The Coptic Faith emerged in Egypt over 2,000 years ago and the Coptic Orthodox Church still makes up a sizable minority of the Egyptian population today. Several Coptic churches now call the Greater Toronto Area their home, but in 1987 Toronto became the first city in all of North America to host a Coptic church: St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church. The St. Marks parish in Toronto was first established in 1964 by Father Marcos A. Marcos, with the first building completed in 1987. The church was recently expanded with the construction of a second, larger church building located on Steeles Avenue East nearby. The current building saw inspiration from the Saint Mark’s Cathedral off Ramses Street in Cairo’s Abbassia district, which was built in the 1960s. Toronto’s St. Mark’s is now home to the Coptic Museum of Canada and the Nile Scribes are pleased to share our visit to the collection earlier this week.
Establishing the Museum
In 1996, members of the church, led by Father Marcos A. Marcos, established a small museum of Coptic manuscripts and antiquities that displayed just over a hundred objects. The collection has since grown to more than 1,400 objects covering the vast history of the Egyptian Copts in Egypt and beyond. Today, the museum is located on the second floor of the original church building in an expansion that was inaugurated on November 27, 1996 by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III as St. Mark’s Coptic Museum. It was not until July 9, 2000, however, that the museum’s doors opened to the public with Helene Moussa joining as Curator in the early 2000s. The museum changed its name on July 20, 2018 to the Coptic Museum of Canada to emphasise more vividly its relevance to the Coptic diaspora across Canada and the world.
The museum grew out of the original aspiration of Father Marcos A. Marcos to cultivate Coptic heritage in North America. Ordained in Egypt in 1964, he moved to Toronto shortly afterward and established St. Mark’s parish where he collected Coptic objects and manuscripts over the following decades. A key aspect of his collecting activities was the close relationships he enjoyed with many Coptic families who donated important objects from their own collections – a theme of the continuity of Coptic tradition would become a hallmark of the museum’s collection.
Highlights of the Collection
The Coptic Museum of Canada’s collection is as communal and regional as it is universal and eclectic. Objects such as old candlesticks from the Episcopalian church where the community met originally before construction of their own church are testaments of the history of St. Mark’s Church in Toronto. On the other hand, the collection tells the history of Coptic artists on the universal stage – featuring vibrant icons written by famed neo-Coptic iconographer Isaac Fanous, well-known Cairo artist Victor A. Fakhoury, and Toronto’s own Seham Guirguis. Curator Helene Moussa is particularly proud of the ten Marguerite Nakhla paintings in the collection. After all, Nakhla was an important Coptic modernist artist whose work has been displayed at the Egyptian Modern Art Museum in Cairo.
The foundation of the museum was Father Marcos A. Marcos’ own collection of paintings and objects that weave together Coptic creativity and heritage in a confident narrative: objects like the Iota Cross that was painted by the young Pope Makarius III. Iota Crosses are made using the tenth letter of the Coptic alphabet and the first letter in the name of Jesus, iota, to form a mosaic of smaller crosses in the shape of larger crosses. Further, the collection extends beyond Egypt as well: the museum displays an illustrated manuscript of the Psalms of David written on goatskin in Ge’ez, the classical language of Ethiopia.
While not an archaeology museum, the collection does contain two ampullae, or flasks, of Saint Menas found in Alexandria. Saint Menas was an Egyptian soldier in the Roman army who was killed for his faith in the late third century. Pilgrim flasks like these bearing the image of Saint Menas standing between two camels were produced in the Egyptian Delta at Deir Abu Mena but have been found all over the Mediterranean region. Pilgrims to the site of Deir Abu Mena, where Saint Menas was buried, used these flasks to transport holy oil and water from the site following their pilgrimages.
One display case features jewellery and other personal adornment items crafted by Coptic artists from ancient to modern times. A number of necklaces are labelled as originating from Amarna – these beads and broken faience pieces were creatively restrung by a modern artist. A very intriguing example is the necklace that is third from the left: small circular beads of faïence are between broken pieces of rings. A small amulet (on the left of the photo above) shows the goddess Isis suckling a child Horus. The amulet was reset by a recent artist within a golden frame to turn the amulet into a necklace. In a small saucer beside these, precious stones collected in Egypt are also on display – highlighting the many different stones and gems ancient and modern Egyptians use.
Toward the back of the collection are several drawers which the visitor can pull out to look at smaller objects. Some drawers contain coins from various parts of Egyptian history that go well with other display cases nearby featuring coins. The drawers toward the top also feature stamps. Several were released in commemoration of the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s and showcase ancient Egypt-inspired designs. One shows the outside façade of Ramesses II’s great temple at Abu Simbel that would eventually be dismantled altogether and moved to safer ground. Another stamp shows Trajan’s Kiosk near Philae Temple. Today, large numbers of visitors return to Philae Temple on Agilkia Island near Aswan, where the kiosk masks a well-known corner.
This blog is the first in a series on the Coptic Museum of Canada and its collections. The Nile Scribes are grateful for the wonderful tour of the collection by Curator Helene Moussa and for permission to use photographs of the collection in our blog.