The Ministry of Antiquities has sent a detailed report on the condition of the World Heritage Sites of the St Abu Mena Monastery and the Memphis Necropolis to UNESCO in Paris in order to signal the work achieved over the past year at both sites since the 40th session of the UN organisation’s World Heritage Committee in Istanbul last June.
Supervisor of the International Organisations Department at the Ministry of Antiquities Yasmine Al-Shazli said the report highlighted the cooperation between the Ministry of Antiquities and the ministries of agriculture and irrigation to find solutions to the problem of the high water table at the St Abu Mena Monastery, developing pumps to decrease the level and thus take the monastery off the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger.
The report also presents a review of the Saqqara Necropolis Development Project at the Memphis Necropolis financed by the French Development Agency. The International Organisations Department at the ministry plans to develop the Mit Rahina site and carry out further excavation work at the Memphis Necropolis, she said.
Al-Shazli said that the St Abu Mena Monastery was an important Early Christian sanctuary in Wadi Al-Natroun near Alexandria. It was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979 and includes a baptistery, basilicas, public buildings, streets, houses and workshops.
In 2001, it was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger because the local soil, exclusively clay, becomes semi-liquid with excess water. When in a dry state, the soil is hard and capable of supporting buildings, but the destruction of numerous cisterns in the area has entailed the collapse of several overlying structures. Huge underground cavities have opened in the north-western region of the town.
The risk of collapse has been so high that the ministry has been forced to fill the foundations of some of the most endangered buildings with sand, including the crypt of the monastery with the tomb of the saint and close them to the public.
The Supreme Council of Antiquities, now the Ministry of Antiquities, also tried to counteract this phenomenon by digging trenches, and it enlarged the protected area around the site in the hope of lowering the pressure of the water. These measures, however, proved to be insufficient, taking into account the scale of the problem and the limited resources available.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee approved a technical assistance grant to assist the Egyptian authorities in identifying ways of reducing the level of the water table and preventing further damage to the ancient structures. Rising groundwater levels is a problem that is increasingly common throughout the Mediterranean, linked to urban growth and agricultural development.
In July 2016, Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany visited the site to inspect the work being done and ordered the rapid start of the conservation project. Wadala Abul-Ela, head of the Projects Department at the ministry, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the project would start soon after the completion of the bids.
Abu Mena city, originally neighbouring the monastery, was once a great centre of pilgrimage from the fifth to seventh centuries CE. Thousands of people came from all over the Christian world seeking the site’s reputed healing powers. Pilgrims took home sacred water in tiny pottery ampoules (shaped like two-handled jars and stamped with the figure of the Saint between two camels), or oil from the lamp that burned before the tomb of the saint.
Bishop Kirolos of the monastery said that Abu Mena was a soldier-saint who had died a martyr’s death in western Asia. His cult gained popularity when according to legend his body was placed on a camel and borne inland to be buried. At a certain spot the camel refused to move further, a sign taken as divine revelation that he should be buried there.
Wind-blown sand eventually covered the tomb, and no trace was left. Some centuries later, a shepherd observed that a sick lamb that had crossed the spot had become well. When the remains of the saint were discovered, a church was built over his grave.
The reputation of the place spread far and wide. Pilgrims came in scores, and the stories of the wondrous cures they carried home attracted more pilgrims. Soon the original church was too small to accommodate the number of visitors, and the Roman Emperor Arcadius (395-408 CE) built another church, to which the saint’s relics were transferred.
Subsequent emperors erected other buildings, and eventually the monastery’s great basilica was built, to which thousands of pilgrims flocked from as far afield as England, France, Germany, Spain and Turkey.
Cures were attributed to the therapeutic effects of water from springs in the limestone rocks (they have since dried up), and baths were built flanking the church. When the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great’s only daughter, who suffered from leprosy, was reputedly healed at the site, its fame spread throughout the Roman world.
A great city grew, flourished, and eventually disappeared. The city was written up by classical writers, but was thought to be legendary until in 1961 the German Archaeological Institute excavated the area and discovered one of the largest and most ancient pilgrimage sites in the world.
The ruins cover one square kilometre where the main colonnaded pilgrimage route of the early Christians has been identified. It had shops and workshops to the left and right, leading to the Church of the Martyr built during the Justinian era (528-565 CE). The ruins suggest that pilgrims gathered in a great square surrounded by hostels. There, monks could take care of the sick who came to the shrine to be healed. There are also ruins of two large bath houses and wells.
A new monastery was later built, its lofty surrounding wall and twin towers situated no more than 500 metres from the ancient site.
MEMPHIS NECROPOLIS: Memphis was the capital of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, and today the site contains some extraordinary funerary monuments, including rock tombs, ornate mastabas, temples and pyramids. In ancient times, it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The Memphis Necropolis, covering Saqqara, goes from the Giza Plateau to Dahshur.
Mohamed Abdel-Fattah, director of the International Organisations Department at the Ministry of Antiquities, said the necropolis was put on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979 and includes a large number of monuments, among them the Giza Pyramids and 38 pyramids in Abusir, Saqqara and Dahshur, as well as 9,000 tombs that date back to the First Dynasty to 30th Dynasty of ancient Egypt.
Some of the tombs date to the early Graeco-Roman era. The tombs of pyramid builders and artisans have also been found in Memphis, as well as the remains of beer and bread factories.
According to legend, the city was founded by the pharaoh Menes to be the capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom. It remained an important city throughout ancient times, as it occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Nile Delta and was home to intense activity.
Its principal port, Peru-nefer, harboured a high density of workshops, factories and warehouses that distributed food and merchandise throughout the ancient kingdom. During its golden age, Memphis thrived as a regional centre for commerce, trade and religion.
Memphis was believed to be under the protection of the god Ptah, the patron of craftsmen. Its great temple, Hut-ka-Ptah, was one of the most prominent structures in the city.
The city’s eventual downfall is believed to have been due to the loss of its economic significance in late antiquity following the rise of Alexandria. Its religious significance also diminished after the abandonment of the ancient religion following the Edict of Thessalonica at the very end of the classical period.
The site is now an open-air museum.