Safeguarding the Abu Mena Monastery

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 30 Apr 2024

Nevine El-Aref explores the rich history of Alexandria’s Abu Mena Monastery and the work being done to remove it from the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger List in the first of a series of articles on Egypt’s World Heritage Sites

Abu Mena Monastery
Abu Mena Monastery


Nestled in the serene landscape of the Borg Al-Arab area of Alexandria, the ancient Abu Mena Monastery is a testament to centuries of history and spiritual significance. 

This remarkable site, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 and in 2001 transferred to the UN organisation’s Heritage in Danger List, has stood as a symbol of Christian heritage and architectural magnificence for over a millennium. 

However, the passage of time and various environmental factors have taken their toll on this venerable monument, threatening its existence. Today, a comprehensive restoration project has breathed new life into Abu Mena, ensuring its preservation for generations to come and making it ready to be removed from the Heritage in Danger List.

The List of the World Heritage in Danger was established in accordance with Article 11 of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. It identifies properties within the World Heritage List that require significant conservation efforts and have requested assistance under the provisions of the convention.

In 2001, during its yearly assessment of the condition of sites listed on the World Heritage List, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee added the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras and the Abu Mena Monastery in Egypt to the List of World Heritage in Danger, while simultaneously removing the Iguacu National Park in Brazil

The List of World Heritage in Danger now comprises 31 properties.

Abu Mena was put on the List largely as a result of worries about the effects of the rising water table in the area. According to the UNESCO website, the local soil in the area, predominantly clay, possesses the capacity to support structures when dry but transforms into a semi-liquid state with excessive moisture when wet. 

The deterioration of numerous cisterns scattered across the city has led to the collapse of several buildings above them. Extensive underground voids have emerged in the northwestern region of the town, and the risk of structural collapse is significant, prompting the authorities to fill the bases of some vulnerable buildings with sand, including the crypt of the Abu Mena Monastery that contains the saint’s tomb, and to prohibit public access and visits.

Egypt is now taking steps to have the site removed from the List owing to the successful completion of a restoration and groundwater-lowering project that included the building of trenches and the installation of drainage pipes and pumps.

“The groundwater-lowering project at the Abu Mena Monastery has been completed, rescuing the site from the high level of groundwater that led UNESCO to put it on the World Heritage in Danger List in 2001,” said Hisham Samir, assistant to the minister of antiquities for archaeological and museum projects.

He explained that all the work was carried out in collaboration with the Ministries of Water Resources and Irrigation and Agriculture and Land Reclamation, as well as the Alexandria governorate. The budget was LE50 million, provided by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).

Some 69 trenches 35 to 50 m deep were dug on the site, with 12 located around the tomb of Saint Mena and others dug around the site. Pipes 6.15 m long were connected to the trenches, with a pumping system then lowering the groundwater.  

The Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation also worked to remove wastewater, while the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation helped to convert the irrigation system used for the agricultural land around the archaeological area to one based on drip irrigation.

Gamal Mustafa, head of the Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the Ministry, said that the western wall surrounding the basilica on the site has been restored and all the architectural elements replaced in their original locations. The detailed restoration is ongoing.

To upgrade facilities management at the site, information panels have been installed in collaboration with the Alexandria governorate along with new roads to facilitate visitor access, said Bassem Ibrahim, supervisor of the Archaeological Sites Development Department at the ministry.

He added that 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 feature on the panels to take visitors to the ministry’s website for more information. 

The work has also involved developing various services for visitors, such as new toilets, shaded areas, benches, rubbish bins for recycling, and facilities to make the site more accessible to people with special needs.


ABU MENA: The Abu Mena site was one of the great centres of pilgrimage in Egypt from the fifth to seventh centuries CE. 

Thousands of people came from all over the Christian world seeking healing, and pilgrims took home holy 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.

Coptic Bishop Badawes Avamena, responsible for antiquities at the Abu Mena Monastery, said that Mena was a soldier-saint who had died a martyr’s death during the Roman period. 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 a divine revelation that he should be buried there.

Wind-blown sand eventually covered the tomb of the saint, 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 rediscovered, 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 cures that 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 site’s 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 area’s limestone rocks, 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 pilgrimage site, its fame spread further throughout the Roman world.

A great city grew up, flourished, and then eventually disappeared. Though written about by classical writers, the city was thought to have been legendary until in 1961 the German Archaeological Institute excavated the area under the direction of archaeologist Peter Grossman and discovered one of the largest and most ancient pilgrimage sites in the world.

The ruins cover an area of one square km 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 Mena built during the era of the Byzantine emperor Justinian (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 the ruins of two large bathhouses and wells.

A new monastery has now been built at the site, its lofty walls and twin towers situated no more than 500 m from the ancient site.

The site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979 because it is an outstanding example of one of the first early Christian monastic centres developed in the Near East. Beyond its religious significance, it served as a prominent pilgrimage destination, boasting a larger settlement compared to many contemporary sites in the region.

The architectural features of the Abu Mena site, spanning a diverse array of building types, bear strong influences from Egyptian architectural traditions. These elements vividly showcase the fusion of traditional Egyptian architecture with diverse styles from the wider Mediterranean Basin, marking a significant advancement in early Christian architectural design and customs.

The property encompasses all essential elements to convey its Outstanding Universal Value, including the preserved archaeological structures of the Abu Mena Monastery with its integrated plan, thereby fulfilling the requirements of integrity. 

The structural integrity of the churches, Saint Mena’s tomb, pilgrim accommodations, public baths, workshops, and cisterns remains robust, with regular maintenance efforts in progress. Nonetheless, the property remains vulnerable to risks posed by heavy rainfall, winds, humidity, and fire, underscoring the ongoing need for vigilance and protection measures, UNESCO has said.

The authenticity of the property is underscored by several key attributes, including the overall design of the monastery and its structures, as well as the preservation of original building materials, initially documented during excavations in 1905. 

These materials encompass limestone, bricks, mortars, and marble, contributing to the unique architectural composition and layout of the Christian centre alongside the remarkably intact holy marble settlement. While complete historical structures are scarce, remnants such as lower sections, floor plans, and certain vertical elements persist, faithfully representing their original form, design, and substance.

The original urban layout has been meticulously maintained, showcasing surviving buildings such as the grand basilica, the martyr’s tomb, churches, hostels, and public edifices. Additionally, the presence of olive, raisin, and wine presses offers insight into the development of industry and technology during this early historical period, dating back to the fourth century CE.

 These elements collectively contribute to the authenticity of the property, preserving its rich heritage and cultural significance for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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