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Egypt’s Coptic heritage jeopardized due to lack of funds

Cairo’s Coptic Museum has 18,000 icons, carved stones, frescoes and manuscripts in its 27 halls — but few know about it.

CAIRO — With more than 18,000 icons, carved stones, frescoes and manuscripts in its 27 halls, Cairo’s Coptic Museum boasts one of the largest collections of Coptic artifacts in the world. Yet the lack of a sophisticated security system and an adequate budget makes it difficult to preserve and protect this heritage, let alone carry out an assertive marketing campaign to draw more tourists.

Through manuscripts, frescoes and early Bibles, the museum, in Masr al-Qadima district, displays the history of Christianity in Egypt since the Roman persecution of Christians and later the recognition of Christianity by the Roman Empire. The museum also has an extensive collection Coptic art.

Atef Naguib, the general manager of the Coptic Museum, spoke to Al-Monitor about the history of the museum. According to Naguib, some of the artifacts in the museum had been collected by Gaston Maspero, a French Egyptologist. Maspero, the director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service in the 1880s, then created a room devoted to Coptic art at the Egyptian Museum, also known as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.

"As the number of Coptic pieces in this section increased, the idea to build a special Coptic Museum began to shape up. In 1910, the Coptic Museum was founded by Marcus Simaika Pasha using the pieces collected from Egyptian and foreign artifacts collectors,” said Naguib. He added that both Pope Kyrillos V and King Fuad I encouraged the idea of building a museum for Coptic artifacts, and they became patrons of the museum.

The museum was under the church administration until 1931 and then under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. "In 1947, a new department was built to include other artifacts, and the museum kept expanding,” Naguib said, explaining that it has grown from a single hall near the Hanging Church in Masr al-Qadima district in Cairo to its current 27 halls built in the Coptic style.

The 1992 Cairo earthquake took its toll on the museum, and it was finally closed for repairs in 2001. It did not open until June 26, 2006, when the museum was completely restored and refurbished at a cost of 30 million Egyptian pounds ($5.4 million at the time) under the supervision of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Today, the museum has a total of 18,319 artifacts, Naguib noted.

Yet the museum faces many challenges in terms of budget and security. Naguib said the museum needs an expansion to accommodate the new artifacts and antiquities that were acquired, but it has a very limited budget, which makes further construction, modernization and even maintenance impossible.

“The other problem,” Naguib continued, “is the lack of touristic marketing for the museum. Foreign tourists visit historical churches in Masr al-Qadima, but they do not visit the museum despite its historic significance. This museum is not marketed enough, neither in Egypt nor abroad.”

On April 18, 2016, former French President Francois Hollande visited the Coptic Museum during his visit to Egypt and commended the museum as well as the Coptic history of Egypt.

Ilham Salah, the head of the ministry’s Museums Sector, told Al-Monitor, “The Coptic Museum is the largest collection of Egyptian Coptic artifacts in the country and possibly in the world, but despite its significance, it is still relatively little known by tourists due to poor marketing.”

Salah also stressed that the security system needs improvement and maintenance as the closed-circuit TV security cameras and electronic gates have not been changed since its reopening in 2006.

On Sept. 14, a security guard from the Coptic Museum security staff was arrested while trying to leave with artifacts from the museum. He had chopped off a piece from a wooden door panel that had once belonged to the fifth-century church of St. Barbara in Old Cairo.

During prosecution investigations, the security guard said that he was encouraged because he knew the cameras were not recording at all.

“There is a development and maintenance plan for the security system. The reasons behind the burglary are the weak monitoring technologies, and the staff are neither well-selected nor well-trained and well-supervised,” Salah said.

Salah also confirmed the inadequacy of the museum budget allocated by the Ministry of Antiquities, which is also in debt and going through a financial crisis. “[These] take their toll on museums such as the Coptic Museum,” he added.

Bahgat Fanous, the former director of the Coptic Museum, told Al-Monitor, “The Coptic Museum needs the attention of the Ministry of Tourism and tourism companies because the museum is falling off the marketing map of historical locations in Egypt."

The historic significance of the museum qualifies it to be among the historical tourist attractions, as the museum is located in an area full of historical churches such as the Hanging Church. Although the area attracts tourists, the museum cannot be put in its right place on the map unless its problems are solved,” Fanous added.

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