Egypt: The Coptic Christian Museum in Cairo

The Coptic Museum

by Jimmy Dunn

When people think of museums in Egypt, they are most often thinking of the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, a truly fantastic archive of history. But there are many other great museums in Egypt dedicated to every era of history, from the dawn of civilization to modern times.

Truly one of the most interesting places to visit in Egypt is the Coptic museum, even for those who are not Christian. More than simply a archive of Coptic history, it intricately weaves a web between religions at the end of the pagan era, and the beginning of the Christian period. It is a case study in the formative years of a major religion that grew, and sometimes intermingled, and sometimes borrowed from that of an ancient religion that it was replacing.

In his book, Cairo, Biography of a City, James Aldridge says it better than I ever could.

"There is one other historical collection in this old fortress which I always dread going into - the Coptic Museum. The whole place opens up so many new avenues for speculation on Egypt's role in the history of religions that it would require a lifetime to follow up any single one of them, so I always leave feeling frustrated and ignorant. The mythologies of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Christianity are so thoroughly entwined with each other in the artifacts of this museum that sometimes the origins of one religion in another seems most crude."

"In the year 300 Egypt was mainly (officially) pagan, but by 330 it was predominantly Christian. These were the thirty vital years when Rome was changing sides. In this Coptic Museum all the little alters for Egyptian shrines and temple up to the first half of the fourth century are pagan, but then suddenly like a biblical clap of thunder a little pagan Aphrodite shell substitutes the beautiful goddess for a deeply cut Christian cross - still in the shell."

"Official Christianity had thus arrived in the pagan shrines of Egypt."

"Victor Girgas, the museum's chief curator, took considerable pride in showing me a sixth-century niche of Jesus being suckled by Mary, just as Isis had suckled Osiris three thousand years earlier. It was a modest boast of the continuity of his own Coptic ancestry from ancient Egypt into modern Christianity. Even Father Hanna was proud of the origin of the Christian cross in the Egyptian ankh rather than in the crucifix."

Indeed, the museum is a rich source of thought provoking displays. But it is even more than this. The museum also documents everyday life during Egypt's Christian era, with items on display as common as combs and utensils.

The Coptic museum is located in Old, or Coptic Cairo and is very often on the itinerary of many tours. In fact, the area is called Coptic Cairo because there are a number of ancient churches in the area that will enhance one's visit to the museum. Certainly if the opportunity arises, this repository should be visited. But for those who lack the means to achieve this are not completely out of luck, as the museum has created a very nice as well as advanced web site.

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Last Updated: June 12th, 2011