Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 December 2009
Issue No. 977
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A pilgrim's tale

Nader Habib investigates the truth and the legend behind the cult of one of Egypt's most famous saints

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: the ruins of Abu Mina, the great Basilica discovered by Kaufmann; an ivory box on which are engraved Abu Mina praying with a man and two women; the baptistery of the Basilica;
Grossmann and Anba Selwanes during the 2008 celebration ceremonial; a map of the archaeological site; Kaufmann, the first discoverer of Abu Mina ruins

Peter Grossmann, 76, spent more than four decades excavating the ruins of Deir Abu Mina, known in English as the Monastery of St Menas, in the desert near Mariout. Each year from 1961 to 2002 the German archaeologist would spend between one and three months sifting through the sand, digging up artefacts and generally trying to reconstruct an image of what pilgrims did there 13 centuries ago.

Grossmann was recently honoured for his efforts by the Coptic Church. The committee organising the festivities marking the passage of 17 centuries since the martyrdom of Mar Mina, or St Menas, paid tribute to Grossmann during a seminar held recently at the St Menas Church at Fomm Al-Khalig in Cairo.

Grossmann, who has been a towering figure in Christian archaeology over the past half century, spoke of the highlights of his career at a gathering of fellow archaeologists who came to Cairo for the event.

The modern story of Deir Abu Mina goes back to July 1905, when a German team led by archaeologist Carl Kaufmann discovered the monastery after travelling for 30 days on camel back from the Libyan Desert. A member of the Abu Ali tribe showed Kaufmann pottery fragments found in some desert ruins. Then a Bedouin boy brought a flask inscribed in Greek. The boy led Kaufmann to the site, where the archaeologists found an expanse of ruins that looked like a major settlement. The team soon started documenting the site in sketches and photographs.

Systematic excavation, however, did not begin until November 1905. The team started its work by digging in a semi-circular depression at the northern tip of the ruins. In that area, the expedition found a marble statue that belonged to the saint's tomb. As for the depression, initially thought to be an ancient theatre, preliminary excavation showed it to be a basin connected to the sacred baths of the ancient town. Nearby, another earthen flask was found, raising hopes that this was indeed the fabled town of Mar Mina.

A new phase of excavation began in 1961. According to Grossmann, it was in this phase that the main basilica was unearthed. Back then the basilica was not only one of the largest in Egypt, but in the entire region. Archaeologists working at the site discovered two niches, the older one situated a little to the west of the new one. They concluded that the building had undergone expansion in early times.

The team also noted that some of the sockets of the pillars were dug into the original basement in a way suggesting later alterations. The original basilica contained a nave, but no side aisles. Later on it was incorporated in a bigger structure. At an even later date, two side supports were added to the niche to bear the weight of the half dome above. The additions were technically necessary, but may have distorted the aesthetics of the building.

As the excavation continued, the archaeologists discovered that two sections of the foundation close to the nave were not part of the original structure, but later additions. In 1994, a burial chamber was found in the southeast of the nave, built in a style suggesting it belonged to the earlier part of the building. Just like the basilica, this burial chamber was built of stone.

In 1990, the southeast annexe of the basilica was excavated. Archaeologists found the annexe in a good structural condition, but noticed that it had undergone numerous alterations. The annex contained separate rooms, each with its independent access from outside. A top floor was believed to have been used for administrative purposes or as accommodation for senior clergymen. In an open space situated between the annexe from the church, the team found partitions and basins suggesting possible use for laundry and other services. It was here that several decorative elements of the main building were found, including column bases and capitals embellished with floral and cross patterns. Two incomplete murals were also found.

South of the basilica, the team identified a building of multiple rooms as being of earlier date than the basilica. A cistern was found in the area separating this building from the church. At a later date, a new structure was added into the area situated between the basilica and the centre of the town.

The new structure contained three adjacent rooms running along the southern wall of the basilica, separated with three gates with side columns. A wall was built to the south of that building, creating a triangular open space accessible from a single entrance. It is believed that nearby was a ceremonial palace for the use of the town's dignitaries.

To the southeast of the basilica, archaeologists identified a fort or defensive tower that was connected to several cisterns and storage rooms. Inside the tower, a wine press was found.

The baptistery is believed to have gone through several renovations. The first baptistery was built on the western side of the small basilica. It consisted of a small room containing the baptism basin, and an adjoining room for the pre-baptism rituals. Other rooms were added on, and later a larger baptistery was created. The latter contained a square room adjoined on three sides to pre- and post-baptism service areas. The need for a larger baptistery indicates that either the church's popularity grew overtime, or the rituals of the baptism became more complex.

As archaeologists continued to dig, they discovered layers of a mediaeval settlement that seems to have been built on top of fifth- or sixth-century brick buildings. They also found a sixth century defensive wall at the southernmost part of the town.

In 1990, a full survey of the mediaeval buildings indicated the existence of a farm containing five houses and three or four defence towers on the southeast side of the monastery. It was noted that the entrances of the buildings were shaped in a right angle, suggesting a defensive purpose. The design of these buildings was quite different from the familiar pattern in other buildings, indicating that the inhabitants were from a different culture.

In 1992, more residential houses were found, each equipped with an open air yard and containing two separate dwellings. To the east of the houses, the archaeologists identified a commercial shop approached from the west through a cobbled alley. The shop contained underground storage places.

Four bakeries were found near the market area. An 11th-century structure was found to contain a bakery and a residence for the baker.

A wealth of pottery shards were found in a house dated to the early seventh century, right before the Persian invasion of Egypt. The house contains a colonnaded hall, with a newer wall surrounding the western side and a newer staircase at the eastern side. Pieces of small columns, of the type normally used to decorate windows, were found in the house. Excavations in this house, which is situated opposite the baths in the town's colonnaded thoroughfare, were completed in 1994.

Also in 1994, a brick building was discovered to the east of the basilica. Parts of that building were hidden under the southeast extension of the basilica. A narrow corridor linked the basilica to the inner court, where the residential cells of the monks were situated.

Although the main church was excavated in the mid-1970s, it was only in 2000 that two courts were discovered on both sides of the church. Each of these courts had its own entrance to the church. The northern entrance had an ordinary door, while the southern entrance had a large door preceded by a paved corridor. Unlike most churches, this church lacked a door on its western side.

Several houses were unearthed near the church, each with one entrance and one room. These houses are believed to be monastic cells. Because their ground level is lower than that of the church, they might be older.

The colonnaded street runs for about 120 metres. It starts just west of the pilgrimage centres and becomes wider as it approaches the church. Between 2000 and 2001, several buildings have been unearthed to the east of this street.

According to Grossmann, recent land reclamation projects of the past 15 years have raised the water table to a level that prevents further excavation and restoration. As water seeps into the subsoil, many of the buildings have become particularly vulnerable. As a result, the expedition team and the authorities have reburied some of the important buildings, including the crypt. Much of the site is now off limits to the public.

In August 2000, Grossmann explained the perils of underground water to a meeting of the International Association for Coptic Studies (IACS) in Munich. Consequently, the IACS pleaded for UNESCO intervention. In October 2001, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre called for concerted efforts to save the area, which is one of Egypt's top five historical sites.

In an attempt to resolve the problem, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) asked a British company, which was responsible for the irrigation system in the area around the site, to dig drainage trenches around the site in order to relieve the water pressure. This worked for a while, but the water came back.

Geological experts from Alexandria University have suggested that the water may have originated at ancient water sources sloping towards the site. UNESCO says that it may have to remove the site from its World Heritage List unless the problem is solved.

Finding a solution may not be easy. Nearly the entire site is underground and vulnerable to water seepage. To use Grossmann's words, the site is "heading to catastrophe".

One of the events related to St Menas's commemoration was held in the Coptic Cathedral at Abbasiya, where Pope Shenouda III honoured the Society for the Lovers of Coptic Heritage for its efforts in promoting Coptic heritage over the past 38 years. Other events were organised at the Mar Mina Church in Fomm Al-Khalig and Mar Mina Monastery in Mariout.

Speaking at the Mar Mina Monastery event, before Pope Shenouda III, Anba Kyrollus Avamina, bishop of the Mar Mina Monastery, thanked the Egyptian government for spending LE19 million to save the area from the encroachment of underground water. He said that the monastery planned to build a wall around the site at a cost of LE25 million.

THE MARBLE TOWN OF MAR MINA: Discovered by Kaufmann in 1905, the town of Mar Mina is located nearly 50km south of Alexandria, halfway to Wadi Al-Natrun. It sits right on the old caravan road linking Alexandria to Siwa. The town covers an area of 40,000 square metres or more. Aside from the markets, the houses, the monasteries, and assorted chapels, the town's main church has attracted ample praise from ancient historians. One chronicler called it "the greatest Egyptian church". Another described it the "Acropolis of Christendom".

The church began with a small tomb for St Menas in 309. Most probably, a small chapel was created over the tomb in the early fourth century. The first church built on the site perhaps dates to the mid- fourth century. Inside the church, there is a marble staircase leading to the crypt that contains the saint's relics and icon. The crypt is connected to a small gallery with a dome that may have once been ornamented with golden mosaic.

When the church became too small for the congregation, a larger church was built on its eastern side. This happened in the early years of the fifth century by orders of Emperor Arcadius (395-408). The emperor had the church decorated with expensive marble, mosaics, and carvings. The church had three aisles separated by 56 columns; the aisles were 60 metres in length and 16 in width. The sockets of the columns can still be seen in the church, and some of the capitals and shafts are still scattered around the site. Parts of the columns are currently on display in Frankfurt and the Alexandria Graeco-Roman Museum.

The fame of the site is attributed to the healing miracles associated with the nearby springs. In Egypt, St Menas is often referred to as the agaybi or miracle-worker. Archaeologists working on the site have found thousands of flasks stamped with the saint's liking. Pilgrims to the site used to carry the flasks of what they considered holy water back home for their sick relatives. The town had a water network that took water from the holy spring to various basins, cisterns, baths, and hostels around the site.

The monastery situated north of the church is perhaps the largest in early Christianity. Close to the town, farmers grew wine, fruit, and other crops to supply the vibrant town. But the town may not have survived past the ninth century.

According to Anba Saweris Ibn Al-Moqaffa, who was bishop of Ashmunin in the second half of the 10th century, the Abbasid Caliph Al-Motawakkel (846-861) sent an emissary to Egypt to bring marble columns and slabs for Baghdad buildings. The emissary, it is said, confiscated much of the church's wealth of marble columns and tiles.

Abu Al-Makarem, a 13th-century chronicler, says that the Mar Mina Church in Mariout was still standing in his time. The last mention of the church, however, was in the Middle Ages.

A modern engraving relating St Abu Mina's biography at St Mina Church in Shubra

THE COMPLETE story of St Menas came to light in 1910, when a library of Coptic manuscripts was discovered in an archaeological hill in Fayoum. The story is written among 60 volumes by Anba Yohanna, archbishop of Alexandria, in about the year 893. In church terminology, the story of a saint is called a meemar, a Syriac word that means "say" or "essay". This particular meemar was made up of two sections. The first section told the saint's story from birth to martyrdom. The second told the story of how his remains came to be buried in Mariout and how the church complex grew in the fifth and sixth centuries.

According to the meemar, St Menas came from a noble Egyptian family. His father, Eudoxius, was the brother of the governor of the town of Nakiyos. St Menas's uncle, Anatolias, was jealous of his brother's success and contrived to banish him to a town in Libya. There Euphemia, wife of Eudoxius, prayed to an icon of the Virgin Mary to give her a child. As she prayed, a voice from the Virgin's icon said, "Amen". When she became pregnant, she named her child Mena, a play on the word "amen".

Mena's parents died while he was a teenager, and at 15 he joined the army. However he left the service when Diocletian banned Christianity. Having distributed all his money among the poor, he set out to live in the desert. Then one day he heard a voice urging him to sacrifice his life for his faith. Obeying the voice, he went back to the town, confessed his faith in a public gathering, and was subsequently tortured and killed.

Stories about the details of Mena's martyrdom abound. One story has him placed over a fire for two hours, but he felt no pain. Another story tells how his executioners tried to saw his body in half, but the saw melted like butter as it touched the saint's body. Finally, an army commander chopped off the saint's head. After his death, it is said that his torturers threw his body in a fire, but his followers saved it from the flames.

A few years later, the remains of the saint were being removed by some of his followers to Alexandria. The ship transporting the remains was attacked by sea monsters "with long necks and heads like those of camels". Every time the monsters attacked the ship, a bolt of fire came forth from the saint's remains to smite the monsters.

After the boat docked, the remains of the saint were loaded on camels and travelled south from Alexandria. The camels bearing the remains stopped in the desert near Mariout and refused to move. A chapel was built there, which drew pilgrims who believed in St Menas's miraculous ability to cure illnesses. A complete town with baths, markets, and religious compounds developed as a result.

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