Thursday, 1 June 2000

Coptic art steals the show

Al Ahram Weekly by Jill Kamil and Nevine El-Aref

Who are the Copts? What is their history? Who founded the famous monasteries on the Red Sea coast? With Coptic Egypt significantly overshadowed in the West by an unquenchable thirst for all things Pharaonic, these questions fail to figure on any considerable scale in foreign exhibitions of Egyptian antiquities.

Which is what makes the exhibition on Coptic art at the Arab World Institute (Institut du Monde Arabe) in Paris so exciting. Celebrating 2,000 years of Christianity in Egypt, it is the first exhibition of Coptic art in France for 36 years. An earlier exhibit, at the Petit Palais in Paris in 1964, was on a much smaller scale and did not include any objects from Egyptian collections.

The current exhibition, which will run at the Arab World Institute until September, features more than 350 unique objects, 105 of which are from the Coptic and Islamic museums in Cairo. In France, objects have been chosen from the Louvre, in Paris, and the Textile Museum in Lyon. Other objects hail from Italy's Turin Museum, the British Museum, the Egyptological Institute of Heidelberg, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, Russia's Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

"This is the first time ever that Coptic objects from Egypt have been selected for exhibition abroad," said Gaballa Ali Gaballa, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). The bulk of Egyptian objects are from Cairo's Coptic Museum.

The exhibition is in the central hall of the institute, one of the most splendid and prestigious locations covering an area of 1,200 square metres. The objects are divided into numerous sections that cover the gamut of Coptic history -- from icons to children's toys to funerary objects. Displays range from textiles and manuscripts to cosmetics, jewellery, ceramics, wall paintings, metalwork and stone and wooden statues. Visitors will also see Coptic literature, on papyrus and parchment, as well as stone fragments inscribed with texts (known as ostraca).

See the above page for more details, with photographs.

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