Attractions in Cairo

Coptic Museum

Coptic Museum


Mary George St, Old Cairo, Egypt

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Venue: Coptic Museum    When: Daily

More than an archive of Coptic history, the Coptic Museum offers a case study in the formative years of a major religion that grew, intermingled, and sometimes borrowed from that of an ancient religion that it was replacing.

Coptic was the name given by 16th and 17th-century Europeans to the Christian minority in Egypt, and to their language, the latest phase in the history of the ancient Egyptian language. Following suggestions at the end of the 19th century, in 1914 the Coptic Museum was founded by Marcus Simaika (1864-1944), a wealthy Copt and leading figure in encouraging Coptic interest in the Coptic past. The Church provided the land for the museum, in Old Cairo, against the walls of the ancient Roman fortress, as well as many of the exhibits.

With most of the ancient churches of Egypt destroyed or rebuilt, the Coptic Museum is the only chance to see this part of both Egypt's and Christianity's history. It houses the world's most important examples of Coptic art. Many artefacts show how old representation techniques were used by the first Christians. Examples of this is how the ankh-symbol (like a cross with a loop on top) was reworked into a Christian cross, how Mary with a sucking infant Jesus was shaped after the prototype of Isis breastfeeding Horus and how crosses and Horus hawks were put together on a basket-weave capital.

The most important part of the museum is probably the collection of scripts, which include papyrus sheets of the Gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi in 1945, and the Coptic Psalter, the oldest preserved codex in the world.

Cairo Information

Cairo, which Egyptians proudly call the Mother of All Cities, spreads along the banks of the River Nile for 40km (25 miles) north to south, the largest metropolis in Africa. Travellers through the ages have been both fascinated and repelled by Cairo. Visitors are intrigued by its twisting streets, medieval buildings, oriental bazaars and Islamic architecture of carved domes and sculpted minarets, while being appalled by its dirt, pollution, noise, crowds and constant demands for baksheesh (gratuities). Paying baksheesh is the local custom, however, so expect to give little and often. Culture shock is part of the experience of Cairo and can at times be wearing. But as is written in the ancient tales of the 1,001 Nights, He who hath not seen Cairo, hath not seen the world.

Cairo is a disorienting place but most of the city lies on the east bank of the River Nile. Visitors often feel most comfortable finding their feet in the Westernised downtown district of central Cairo around Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square). This is a public transport hub, separated from the Nile by the massive Nile Hilton Hotel. Here too is the city centres main attraction, the Egyptian Museum. Opposite downtown is the Nile island of Gezira, with the island of Roda just to the south. The Pyramids of Giza, however, are on the west bank of the river, some 18km (11 miles) from the centre. Old Cairo lies south of central Cairo, while Islamic Cairo encompasses a large area to the east. The city is growing rapidly, both in terms of population and geographical area, with new suburbs expanding on its outskirts, especially into the Eastern Desert. Northwest of the city centre, near the airport, the districts of Sheraton Heliopolis, Zamalk and Maadi are home to many of Cairos wealthy (and the Presidential Palace), while to the west, the middle-class suburb of Giza has expanded to within sight of the Pyramids.

Although Cairo today is Egypts capital and largest city, teeming with some 18 million people, its position of prominence in the long timeline of Egyptian history is relatively recent. It did not even exist when the pyramids at Giza were constructed. Then, the town of Memphis, 24km (15 miles) to the south, was the Pharaonic capital. Cairo was not founded until the Romans rebuilt an old Persian fortress along the Nile in AD116, which was known as Babylon-in-Egypt, in todays Old Cairo district.

From the late ninth century onwards, a succession of Arab rulers made their mark on the city: Ibn Tulun built his royal city el-Qatai, the Fatimids built the walled city of el-Qahira, from which Cairo takes it name. In the 13th century, the Mameluks, a caste of Turkish soldier-slaves, rose to power. They were succeeded by the Ottomans, the French under Napoleon and finally the British. The birth of modern Cairo came in 1863, when the ruler Ismail expanded the city along the Nile in the style of the great European cities. After the country returned to Egyptian rule in 1952, Cairo rose to the forefront as the capital of the Arab world.

Cairo is also called the City of 1,000 Minarets and it is the exotic skyline of graceful domes and towering minarets that casts a spell of magic over the grinding reality of the metropolis. Most visitors come to see the great Pyramids of Giza, the treasures of Tutankhamuns tomb and other wonders in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, as well as to shop in the sprawling Khan al-Khalili marketplace. There are also dozens of mosques, Coptic churches, smaller museums and winding streets to explore. This tourism is Egypts key source of foreign income, while the public sector, including government and social services and the military, makes up the largest industry. The city is also the centre of a growing trade, finance and insurance sector.

During the summer, temperatures in Cairo can climb to 38 degrees Celsius, though the low humidity is some consolation. The best time to visit is between October and April. Occasional downpours occur in January and February, while during March and April the khamseen, a strong, hot, dry wind, blows in periodically from the desert.

Cairo Tourist Office

Address: Misr Travel Tower, Abbassia Square, Cairo, Egypt

Phone: +20 (0) 2 285 4509 or +20 (0) 2 284 1970


Looking for things to do around Cairo? Here are some of the events and attractions happening in the area.

African Cup of NationsJan - Feb 2008 (biennial)
Moulid of Sayyida Zeinab Moulid of Sayyida ZeinabOct 2007 (annual)
Sayeda Zeinab Mosque
Aida at Giza Aida at GizaOct 2007 (annual)
Pyramids at Giza
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