The remains of Egypt’s oldest Christian church, Abu Mena Church, stand in the Burg Al-Arab district of Alexandria, where it was built over the tomb of the Christian martyr Menas (Abu Mena) who died in 296 THIS. The site includes the remains of the church, baptistery, basilicas, public buildings, streets, monasteries, houses and workshops, all of which were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.
Today most of these remains are locked away in scaffolding, with many individual items being transferred to storage galleries.
The site was placed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger in 2001, largely due to concerns about the effects of rising water tables. Egypt is currently taking steps to have the site delisted due to a successful restoration and groundwater lowering project.
Earlier this week, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany embarked on a tour of the Abu Mena archaeological site to inspect the completed project and ongoing restoration work on the archaeological structures and development in the surrounding area. .
The groundwater lowering project included the construction of trenches and the installation of drainage pipes and pumps.
“Egypt is keen to protect and preserve this site, which was the first issue discussed during the first meeting of the Supreme Committee of World Heritage Sites, formed in 2018 and led by the President’s Assistant for Strategy and national projects,” said El-dit Enany.
There are seven Egyptian sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including the site of Abu Mena, ancient Thebes with its necropolis, historic Cairo, Memphis and its necropolis of the pyramids from Giza to Dahshur, the Nubian monuments of Abu Simbel in Philae, Saint Catherine of Sinai and Wadi Al-Hitan in Fayoum.
During his visit to the Abu Mena site, El-Enany said that the rest of the work would now be completed on schedule and the archaeological elements would be reconstructed in their original location to give visitors a glimpse of the monuments that filled formerly the site.
“After five years of work, the Abu Mena Ancient City Groundwater Lowering Project has been completed, saving the site from the high groundwater level that led UNESCO to inscribe it on the World Heritage List. World Heritage in Danger in 2001,” said Hisham. Samir, assistant to the minister in charge of archaeological and museological projects.
He explained that all works were carried out in collaboration with the Ministries of Water Resources and Irrigation and Agriculture and Land Reclamation as well as the Governorate of Alexandria. The budget was LE 50 million, provided by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).
Some 69 trenches 35 to 50 m deep have been dug at the site, 12 of which are located around Mena’s tomb and the others dug around the site. Pipes 6,150 m long were connected to the trenches, with a system for pumping and then lowering the water table.
The Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation also worked to dispose of sewage, while the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation helped convert the irrigation system used for the land. agricultural areas around the archaeological area into a system based on drip irrigation.
Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish antiquities sector at the ministry, said the western wall surrounding the basilica at the site had been restored and all architectural elements had been returned to their original locations. Detailed restoration is in progress.
To improve the management of facilities at the site, information panels have been installed in collaboration with the governorate of Alexandria as well as new roads to facilitate access for visitors, said Eman Zidan, supervisor of the Department of Development of archaeological sites at the ministry.
In collaboration with UNESCO, explanatory panels will be installed in the rest of the site. In addition to information in Arabic and English, QR codes will appear on the signs to lead visitors to the ministry’s website for more information.
The work also involved developing various services for visitors, such as new toilets, shaded areas, benches, bins for recycling and facilities to make the site more accessible to people with special needs.
Dalia Abdel-Fattah, supervisor of the ministry’s external relations department, said the ministry sent UNESCO a report on the state of preservation of the site in February, along with details of corrective measures. Soon an official request will be made to remove it from the List of World Heritage in Danger, she said.
The report includes details of the groundwater lowering project and an integrated management plan proposed for the first time at the site since its inscription on the World Heritage List in 1979, Abdel-Fattah said, including plans to assess risks, modify the boundaries of the archaeological site, and ensure its preservation and restoration.
Endangered: The Ministry has requested the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, which oversees the World Heritage List, to send a monitoring mission to the site as soon as possible to inspect the concrete results achieved for its removal from the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The original endangered listing was largely due to the fact that the site’s soil, which was exclusively clay, became semi-liquid in the presence of excess water, threatening the collapse of archaeological structures. The destruction of cisterns around the site resulted in several structures collapsing and underground cavities opening up in the northwest region.
The risk of collapse had been so high that some of the foundations of the most threatened structures had been filled with sand to help stabilize them, including the Crypt of Mena and the saint’s tomb, and close them to the public.
The site of Abu Mena was one of the great centers of pilgrimage in Egypt from the 5th to the 7th century CE. Thousands of people came from all over the Christian world in search of healing, and pilgrims brought home holy water in tiny pottery bulbs shaped like two-handled jars and stamped with the figure of the saint between two camels or oil from the lamp that was burning in front of the tomb. .
Coptic Bishop Badawes Avamena, head of antiquities at Abu Mena Monastery, said Mena was a holy soldier who died as a martyr in Roman times. Her cult gained popularity when, according to legend, her body was placed on a camel and carried inland for burial. At a certain place, the camel refused to go any further, a sign taken as a divine revelation that it should be buried there.
Windblown sand eventually covered the grave and no trace was left. A few centuries later, a shepherd observed that a sick lamb that had passed through the place was cured. When the saint’s remains were rediscovered, a church was built over his grave.
The reputation of the place has spread widely. Pilgrims came by the dozens, and the stories of the healings they brought home attracted more pilgrims. Soon the original church was too small to accommodate the number of visitors, and Roman Emperor Arcadius (395-408 CE) built another church, to which the relics of the saint were transferred.
Subsequent emperors erected further buildings, and eventually the site’s basilica was built, to which thousands of pilgrims flocked from as far away as England, France, Germany, Spain and Turkey. . Cures have been attributed to the therapeutic effects of spring water in the limestone rocks of the region, and baths have been built next to the church.
When Roman Emperor Constantine the Great’s only daughter, who suffered from leprosy, was reportedly cured at the shrine, her fame spread across the Roman world.
A great city grew, prospered, and then finally disappeared. Although written about by classic writers, the city was considered legendary until in 1961 the German Archaeological Institute excavated the area under archaeologist Peter Grossman and discovered one of the largest and of the oldest pilgrimage sites in the world.
The ruins cover an area of one square kilometer, where the main colonnaded pilgrimage route of the early Christians has been identified. There were shops and workshops to the left and right, leading to the Church of the Martyr Mena built in the time of Justinian (528-565 CE).
The ruins suggest that pilgrims gathered in a large square surrounded by inns. There, the monks could take care of the sick who came to the sanctuary to be cured. There are also the ruins of two large public baths and wells.
A new monastery has now been built on the site, its high walls and twin towers being located less than 500m from the ancient site.
*A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.