Middle East and North Africa

Historic Coptic Museum faces closure in Egypt

Cairo’s Coptic Museum, with one of the largest collections of Coptic artefacts in the world may soon be lost due to lack of funds for maintenance, according to a report.

The Museum in the Masr al-Qadima district of Cairo, keeps more than 18,000 icons, carved stones, frescoes and manuscripts in its 27 halls. It also has a collection of early Bibles and the history of Christianity in Egypt, since the Roman persecution of Christians, is contained in its collection.

Atef Naguib, Manager of the Coptic Museum, said some of the artefacts were collected in the 1880s by Gaston Maspero, a French Egyptologist and the Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service who created a room devoted to Coptic art called the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.

“As the number of Coptic pieces in this section increased, the idea to build a special Coptic Museum began to shape up. In 1910, the Coptic Museum was founded by Marcus Simaika Pasha using the pieces collected from Egyptian and foreign artefacts collectors,” Naguib explained.

“In 1947, a new department was built to include other artefacts, and the museum kept expanding,” Naguib said. The museum grew from a single hall near the Hanging Church in Masr al-Qadima district in Cairo to its current 27 halls built in the Coptic style.

The 1992 Cairo earthquake affected the museum, which had to close for repairs in 2001. It was restored at the cost of 30 million Egyptian pounds (about $5.4 million) and finally open in on 26th June 2006. Today, the museum has a total of 18,319 artefacts, Naguib said.

Ilham Salah, the head of the ministry’s Museums Sector, said, “The Coptic Museum is the largest collection of Egyptian Coptic artefacts in the country and possibly in the world, but despite its significance, it is still relatively little known by tourists due to poor marketing.”

Naguib added that, “foreign tourists visit historical churches in Masr al-Qadima, but they do not visit the museum despite its historic significance. This museum is not marketed enough, neither in Egypt nor abroad.” Therefore, funding for expansion and maintenance is not available, making it impossible to keep the museum. He said.

Salah also confirmed that the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities is in debt and going through a financial crisis, in addition to its inability to finance the museum. This has taken its “toll on museums such as the Coptic Museum,” he added.

The poor security system leaves the museum vulnerable to theft. On September. 14, a security staffmember was arrested leaving with a piece from a wooden door panel, he chopped off, that had once belonged to the fifth-century church of St. Barbara in Old Cairo.

“The reasons behind the burglary are the weak monitoring technologies, and the staff are neither well-selected nor well-trained and well-supervised,” Salah said.

Bahgat Fanous, the former director of the Coptic Museum, noted that the Coptic Museum “is falling off the marketing map of historical locations in Egypt… the museum is located in an area full of historical churches such as the Hanging Church. Although the area attracts tourists, the museum cannot be put in its right place on the map unless its problems are solved,” Fanous added.

 

Hassan John is West Africa Editor, GCN and priest of the Anglican Diocese of Jos.

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