Thursday, 28 April 2005

A museum of Coptic identity

Al Ahram Weekly By Jill Kamill
With photos (click the small image to see the bigger photographs)

The Coptic Museum is approaching the last stage of structural restoration prior to its official re-opening this year as a state-of-the-art museum. Jill Kamil looks into what's going on

It was no easy matter to gain access to a building that was being restored -- or transformed, rather -- and even more difficult to find someone able, or willing, to talk about progress, plans and deadlines. The Coptic Museum has been off-limits to visitors for a long while now, and with rumour circulating that some galleries would re-open this year, Al-Ahram Weekly sent a team to investigate.

The reason for our interest was that no attempt had ever been made to sort out this huge jumble of Coptic antiquities of more than 16,000 objects according to historical sequence. This was understandable a century ago, when Morcos Samaika founded the museum, because provenance details for the bulk of the objects were not available. They had been collected haphazardly from abandoned burial grounds, derelict monasteries and ancient temple sites. Because Christian monuments were of little concern to early archaeologists, objects were trodden into the earth, covered by sandstorms, or used for garden decorations. In a word, neglected.

When in 1910 Samaika assembled the wide array of objects which revealed different ethnic influences, it presented him with a dilemma: how to put them into some semblance of order? He opted for the easy way out. He grouped the objects into media -- stonework, metalwork, tapestries, manuscripts, woodwork, pottery, glassware, etc. A few galleries were devoted to objects from a single source, like those
from the fifth-century monasteries of St Jeremais at Saqqara and St Apollo at Bawit, but there were also galleries of "miscellaneous objects".

See the above page for more.

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