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January 14, 2013



While researching for an article on Christian late antique shrouds from Antinopolis (Antinoe), I stumbled upon a very captivating French documentary Le mystère des momies coptes d’Antinoé (The Mystery of the Coptic Mummies of Antinoe), which was produced by ARTE France, Cargo Films, in 2012, and directed by Jackie Bastide. The occasion was the opening of the Louvre new rooms that have been devoted to the Eastern Mediterranean in the Roman Empire.

At the end of the 19th century many mummies and a collection of Coptic textiles and delicate objects were discovered by the French Archaeologist Albert Gayet (1856 – 1916) at Antinoe, in Egypt. Antinoe (Antinopolis)[1] was an Egyptian city founded by the Roman Emperor Hadrian around 130 AD. It was called by the Copts Ansena. As Christianity spread in Egypt this city became mainly Christian and a famous cathedral was built in it. Emperor Diocletian, the great persecutor of the Copts, made Antinoe the capital of Upper Egypt, and the governor of that part used to reside there. Coptic martyriologies from that era mention Ansena several times as Christians were taken to the Upper Egyptian capital to stand trial before the court of the notorious Roman Governor Arianus. The city was a prosperous magnificent city that survived until the Arab invasion in the 7th century when it went into oblivion.

When Gayet began his exploration in Antinoe’s necropolis in 1896, he recovered thousands[2] of mummies from different periods during the five hundred centuries life-time of the city, and collected hundreds of tapestry fragments and shrouds and other highly interesting objects. When he transported the mummies to Paris, they mesmerised Europe and America and created what was described as “Coptic Craze”. The Coptic textiles influenced artists such as Matisse and Renoir and inspired leading Paris fashion designers. But after a while the interest waned and Gayet’s discoveries were stored away and neglected. Today out of the thousands mummies only 39 have survived, dispersed in various French museums. This treasure is now the subject of a scientific study led by the Louvre.

Through the study of the mysterious treasure of Antinoe’s mummies and tapestries, the film studies history and architecture of the rich city, its people, early Egyptian Christianity, Coptic churches and monasteries in the area, Coptic burial customs and Coptic textiles – a fascinating civilisation rooted in ancient Egyptian civilisation and a continuation to it.

Unfortunately the documentary is not English subtitled. The reader can watch below first a trailer with English subtitles and then the whole 52 minutes French documentary:


[1] Its place now is a small village called Sheikh ‘Ibada.

[2] Estimated at over 40,000.


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