The remains of the oldest Christian church in Egypt, the Abu Mena Church, stand in the Burg Al-Arab area of Alexandria, where it was built over the tomb of the Christian martyr Menas (Abu Mena) who died in 296 CE. The site consists of the remains of the church, baptistry, 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 encased in scaffolding, with many individual items being transferred to storage galleries.
The site was put on the UNESCO World Heritage List in Danger in 2001 largely over worries about the effects of the rising water table. 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.
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 the restoration work being done on the archaeological structures and the development of the surrounding area.
The groundwater-lowering project included the building 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 at the first meeting of the Supreme Committee for World Heritage Sites, formed in 2018 and headed by the assistant to the president for strategy and national projects,” El-Enany said.
There are seven Egyptian sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including the Abu Mena site, Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis, Historic Cairo, Memphis and its Necropolis from the Giza Pyramids to Dahshour, the Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae, St Catherine’s in Sinai, and Wadi Al-Hitan in Fayoum.
During his tour of the Abu Mena site, El-Enany said the rest of the work would now be completed on schedule and the archaeological elements reconstructed in their original locations to give visitors an overview of the monuments that once filled the site.
“After five years of work, the groundwater-lowering project at the Abu Mena ancient city 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 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 Mena and the others dug around the site. Pipes 6,150 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 waste water, 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.
Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the ministry, said that the western wall surrounding the basilica on the site had 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 Eman Zidan, supervisor of the Archaeological Sites Development Department 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 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.
Dalia Abdel-Fattah, supervisor of the Foreign Relation Department at the ministry, said that the ministry had 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 World Heritage List 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 it was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1979, Abdel-Fattah said, including plans to evaluate risks, amend the boundaries of the archaeological site, and ensure its preservation and restoration.
In danger: The ministry has requested that the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, which oversees the World Heritage List, should send a monitoring mission to the site as soon as possible to inspect the concrete results being achieved with a view to its removal from the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The original in-danger listing was largely because the soil at the site, exclusively clay, was becoming semi-liquid in the presence of excess water, threatening the collapse of the archaeological structures. The destruction of cisterns around the site had entailed the collapse of several structures, and underground cavities had opened in the northwestern region.
The risk of collapse had been so high that some of the foundations of the most endangered structures had been filled with sand to help stabilise them, including the crypt of Mena and the tomb of the saint, and close them to the public.
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, 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 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 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.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.