Transfigurations of Hellenism: Aspects of Late Antique Art in Egypt, AD 250-700

By László Török | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
INTRODUCTION:
A VISIT TO THE COPTIC MUSEUM IN OLD CAIRO

… anyone who has attended closely to the move-
ment of artefacts in a museum will know that the
assumption that, in a museum, artefacts are some-
how static, safe, and out of the territory in which
their meaning and use can be transformed, is demon-
strably false.1

Visiting the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo before the current renovation of the museum’s buildings would have turned their surroundings into a desolate construction area,2 the candid late twentieth-century tourist entered a shady, lush garden opening from the noisy Mari Girgis Street running along the western side of the formidable remains of the Roman fortress of Babylon.3 The old-fashioned garden’s winding palm alleys were lined with ancient marble columns, sculptures and monumental vases. In its centre stood an enchanting Oriental palace decorated with finely carved and inlaid wooden latticework window grilles, or mashrabiya screens, which protected the interior from the scorching sunshine of Egypt.

The surroundings did not fail to cast their spell on the tourist who started his/her visit as if s/he would be allowed to walk through the cabinets housing the collections of a fine patron of art rather than studying the exhibition of a public museum mounted with the sober impartiality of scholarship. Not only the opulent garden and the halls of the palace with their marble tiles and wall panels, ornamental

1 C.S. Smith: Museums, Artefacts, and Meanings. in: P. Vergo (ed.): The New Museology. London 1989 6–21 9.

2 I wrote this chapter in spring 2002.

3 For the tetrarchic military camp, see Pensabene 1993 25 ff.; P. Grossmann – C. Le Quesne – P. Sheehan: Zur römischen Festung von Babylon—Alt-Kairo. AA 1994 271–278; P. Lambert (ed.): Fortifications and the Synagogue: The Fortress of Babylon and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo. London 1994; P. Sheehan: The Roman Fortress of Babylon in Old Cairo. in: Bailey (ed.) 1996 95–97.

-1-

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