The Coptic Museum

We pass vibrant markets and quiet back streets as we enter the heart of Coptic Cairo.

Our first stop here is the recently reopened Coptic museum, which sits in an open courtyard behind the huge drum of the Church of St. George and some of the remains of the 1st century Roman fortress of Babylon.

The building that houses the Coptic Museum was constructed in 1947, although it has been remodeled since that time. With the exception of the intricate traditional wooden mashrabiyya covering the windows, the outside gives little hint of the wonders within.

While the amazing collection inside the museum is well-documented (many pieces are even shown on the museum’s web site), there don’t appear to be any pictures of the building that houses these wonderful works of art. That’s unfortunate, because the building is itself amazingly beautiful, with ornate carved and inlaid wood ceilings, lovely banisters and railing, delicate stained glass windows, and the intricate mashrabiyya. It is a stunning building. I am continually amazed as I walk through – every ceiling seems more delicate and beautiful than the one before! Romani tells us that some of the woodwork was built for this building and some was reinstalled here after being removed from old homes throughout the city. I want to live in a home with ceilings and screens like these. Wow!

Of course, the collection here is also amazing. Right inside the entrance I am greeted by a wonderful panel featuring lively, big-eyed evangelists. Sweet.

Amid more traditional the carved stone niches, capitals, and funerary stones, I encounter the happiest Aphodite imaginable. She is playful and cheery – a totally unexpected delight.

All of the collection is amazing, but of course I am eager to move on to the textiles.

The collection features wonderful, intricately woven works so delicate it seems a miracle that they have survived through the centuries so I can stand here gawking at them. Most are figural, featuring those same wide-eyed Coptic figures seen in so many icons and paintings. They stare back at me from the past. I am so lucky!

Next is the manuscript collection with many beautiful illuminated volumes on display. They span a long period of history and culture, some of which mix on a single page, as in an 18th century psalmody in Coptic and Arabic. As I gaze at the beautiful images in these early books, I can hear some of our group trying to decipher the text in some of these works. It would be incredible to be able to do that – to have that sort of direct contact with the past, but the graceful images speak to those of us who can’t read the written words.

From there I come to the ostraca display. Ok, I’m not sure what these funny looking pieces are at first either, but the small pieces of broken pottery have wonderful images on them. Like the manuscripts, they are touching, expressive, and sometimes even humorous.

Next is the icon room, but by now my time here is running out, so I breeze through, stopping only to gaze at a few favorites, like the lovely image of St. Barbara and an early image of St. Antony.

Icon of Saint Barbara -

Saint Barbara – image via the Coptic Museum

There is still glass, pottery, wood, and metal to see, but my time here is up for now so I head back out into the sunny courtyard to reclaim my camera. How could the day get any better?

Next Post: The Hanging Church (El-Muallaqa)
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