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Architectural History Of The Coptic Museum - Coptic Wiki


“Arab art has its museum; Coptic art is waiting for its own.” It is with these words that Max Herz Bey concluded a letter to Hussein Fakhry Pasha and launched the first idea of a Coptic Museum (CCMAA 15, p. 4-6). The letter dates from December 1897 and follows shortly the extension of the field of action of the Comité de conservation des monuments de l’art arabe to the conservation of Christian monuments. The Architect in Chief of the Comité wrote to the Egyptian Minister of Public Works in order to keep the “carved wood remains or planks, columns, capitals or other objects still lying in the dust […] from being destroyed.” A Coptic Museum created by a Committee of Arab Art: the idea suggested the complexity of constructing such an institution (Auber de Lapierre, 2017, p. 235-266).

As soon as his letter was sent, the very active Max Herz thought about the realization of the museum by involving the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate and Pope CYRIL V (Kyrillos V). He already asked that “all the churches of Cairo and its suburbs, record all the objects without any use found in the monuments as well as in the ruins” (CCMAA 15, p. 5). Herz Bey said he had met Patriarch Cyril V before even writing to Fakhry Pasha, and said that the pope “is well disposed to this project and he has charged Nakhla Bey to choose a suitable room where the antiquities will be deposited.” The structure already known as the “Museum of Coptic Art” inherits “a room in the interior of the Deir el-Moallaka” offered by the Pope (CCMAA 16, p. 39).

The first director of the institution, Marcus Hanna Simaika Pasha (1864-1944), took the initiative to launch a subscription in January 1908 to provide funding for the structure; the godfather and first subscriber of this initiative was none other than the prince and future Sultan Hussein Kamal (Simaika, 2017).

The idea had been instilled since 1897, the collections gathered, the financing assured, the building found; everything was in order to inaugurate the museum.

Inventing the building

After a first visit of the Minister of Public Works, Hussein Fakhry Pasha, accompanied by Bey in April 1908, the real inauguration of the building was held on March 14, 1910 in the presence of Patriarch Cyril V, Minister Fakhry Pasha, Max Herz Pasha, Boinet Pasha and Simaika Bey. Yet the work was far from complete and the museum remained closed to the public (CCMAA 25, p. 22-23).

A plan of 1912, discovered in the Archives of the Comité by István Ormos and kept at the markaz tasjīl al-aṯār al-islāmīya wa al-qibṭīya (Center for the Registration of Islamic and Coptic Monuments) located at the Citadel of Cairo, shows the oldest attestation of the planned organization of the buildings shortly after the inauguration of the Coptic Museum (Ormos, 2009, p. 343). This plan, approved by Max Herz, shows an entrance from the street Mar Girgis through an open corridor, with a door close to the one giving access to the courtyard and the stairs to the OF AL-MU’ALLAQAH. The plan mentions the building as “el-Moallaka school” probably meaning to the old residence, transformed and donated by the patriarch to deposit the “remains of Coptic art.” Beyond this building, which can be identified as the primitive structure of the western part of the so-called “old” wing of the Coptic Museum, is a project organized around an inner courtyard. This courtyard is mentioned on the map of 1912 as a garden. The document also indicates the project of building a square structure surmounted by a at the eastern end and an external staircase. Although this plan does not provide any more information on the organization of the museum’s rooms, it retains traces of dwellings, passageways, and gardens.

Many projects of embellishment of this building followed each other in order to give it “a style in harmony with the various collections it contains” (Simaika, 1938, p. 2.). Among these elements, is a drawing of Max Herz for a facade project of the Coptic Museum. The Archives of the Comité delivered a whole series of unpublished drawings and plans illustrating the architectural expansion desired for the museum. Following these reflections, Achille Patricolo, successor of Max Herz Pacha from 1914, forwarded the transformations necessary for the expansion of the collections.

The Prince of Saxony, who visited the museum in 1912, judged the classification of works uncertain, the rooms too small, even mentioning unsuitable conditions (Saxony, 1914, p. 7). Aware of these shortcomings, the Comité decided to instruct Max Herz to lead the building expansion projects (CCMAA 29, p. 34-35). The drawings were submitted and approved by the Comité in 1913, without effect. Among these projects was that of a main façade and its section overlooking the garden, made by Mr. Steyrer. The proposed elevation featured a central building block with three openings and flanked by two wings. It had one floor pierced by large openings and a roof terrace. The style was sober-minded but the Fatimid spirit appears at the top of the building (Behrens-Abouseif, 1989, p. 10). Another plan presented the organization of large rooms on the ground floor, behind the facade, designed around a large central staircase.

These projects, however, were never realized, following the expulsion from Egypt of Max Herz Pasha as a Hungarian subject at the start of the First World War. Achille Patricolo, Herz’s deputy, was then appointed inspector in charge of the Comité’s technical work but neither wished nor had the necessary resources to replace Herz as chief architect (Ormos, 2009, p. 101). Patricolo had to assume the heavy task left by his predecessor to build new buildings for a museum whose collections never ceased to grow. He designed a series of projects between 1916 and 1922, assisted by the architects Gastone Rossi and Giuseppe Tavarelli. Preserved in the archives of the Comité de conservation des monuments de l’art arabe, these drawings present numerous sketches, elevations, and plans taking up the idea of a quadrangular building with an inner courtyard. Starting from the original rooms of the patriarchal residence to the south, along the of the Virgin Mary al-Mu’allaqā and overlooking the ancient access to the Roman fortress of BABYLON, a building forming an “L” was added. The northern and western halls were built and completed in 1920 for the visit of Sultan Fuad. At the inauguration of the new building, the sultan manifested his interest in the institution by launching the idea of a subscription which brought together no less than 2,000 Egyptian pounds and wanted the museum, a private foundation, to join the royal administration and asked the patriarch to yield it to the State (Simaika, 2017, p. 103-105; Auber de Lapierre & Jeudy, 2018, p. 7). Finally, the royal decree of January 1931 named the Coptic Museum a national institution and its director appointed for life, thanks to the intervention of the Director of Fine Arts, a French Art Historian by the name of Louis Hautecœur, and the wishes of Simaika. This important milestone for the museum allowed for the reception of grants to acquire new grounds and saw the arrival of many major works housed until then at the Egyptian Museum of Qaṣr al-Nīl.

Figure 1: “Old wing” of the Coptic Museum.
Figure 1: “Old wing” of the Coptic Museum.

The building, as it stood at the time of Sultan Fuad’s visit in 1920, corresponds to the vast quadrangular building previously mentioned, now known as the “old wing.” Simaika presented the drawings realized under the direction of Achille Patricolo in his guide of the museum as being in a “Coptic style” (Simaika, Notes historiques, p. 4-5). The illustration of this style is the porch sheltering the new access to the museum, decorated with “six columns, surmounted by capitals in the shape of a basket with birds and crosses” (Simaika, 1938, p. 2). The references to this style are numerous and the unpublished drawings preserved in the Archives of the Citadel reveal the inventiveness of the architects in its variety. They also reveal the will of the first director of the museum to celebrate the glorious past of the Christian community in Egypt.

The project of structure surmounted by a neo-Fatimid cupola is realized in the East. This part of the building is equipped with an external staircase in the garden and making it possible to reach the first floor. Gastone Rossi also prepares drawings for the construction of columns adorned with crosses, while the installation of mashrabiyas is already planned for the large openings of the floor. Rossi also realized the plan of the interior garden in 1920 with the organization of the different paths and the installation of a in the center.

Figure 2: Inner courtyard of the “Old wing” of the Coptic Museum with the neo-Fatimid cupola.
Figure 2: Inner courtyard of the “Old wing” of the Coptic Museum with the neo-Fatimid cupola.

The whole organization of these buildings is nevertheless called into question by the subsequent acquisition of lands further north. Built in the 1920s and inaugurated in 1929, the building that now hosts the entrance of the museum is dedicated to the presentation of icons and frescoes. This structure has the peculiarity of having a façade directly inspired by that of the Mosque al-Aqmar. This façade offers a rare and beautiful example of Fatimid architecture. Located at the north of the site of the great Fatimid palace in Islamic Cairo, the mosque seems to have been founded by the vizier of the caliph al-Manṣūr in 1125 (Behrens-Abouseif, 1989, p. 72-73). In addition to its atypical plan, the facade of this small mosque reveals many original features from earlier traditions, such as carved panels in the upper part found in the setting of the mosque al-Ḥākim (990-1003). Its current state is the result of work carried out by the Comité. The right part of the facade, which seemed to be missing, was then restored based on the left part preserved. The structure is tripartite. A hull arch with radian motives, in the centre of which is carved a medallion, surmounts the portal. The latter bears the name of the Prophet Muhammad on the periphery and the name of his son-in-law ‘Ali in the centre, marking the attachment of the Fatimids to Shia Islam.

Figure 3: Neo-Fatimid facade of the Coptic Museum.
Figure 3: Neo-Fatimid facade of the Coptic Museum.

In this context of identity building for the in the first half of the twentieth century, Simaika considered Christian art as the matrix of Islamic art, evidenced by his desire to imitate the facade of a Fatimid mosque. For him, it stood as a testimony of the missing Coptic religious architecture. In the new museum room behind the façade, he reaffirmed the pre-eminence of Coptic art and its influence on everything that succeeded it. In his mind, “most Muslims descend from Copts and all enlightened Muslims agree” (Simaika, 1938, p. XI). The type of windows made for the “old wing,” as well as the dome, showed the desire to give the whole building a Coptic architecture as transmitted by Fatimid architecture.

If the entire structure corresponds to the facade of the Fatimid mosque, most of the motives have been replaced by a Christian iconographic vocabulary.

Among all these elements, to understand the reaffirmation of a Coptic identity based on an Islamic reference, it is necessary to dwell on the real novelty that is introduced on this facade, namely the lintel placed above the Neo-Mamluk door. Its decoration comes from a door that was discovered during the restoration by the Comité of the Sitt Barbara in Old Cairo (Auber de Lapierre & Jeudy, 2018, p. 40-51). Walled for a long time, this door is carved on one side with foliage of vines and on the other with human figures. Among these, the upper part of the right side presents a portrait depicting Christ blessing and holding the Holy Scriptures. Two winged characters dressed in floating tunics surround this bust. Under these two figures, two birds are represented on the ground line. On either side of this central image are carved two twisted columns to which curtains are tied. At the ends of the composition, two men dressed in tunics carrying a book on a cruciform binding plate turn to the central figure.

The two men may be Saint Peter and Saint Paul. This door, discovered in 1918 and dated to the 7th-8th centuries, is one of the major pieces preserved in the Coptic Museum. Its decor was scrupulously copied and carved as a door lintel for the new façade. This door was chosen by Simaika to reaffirm the anteriority of Coptic religious architecture.

Figure 4: Neo-Fatimid facade of the Coptic Museum (detail of the central lintel and of the conch).
Figure 4: Neo-Fatimid facade of the Coptic Museum (detail of the central lintel and of the conch).

Sources and Reuse

At the front of this Neo-Fatimid building, which housed the icons during Simaika’s time, as well as inside the room itself, are three fasqiyyat (fountain) that can be stylistically dated from the Mamluk era (Simaika, 1930, p. 33). Pasha mentions that elements from the ruins of the Patriarchal Palace of ḤĀRIT AL-RŪM, including the fasqiyyat, were reused for the Coptic Museum (Simaika, 2017, p. 95-97). Simaika Pasha refers here to the residence that the patriarchs built and used since IV (1660-1675) until Mark VIII (1797-1810) in the south of historic Cairo near Bab Zuweila (Coquin, 1991). A recent article by Magdi Guirguis devoted to the residence of the patriarch provides a precise of the residence and allows for better knowledge of this now disappeared building (Guirguis, 2015, p. 191-216).

Figure 5: Inner courtyard of the “Old wing” with Ottoman mashrabiyas.
Figure 5: Inner courtyard of the “Old wing” with Ottoman mashrabiyas.

It is very useful to compare these documents with a painting by John Frederick Lewis titled “Study for The Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch’s House in Cairo,” painted circa 1864 (London, Tate, N01688; Weeks, 2014, p. 63-70). This work shows with many details the house where Lewis lived during his stay in Cairo in the 1840s. The painter shows a vast raised courtyard in which a taḫtabūš is supported by a column of white marble. The Coptic Patriarch sits with a scribe and among the characters is a Muslim dignitary. Around the fasqiyya in the middle of the courtyard, a boy and a girl seem to feed animals. This might be one of the fountains now preserved in the Coptic Museum. The facades are adorned with elaborately carved corbelled mashrabiyas. Many such palaces existed in Cairo at that time but the very precise description, provided in the documents mentioned above, of the patriarch residence of Ḥārit al-Rūm leads the viewer to hypothesize that it is indeed the same place, even though it was abandoned for security reasons after the departure of the French from Cairo in 1801. In addition, Lewis made several works on his return to England celebrating this palace and the different points of view still correspond with the historical given. The relative good state of the palace, in the mid-nineteenth century, would then explain the reuse of materials for the Coptic Museum nearly a century after its abandonment by the patriarch.

Figure 6: Ceiling of the room Munira (detail of the central cupola), 18th century, Coptic Museum.
Figure 6: Ceiling of the room Munira (detail of the central cupola), 18th century, Coptic Museum.

The most remarkable elements in this heterogeneous assemblage are the ceilings. Among them, that of the room Munira located on the first floor is the most spectacular. This room takes its name from Madame Munira Daoud, daughter of Daoud Bey Takla, who offered the sum of 500 Egyptian pounds in 1920 for the works of this room. Shenouda Bey Bakhoum offered the mashrabiyas that adorn the window. The structure of the ceiling, whose design was drawn by Tavarelli the same year, has a tripartite construction, organized around a central skylight carved muqarnas. The drum is pierced with windows decorated with colored stained glass windows. The vault, staggered in three registers, is painted with floral motives and sea views with villages and boats. The lower part is decorated with a register of muqarnas. On gold, yellow and blue variants, this composition is characteristic of Ottoman painting of the eighteenth century. The edges of the structure are covered with star patterns organized around small cupolas.


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