Today Wednesday 22 June sees the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrate one of the most widely loved saints, Mar-Mina (St Menas). Mar-Mina was an Egyptian military officer in the Roman army who was martyred for his Christian faith in the 4th century. The monastery that today stands close to his tomb in the Western Desert south of Alexandria—the site is known as Abu Mena—is a pilgrimage site for all who love and revere him. Yet this site is endangered by underground water which now fully submerges the saint’s tomb.
The Abu Mena monastery southwest Alexandria, like many monuments in Egypt, is under threat from rising groundwater levels.
This site of tremendous archaeological importance was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List at the World Heritage Committee’s third session, held in Cairo and Luxor in 1979. At its 25th session in Helsinki in 2001, the Committee placed Abu Mena on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
Six other landmarks in Egypt are listed as heritage sites: the Memphis necropolis; the Pyramids of Giza; the Luxor archaeological region; Abu Simbel Temple; Islamic Cairo (noted for its historically important mosques and other Islamic monuments); and St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Of these, Abu Mena is the only one that is considered endangered.
Abu Mena is located some 70 km southwest Alexandria. The monastery commemorates an Alexandrian soldier, Menas, who had been an officer in Diocletian’s army and was posted, as tradition says, to Phrygia in Anatolia in what is today Turkey.
St Menas is held dearly in Egyptian hearts. He was born in AD285, the son of Edoxis, a local governor of the Roman Empire, and followed in his father’s footsteps to become a soldier and an officer of the empire. Brought up as a Christian, he refused to participate in the massacre of Christians ordered by the emperor Diocletian in 303 and fled into the desert, where he lived devoutly for five years. But he believed he saw his fate revealed to him in a vision, and returned to face martyrdom. He was martyred in 309; his death was long drawn out and he endured great suffering. This was just a few years before the Emperor Constantine and his co-emperor in the East, Licinius, effectively legalised Christianity under the AD313 Edict of Milan.
Tradition says that the martyr’s followers intended to take his remains from Phrygia to Alexandria by ship, then along the caravan route to his birthplace at Pentapolis. While at sea, monsters with long necks emerged and tried to devour the body, but miraculous flames protected it and drove them back. Once at Alexandria, the saint’s remains were placed on camelback and the westward journey to Pentapolis started. At a certain spot southwest Alexandria the camel knelt and refused to move on, so this was taken to be Menas’s preordained burial site and there he was laid to rest.
As time passed the burial site was forgotten till a local goatherd discovered that a sick goat made an extraordinary recovery after bathing and drinking from a spring at this spot. Word went out about the miraculous spring and other cures occurred, the most famous involving a princess who had suffered from a long sickness. The relics of the saint were dug out, and pilgrims began to flock to the shrine to drink the healing, miraculous water.
Not long afterward a church was erected at the site which became a sacred place of pilgrimage.
Towards the end of the 4th century a cathedral was added and the site soon developed into a major centre for Christian worship. A town grew around the church to minister to the pilgrims, replete with hotels, bathhouses, and shops. At its zenith, the pilgrimage site was, after Rome, the largest pilgrim centre in the Roman Christian world.
Pilgrims would take home tiny terracotta flacons, known as ampullae, stamped with an image of two kneeling camels and filled with holy water. These flasks were found all over the ancient world, confirming the shrine’s fame and importance; numerous specimens of them are displayed in many a far-flung museum.
The prosperity was brought to a halt by the breakdown in law and order that followed the collapse of Roman rule in North Africa. Tribesmen overran the provinces and the church and its pilgrims fell victim to robbers, while the beautiful gardens of the old monastery were abandoned to the desert.
The town was destroyed in the 8th or 9th century, although the basilica was left standing among the ruins and a handful of monks may have stayed on. St Menas’s remains were removed from the shrine and ended up in a safe hiding place till the 20th century.
Modern day monastery
In 1905 – 1907, German archeologist Carl Maria Kaufmann excavated the Abu Mena site. Not many remains of the original 4th -5th century city were standing, but the foundations of most major buildings, such as the great basilica, were disclosed. The German expedition uncovered once splendid buildings; even the inns were faced with Italian marble. There were foundations of elegant houses, two bathhouses, and several shops, all in the late Roman style typical of the 6th century. To the south lay two basilicas, the inns, and the square known as the Gathering Yard. Many of the finds from these excavations are displayed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, although many more were taken to Germany.
A modern-day monastery complex was re-founded in 1960 by Pope Kyrillos VI on a site lying to the east of the original church. In 1962 Pope Kyrillos transferred the remains of St Menas to the monastery’s new church of St Samuel the Confessor. Soon Abu Mena was again famous for miracles, and the church became known as the church of the Miracleworker. Pope Kyrillos himself was buried in the church in 1972, eighteen months after his death.
Reducing groundwater levels
During the last decade of the 20th century, a land-reclamation programme for the agricultural development of the region southwest Alexandria, funded by the World Bank, caused a dramatic rise in the water table. The local clay soil, which was hard and capable of supporting buildings when in a dry state, had the potential of becoming semi-liquid with excess water.
The destruction of numerous cisterns in various parts of the ancient city led to the collapse of several overlying structures. Huge underground cavities opened in the north-western region of the town, and the risk of collapse was so high that the authorities were forced to fill in the bases of some of the most endangered buildings—including the crypt of Abu Mena, which contained the tomb of the saint—with sand and close them to the public.
Father Thaddeus Ava-Mina, the monk responsible for archaeology at the monastery told Watani that the Ministry of Antiquities had in 2010 planned a EGP50 million project to reduce the groundwater level in the region on an area of 290 feddans. Shortage of financial resources, however, led to failure in regular maintenance. Malfunction in the pumps stalled efforts to lift the groundwater, and St Menas’s tomb remains submerged.
In March 2014 the World Heritage Organisation offered the Antiquities Ministry a grant of USD100,000 to help restore the monastery. Despite the work that has already been done on that front, a lot more waits to be done. Reducing the level of groundwater is the first step, after which the old walls are tested to find how far they lean and determine the structural balance of the buildings. Architectural and photographic documentation follow, wall cracks are treated and piling is installed at the bases. Eroded stones are restored and the walls insulated to protect from rain.
In their book Alexandria and the Egyptian Mediterranean, published by AUC press in 2006, Jenny Jobbins and Mary Megalli describe the modern monastery complex. “The St Menas and Pope Kyrillos cathedral dominates the complex. Its construction began in 1970, and it is in the shape of a cross, the four points representing the apostles, and the dome heaven. The interior is finished in Italian marble, with floors of polished Aswan granite. The motif of St Menas, showing the saint beside two kneeling camels and his church, is repeated here as elsewhere within the monastery.
“The resident fathers are mostly university graduates; many having studies abroad, and pursue their individual studies as well as participating in the running of the monastery and its community. The walls enclose 100 acres of land on which the fathers grow olives, figs, nuts, and vegetables. At first there was no water to be found, since the holy spring of St. Menas seems to have dried up not long after the original town was abandoned, but a canal was installed to bring water for cultivation throughout the entire area.
“In the southwest corner of the monastery grounds is the church of St. Julian the Hagiographer, the only church in Egypt dedicated to this saint.
“Pilgrims visit the monastery from all over Egypt and from many other parts of the world. Babies whose birth is attributed to the blessing of St Menas are brought here to be baptised in white, hooded robes. Among their other duties the monks give time to pastoral work, and counsel and comfort the perplexed.”
Abu Mena’s still welcomes pilgrims, except during Lent. The feast days of St Menas are celebrated on 15 Hatour (24 November) and 15 Pa’ouna (22 June) and are attended by huge numbers who enjoy the saint’s patronage.
22 June 2016