Some time ago, I wrote about the fourth-century martyr St. Menas — and about his shrine, which some folks have called “The Lourdes of the Ancient World.” Al Ahram has a big feature on archeology at Abu Mina:
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…