The Christian history of Egypt
The Coptic Cairo Museum exhibits the art and traditions of one of the most ancient Christian denominations in the world.
Cairo – Egypt is a largely Muslim country, and from a historical perspective, famous for its Pharaonic heritage, but it is much more than that. If the large monuments from the Dynastic period amaze, the relics from the Greek and Roman presence are also there; if mosques dot the cities’ skyline, churches can also be found, and reveal the presence of one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world.
The Coptic Church is an Orthodox denomination founded in Egypt in the early years of the Christian era. After centuries of Ptolemaic ruling – a dynasty of Hellenic origins founded by one of Alexander, the Great’s generals, of which the famous queen Cleopatra was the last representative –, the country was then ruled by the Romans. At the time, Alexandria was the most important city in the Mediterranean region.
It was against this background that the first Christians emerged in Egypt. The Coptic Church, as the followers claim, was founded by Saint Mark, and to this day is the largest Christian denomination in the country. The Coptic language derives from the Greek and it uses its alphabet, but includes characters derived from hieroglyphs. The Copts see themselves as direct descendants of ancient Egyptians.
It is such an ancient community that it had settled in areas of modern Cairo before the city was founded by Fatimid Muslims in 10 A.D. Churches and monasteries were built in the place of a Roman fortress called Babylon, whose ruins lasted until today and can be seen in the neighborhood called Ancient Cairo or Coptic Cairo. One of these churches, Abu Serga (Saint Sergius), was built in the 11th century over a grotto where, so the Egyptians claim, sheltered the Holy Family in its flight to Egypt.
The area also holds the Coptic Museum, a splendid group of buildings that houses works of art and other artifacts that tell the history of the Coptic community. “These are great works from all over Egypt. There are 1,600 pieces in exhibition and more than 20,000 in the collection,” said Atif Naguib, the museum’s director-general to ANBA.
The majority of these artworks came from churches and monasteries from throughout the country. The Christian monastic tradition emerged in Egypt.
Divided in 26 galleries, plus a special gallery, the museum gathers ancient manuscripts and books, embossed pieces, frescos, objects used in cults, shrines, textiles, wood works, among others. “The collection tells the Coptic history, it gives a complete idea of the religion”, said Naguib.
The highlights of the collection are the frescos, considered to be masterpieces of the Coptic art, ostracons, which are pottery sherds, stones and even bones, and Gnostic gospels, old ancient texts written in papyrus and found in Egypt that attribute teachings to Jesus and talked about beliefs that differ from the consolidated tradition in the New Testament.
Just like other attractions in Egypt, the museum suffers with the decline in the number of tourists, which started with the Arab Spring, in 2011, but worsened with the crash of the jets from Russian airline Metrojet, in Sinai on October 2015, and from Egyptair, in the Mediterranean, last May.
“We have visitors from abroad, but in fewer numbers, and we are trying to attract local visitors to show more of this civilization,” said Naguib. ANBA visited the place in the morning of a September weekday, and the place was fairly empty. According to him, the institution has been making an effort to attract schools and the overall public by holding events on festive dates such as Mother’s Day and Children’s Day, or by organizing thematic exhibitions.
Egypt, as well as its neighbors Palestine, Israel and Jordan, have a strong vocation for religious tourism and intend to attract at least a share of the tourists heading to the Holy Land. The Egyptian Tourism Authority, the national tourism promotion agency, even produced a book to showcase the places where the Holy Family had been in the country and which attractions they hold.
According to the Authority’s chairman Samy Mahmoud, Egypt is planning an advertising campaign focusing on Christian tourists. In his room, he has a banner ad for the Holy Family in Egypt route. However, the area where Egypt, Palestine and Israel touch borders is unsafe, so visitors cannot take the route by land.
The best way to get to Coptic Cairo is by metro. From Tahrir Square’s Sadat Station, in Downtown Cairo, it’s a four-station journey along the Blue Line to Mar Girgis Station, which faces the museum.
3 Sharia Mar Girgis, Cairo, Egypt
Metro: Mar Girgis Station
Opening hours: 9 am to 5 pm daily; last tickets sold at 4 pm
Ticket prices: non-locals – EGP 60 (full) and EGP 30 (half). Egyptians – EGP 10 (full), EGP 5 (half).
Find out more: www.coptic-cairo.com
*Translated by Sérgio Kakitani