The Coptic Museum in Cairo holds the biggest collection of Coptic Art and Artifacts in Egypt. It was built by Morcos Samika Pasha in 1910 with the intention of studying the history of the Coptic Era; the linking era between the Ancient Egyptian Civilization and the more recent historical phases. Read along to join our guided tour through this beautiful place.
Egyptians, Copts, Aigyptios
The term “Copt” is commonly associated with Egyptian Christians due to its ties with the Christian era between the 3rd and 7th centuries. Yet, the origin of the word comes from “Aigyptios”, which means Egyptian in Greek.
The Coptic era has the missing link between the Ancient Egyptian civilization and the Arab conquest in the 7th century. Even the Coptic language is, in fact, the Ancient Egyptian language in its latest phases that evolved through the course of 4,000 years.
Museum Location and Context
The Museum is located in the Coptic Cairo area. It was established on a land plot belonging to the Coptic Patriarchate inside the Babylon fortress walls. Egyptian Christians have strong ties with this area because the holy family took shelter in these walls when they fled to Egypt from King Herod, ruler of Judea at this time. Consequently, the area is full of historical churches and monasetaries such as: Abu Serga Monasetary and the Hanging Church.
Coptic Museum design
Samika Pasha chose the elevation design to resemble that of Al-Aqmar mosque in Fatimid Cairo. The reason behind it is not clear. Yet, some speculate that he chose it purely for aesthetic reasons, or because it is said that there are burials of Coptic martyrs in a historical monastery beneath the site of the mosque.
In 1947, a second wing was constructed to accommodate the capacity of the exhibits. Both buildings have a very similar planning layout. They both have 2 stories surrounding a big courtyard. The museum was widely damaged by the 1992 earthquake that hit the country. Fortunately, it stood on its feet again in 2006 after 14 years of restoration.
The ceiling was the first thing we noticed when we entered the building. Throughout the whole museum, all the ceilings are made up of detailed interlocking wooden panels full of magnificent geometrical patterns. Each hall had a unique ceiling of its own, which gave an astonishing vibe to the whole museum experience.
We quickly analyzed the structure of both wings. In the new building, the wooden ceiling was wrapped around a paneled beam structure. The ceiling seemed to be newly made during the restoration phase. But on the other wing, the wall bearing structure gave the space to re-install ceilings retrieved from destroyed monasteries and churches. These magnificent ceilings were by far some of our favorite things we saw in the whole museum.
Exhibits and halls
There is an uncanny resemblance to the artifacts of this museum with both the Ancient Egyptian Civilization and the Islamic Eras. Everything seemed uniquely flavored with the Egyptian heritage, even though they depict different customs and beliefs that are specific to this era. Check out our visit to the Museum of Islamic Art as well to make this comparison yourself.
The exhibition starts with multiple halls showing carved stoned collected from a variety of archeological sites. From the second floor and till its end, the Coptic Museum halls are categorized with exhibits according to their type. This is where all the colors start to come into the picture.
Here is a glimpse of the exhibits that we saw during our visit.
The first halls were filled with ruins and stone carvings from various archeological sites. Part of the exhibits is laid in the courtyard, such as the column heads from al Ahnas ruins. You can quickly see the resemblance of the column heads with ancient Egyptian orders. They have very similar forms with the difference of using vine leaves instead of lotus flowers as the floral patterns’ element.
The significance of the vine leaves links to the importance of grape wine in the Christian religion, which represents the blood of Jesus. Consequently, we can see vine leave and grapes engraved on a lot of wall carvings. This resembles a lot the ancient Egyptians’ use of the lotus flower and other holy motifs during their Era.
Selected Pieces from the Coptic Era
More colors got into the picture as soon as we entered this hall. It contained a variety of pieces variying from golden coins, clothing pieces with beautiful inlays, friezes and wall carvings, and more. The various exhibits gave us a brief glimpse into the upcoming halls, which grew our curiosity to what’s coming up.
This hall contained a variety of tapestry garments. For historians, these fabrics are not just beautiful decorative fabrics, they also provide information about their holders, which tell us more about the social classes, daily life, beliefs, and customs of this era.
Egypt yielded more ancient writings than any country in the world. This is due to the fact of its strategic location in the heart between the eastern and western worlds. Consequently, a lot of historical scriptures are found in so many languages such as Arabic, Coptic, Greek, even Latin in some cases, and more.
The collection of Coptic scriptures exhibited in the museum included, but not exclusively, writing tools, letters, contracts, and Ancient bibles in a variety of languages. Most of the writings were written on papyrus or parchments.
Surprisingly enough some of the writings were written on stone scraps, pottery fragments, and bone pieces.
This exhibit showed pieces such as hair combs, makeup containers, jewelry, and a lot of decorative pieces. These kinds of artifacts tell us a lot about our ancestors and their artistic sense. You start to realize that even though we are centuries apart, there is still something very common between us.
One of the most famous elements of Christian Art are the Icons. These amazing paintings generally depict stories from the bible, with a lot of references to Jesus and Virgin Mari. The artists’ style varies from an era to another, as well as the region. The Coptic style is very similar to that of the Greek Icons due to the strong influences of both cultures back in history.
Ceramics & Metal Works
In these two exhibits, we found more Items form the daily lives of Coptic Egyptians, as well as pieces used in religious ceremonies. We loved how the craftsmen of this era took the time to carve, paint or shape each piece individually. Even more, the fragmented pieces from ceramic water containers showed that there were artistic designs even from the inside of those containers. This fact stands out metaphorically of what was inside the people of this era.
We had a lot of fun exploring the Coptic Museum. Every single artifact has its own unique design regardless of what the piece was used for. This gives a broad sense of how developed the artistic sense of the Copts throughout their eras. Our experience has exponentially peaked as soon as we climbed to the first floor, where we started to see more colorful and intricate exhibits spread all over the place.
You can see more from the museum artifacts on the website of Coptic Cairo established by the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Even better, you can give it a visit soon to see its beauty yourself.
It is very easy to reach by the Metro. If you drop at Mar Girgis station, you will see it directly as soon as you step out of the exit. It is worth mentioning that the museum is also handicap friendly, and tickets only cost 10/5 EGP for Egyptians/Students. (100/50 EGP For non-Egyptians/Students).