Pros:Interesting artwork, organized exhibits.
Cons:Belief system not conveyed through exhibits.
The Bottom Line: I would moderately recommend a trip to the Coptic Musuem. Nine dollars gains you admission to view a variety of ancient Christian artifacts.
Shortly before I arrived in Egypt, a tragic event happened at a Coptic Christian Church in Nagaa Hamady. Three shooters entered the church during the celebration of Little Christmas (also known as Celebration of the Epiphany). I am unfamiliar with this Christian celebration and was saddened to hear that six people were killed simply for their religious beliefs. As a Protestant, I am far removed from Catholicism and even further from Coptic Christianity. I was hoping to learn more about the religion, which prompted me to add the Coptic Museum in Cairo to my list of destinations.
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On my third day in Cairo, my wife and I took the Metro train from the Sadat Station downtown (after enjoying a Felucca boat ride on the Nile) and traveled four stops to the Mar Girgis Metro Station. Upon exiting the train station, the entrance to the Coptic Museum was directly in front of us just a few steps away. The museum is open from 9 AM until 5 PM with an admission charge of 50 LE (or about nine dollars). Students and Egyptians pay a reduced admission. No photography is allowed, so I had to check my camera at the entrance. After passing through a security checkpoint, we were allowed to roam the grounds of the Museum at our own leisure.
The museum complex is located down a set of stairs several hundred feet from the entrance. The building is comprised of two wings, with the entrance in the middle. The building is two stories tall, so visitors serpentine through the building. Visitors view exhibits on the first floor to the left of the entrance before ascending stairs to the second level, which twists around to the other wing. You then descend back to the first floor for the remainder of the exhibits. The museum is well organized and easy to navigate, with one final exhibit separated from the rest in a non-linear format. Finding your way around the museum is easy and intuitive.
One aspect of the museum that disappointed me was the lack of written history and current belief system of the church and how the church teachings relate to the modern church. The museum is more of an art museum, displaying incredible art, architecture, textiles and writings from the early church. I was hoping to come away with a better understanding of Coptic Christianity, which I did not. However, the museum definitely displayed some awesome artifacts and is the largest repository for important Coptic artifacts. Much of the architecture was salvaged from the Monastery of St. Jeremiah at Saqqarah, which dates back to around 600 AD.
There were two things that struck me about the way the artifacts were placed within the Coptic Museum. The first was that the museum was organized in a much easier format to navigate than the Egyptian Museum. The second was that many of the items on display were unprotected. Ancient artifacts were readily accessible to visitors, who could simply reach out and touch the displays. The thing that bothered me about this aspect of the museum was the visible damage done by visitors who have carved names and other words into some of the exhibits. I cannot fathom why someone would desecrate an ancient artifact like that, but was equally dumb-founded that they aren't protected from senseless abuse.
As you enter the first exhibit area on the first floor, you are greeted by large stone carvings rescued from St. Jeremiah's at Saqqarah. Large placards on the walls describe the exhibits and give a bit of history regarding the items in the room. As you move into the next room, several delicate small items (that could be stolen) are encased in class with well organized lettered-cubes corresponding to signs that describe the item. These items vary from combs to utensils to pens and more. The encased artifacts are in temperature controlled environments to aid in their preservation. A large courtyard is located on the left wing and houses a variety of architectural exhibits.
As you continue around the first floor of the musuem, large sections of painted stone demonstrate early depictions of church beliefs. The apostles, Christ, the Virgin Mary and many more paintings are still well preserved on their stone canvas. The painted stone gives way to second floor exhibits of intricate textiles and stitched artifacts with rich histories provided on nearby posters. Early writings in Coptic with translations are also demonstrated in a couple of exhibits on the second floor. The rich beautiful text is done in multiple colors and exhibits an artistic flair for the written word. A variety of church items, such as ornate metal boxes for housing the Bible also caught my attention.
One of the interesting thing that caught my attention about the exhibits in the Coptic Museum was the inter-mingling of ideas. Crosses with the Egyptian Ankh or local deities worked into the paintings provided an odd look into the early Coptic Church. Another quirk that caught my attention was the number of paintings of Jesus and the Twelve Disciples that depicted them as black. The depictions were a mix...some black, some more Persian in appearance. The contrast was interesting and suggested a degree of artistic indulgence, personal influences and possibly mixed beliefs in the early church.
I enjoyed my visit to the Coptic Museum even though I came away with little knowledge of the belief system but a great appreciation of the artwork and artifacts. In defense of the museum, there was a reading room at the location, but I was hoping to see some of the belief system incorporated into the actual exhibits. I think that adding information that incorporates the significance of the artifacts or demonstrating how the artifact reflects Coptic teaching might have enriched the experience.
There are restrooms and a small gift shop located at the Coptic Museum, as well. The restrooms are not well-maintained, but better than some we ended up in during our trip. As with most Egyptian restrooms, there was an attendant with a paper towel in one hand and an empty hand for your tip. Make sure you bring plenty of one pound coins while you are out and about. The gift shop was very tight, but packed with a variety of typical Egyptian gifts (like you will find at Kan El Khalili bazaar) as well as gifts specific to the museum. The prices weren't great, but reasonable for a museum gift shop.
My visit to the Coptic Museum was interesting. I enjoyed the exhibits but felt they could have been better tied to the belief system. I came away with little understanding of the way early Coptic Christians practiced their beliefs. However, the rich artistry along with the offbeat paintings combined to make for an interesting visit. The total visit took less than two hours to complete. I would recommend a visit to the Coptic Museum if you are interested in this era in Egyptian history, but would place it as a second to the Egyptian Musuem. If you can only do one, do the latter. If you have time, squeeze this one in as well.
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