MURQUS SIMAYKAH (1864-1944)
A public servant and founder of the COPTIC MUSEUM in Cairo. Born to an old Coptic family of clerks and magistrates, he had a distinguished career in the government service, but this was not enough to occupy his time after he reached middle age. He then devoted himself to public affairs in the Legislative Assembly, the Higher Education Council, and the Coptic Community Council, (AL-MAJLIS AL-MILLI), where he was an active and a vocal member. He was awarded the title of pasha for his public service.
From early youth, he was attracted by the numerous and varied remains of the Egyptian heritage, but he was particularly partial to the monuments and objects of the Christian period, which then tended to be neglected for the more grandiose remains of other periods.
In his memoirs, not yet published, he describes how he was influenced by reading Butler, Strzygowsky, and Somers Clarke. The first two of these were to become personal friends, as well as most of the scholars who studied the art and the language of Christian Egypt during his lifetime.
Thanks to his efforts, the ancient Coptic churches were placed under the administration directed by the Commission for the Preservation of Arab Monuments. This commission was established in 1881 and Murqus Simaykah, a member since 1906, later became chairman of its permanent committee; he spared neither time nor effort to ensure the continuity and the high standard of excellence in its work.
The greatest achievement of his life was the creation of the Coptic Museum. This was founded by him in 1908, in a room next to the Church of the Virgin in Old Cairo (al-MU‘ALLAQAH) in order to collect art objects and other remains of Christian Egypt. He was able to interest the enlightened public of Egypt in his enterprise; an imposing list of private subscriptions preceded an annual subvention from the state. The museum was systematically developed through the untiring efforts of its founder and it slowly took on its present form. In 1931, it was put under the control of the ministry of education, without prejudice to the rights of the patriarchate and the churches on its contents.
The constant development of the museum required the building of an important new wing. A significant step was the transfer to the Coptic Museum of the imposing Christian collection from the Egyptian Museum. This collection had been started by G. MASPERO, who was one of the first to call attention to the archaeological and cultural importance of the Christian era of Egypt. In 1983 and 1984, the Antiquities Department completed an important renovation and modernization of the museum.
Murqus Simaykah also devoted much attention to recording and cataloging the Coptic and Christian-Arabic manuscripts in Egypt, with the collaboration of the museum’s librarian, YASSA ‘ABD AL- MASIH. These are preserved in the libraries of the Coptic Museum and of the patriarchates in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as in monasteries and churches. Some institutions, including the SOCIETY OF COPTIC ARCHAEOLOGY, sporadically continued this enterprise, but much remains to be done.
His effigy in bronze stands at the entrance to the museum that was his life’s work.
- Ghali, Mirrit Boutros. “Nécrologie” (Obituary). Bulletin de la Société d’ archéologie 10 (1944):207.
- Simaykah, Murqus. Short Guide to the Coptic Museum and the Principal Churches of Cairo. Cairo, 1937.
MIRRIT BOUTROS GHALI