CAIRO: The ladies of Club International 2 got a sneak peak at renovations being completed at Cairo s Coptic Museum this week with a special visit from Mr. Egyptology himself, Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Started by Hoda Maher, the wife of Egypt s former Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, the club is a social congregation of Egyptian women and the wives of foreign diplomats.
Founded in 1910 by Marcus Simaika Pacha, the museum, which holds Christian relics dating back some 1,600 years and is partially built using pieces of old churches and roof tops discovered along the years, was in desperate need of a facelift. Before, in Egypt, museums were like storage houses, Hawass told the ladies as they began their tour. Now, when you see what we ve done, you ll be amazed. Closed three years ago to restore and upgrade the deteriorating facilities, the museum lured designers from Egypt and a number of European countries interested in taking part in reconstructing this Cairo landmark. President Hosni Mubarak is expected to inaugurate the newly restored museum any day now, according to Hawass. If you saw this museum before, it was awful, admits Hawass. No lighting, no design; darkness. There are some beautiful artifacts which, for the first time, people can now go and really enjoy.
The Coptic Museum was built inside a Babylon Fort known as Qasr El Shamee, or the candles palace, as the towers of the fort were adorned with candles at the beginning of every month. The first artifacts were donated to the Pacha by the Egyptian National Museum so as to kick start his collection.
The four most important museums in the country are the Egyptian National Museum, the Islamic Museum, the Greek-Roman Museum in Alexandria and the Coptic Museum, so it was unacceptable to leave the Coptic Museum in such a poor condition explains Hussein Shaboury, chief designer of restorations.
The complex previously consisted of two separate wings; the original wing, built in 1910, and an extension that was added in 1947. Architects have connected the two wings into one, with each still exhibiting its unique characteristics – the old wing with extremely intricate wood carvings into the ceiling, much of the roof having been taken from actual relics; the new wing exhibiting a newer, sleeker finish.
The important problem we found was to tie together the two wings so that it seems like one grand visit, rather than two says Shaboury. We wanted to accommodate the museum with facilities for the handicapped, so we made elevators to the ground and upper floor, ramps and wheelchair carriers. Today s museum is divided into 12 sections and carries some 16,000 pieces. It is currently a dependency of the Ministry of Culture, though it was run by the Coptic Patriarchate till 1931 AD. There are five churches inside the fortress, which remain open to the public, including the Hanging Church which was built on top of one of the fortress towers, hence its name. The hanging church is the oldest church in all of North Africa. The museum also remains a center for the study of Coptology.
Now we are working on the hanging church. It was a disaster, adds Hawass. They destroyed it with some stupid paintings, but I hired some French restorers and they did a wonderful job. The efforts being done on this museum are impressive and I think it will truly become a center for Christian history in the world.