A museum founded in Cairo in 1902. The first exhibition of Coptic art in Egypt took place sometime at the end of the nineteenth century in the Bulaq Museum, the precursor of the actual Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. The collection was exhibited in a hall called “La Salle copte” before it was moved to the new museum founded in 1902.
In 1908 the collection was moved to a permanent home in the Coptic Museum, which was established in the suburb of Cairo now known as Old Cairo. It remained in the hands of the Coptic church until 1931, when it became a national museum under the jurisdiction of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities.
The site chosen for the museum was the area of the fortress of BABYLON, which had been founded by Emperor Trajan (98-117) and whose walls can still be seen from the entrance of the museum.
The nucleus of the Coptic collection consisted of a number of historic items assembled from Coptic homes, old Coptic churches, and ancient monasteries, as well as from a number of archaeological sites. With the support of Patriarch CYRIL V (1874-1927) it was possible to acquire some painted ceilings, marble columns, mosaic floors, and fountains, as well as a few samples of elaborately carved woodwork from old palaces and private residences. With the transfer of the museum ownership from the church to the Department of Antiquities, the collection was further enriched by moving the considerable Coptic objects of archaeological distinction accumulated in the Egyptian Museum to the newly established Coptic Museum.
Initially the museum consisted of a relatively small wing that was later extended by a substantial modern building inaugurated in 1947 by King Fouad I, thus providing the needed space for the increasing archaeological and artistic collections. It was therefore possible to devote certain halls to special collections such as stonework, woodwork, metals, and textiles.
The library proved to be the pride of the museum, since it contained a rich collection of Coptic sources. In addition to published materials, a vast number of Coptic manuscripts were assembled from the ancient churches and monasteries. An enormous collection of Coptic ostraca and rare documentary objects were housed in it. The unique Gnostic papyri collection known as the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY was deposited among its treasures. Significant private collections were also acquired, such as that of the Coptic historian MIKHA’IL SHARUBIM.
Some of its contents were cataloged by Henri Munier and Walter Crum, as well as Murqus Simaykah and Yassa ‘Abd al-Masih. A vast accumulation of Coptic and Arabic manuscripts of all ages are available to qualified scholars. The library holds Old and New Testaments, lives of saints, horologia, apocryphas, language books, and dictionaries, in addition to a number of scientific and medical treatises. Most recently it acquired the oldest known codex of the Psalms, dating from the fourth century.
In 1984, the museum was partly renovated and the collection redisplayed. An inventory of the vast holdings in storage is underway, as is a new catalog for the displays.
A rough inventory of the contents of the museum is indicative of the extent of the monuments on display in its halls. Though steadily increasing from new discoveries in Coptic excavations, the collection to date numbers more than 14,000 items. The following is a list of the contents of each category as of 1985:
- 2,568 items of stone and marble sculpture
- 486 frescoes
- 196 icons
- 112 ivory objects, plus 248 bones, 6 mother of pearl, 4 horn, and 1 amber
- 1,500 Coptic textiles
- 1,470 metal objects including gold, silver, bronze, iron, copper, and lead
- 1,274 pieces of carved woodwork
- 1,534 pieces of pottery and glazed ceramic
- 93 glass items
- Crum, W. E. Coptic Monuments (Catalogue général des antiquites egyptiennés du Musée du Caire). Cairo, 1902.
- Gabra, G. The Project. “Catalogue Général du Musée Copte.” In The Greek Presence in Ancient Egypt: Symposium, Delphi: March 17-20, 1988, ed. L. Marangou and P. Nearchou. Forthcoming.
- . Das Projekt “Catalogue Général du Musée Copte”: Stand der Arbeiten bis Dezember 1988. In Proceedings of the Fourth International Congress of Coptic Studies (Louvain La Neuve, 5-10 September 1988), ed. J. Ries. Forthcoming.
- Munier, H. Manuscrits coptes (Catalogue général des Antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire). Cairo, 1916.
- Murqus Simaykah. Guide to the Coptic Museum. Cairo, 1932.
- . A Brief Guide to the Coptic Museum and to the Principal Ancient Churches of Cairo. Cairo, 1938. Pahor Labib. The Coptic Museum. Cairo, 1950.
- . The Coptic Museum and the Fortress of Babylon at Old Cairo. Cairo, 1953.
- . Coptic Gnostic Papyri in the Coptic Museum at Old Cairo. Cairo, 1956.
- . Das Koptische Kairo. Koptische Kunst Christentum am Nil, 94. 92-94. Essen, 1963.
- Raouf Habib. The Coptic Museum, General Guide. Cairo, 1967. Su‘ad Mahir and Hishmat Messiha. Coptic Textiles in the Coptic Museum. Cairo, 1957. In Arabic.
- Strzygowski, Josef. Koptische Kunst (Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire). Vienna, 1904.