat, but with images of a fish or a cross. In the back room there is a small collection of glass products.