Philoxenite: the forgotten dream of pilgrims

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Tuesday 9 Oct 2012

Not far from Egypt's UNESCO World Heritage Site of Abu Mena are the remains of an old pilgrimage harbour that in its heyday received scores of pilgrims on their way to the sanctuary of Saint Menas

Amphora Kiln at Philoxenite


As we approach the site of Philoxenite on Lake Maryut, we come across a dull signpost advising passersby to stay away. “Military Zone,” it reads.

A closer look reveals that the warning is probably an empty one, as tens of people can be spotted at the shore. They come here for fishing, most of them unaware that the jetty extending into the lake (and on which they stand) forms part of a harbour that dates back to the times of the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius, whose prefect, Philoxenos, founded the city-harbour in the late fifth century on Lake Mareotis.

Coincidently, Philoxenos literally means hospitable, and hospitality is exactly the keyword for understanding the function of Philoxenite. First, a story must be told for the bigger picture to become clear: the story of a Coptic saint with three immortal crowns.


“Blessed are you Abba Mina, because you have been called for the pious life from your childhood. You shall be granted three immortal crowns; one because of your celibacy, the second because of your asceticism and the third because of your martyrdom.”

These are, according to the Coptic tradition, the words that Saint Menas (Abu Mena) heard while reflecting on the glory of martyrdom. Born in the late third century, his life took a radical turn, quitting his military career and dedicating his life to prayer and meditation. Upon confessing his Christian faith to the ruler, he was tortured to death, becoming a martyr in his mid-twenties.

Apart from his martyrdom, it was something else that incited pilgrims to flock to his sanctuary, situated where the camels carrying his dead body stopped and refused to move on. The burial site had healing powers, and tradition has it that many sick people were cured at the site. This earned Saint Menas the title of ‘wonder-worker'; and his sanctuary eventually evolved into a fully-fledged pilgrimage city during the reign of Emperor Zeno in the fifth century.

Today, it takes some imagination to reconstruct the city from the few structures still standing (the site is on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites in danger); but still the most important sites are easily recognisable. The cult of Saint Menas extended over most of the Mediterranean, as evidenced by the discovery of flasks stamped with the Saint’s image (surrounded by two kneeling camels) as far away as present-day Croatia.

Mostly, these faithful pilgrims arrived in boats (Lake Mareotis was very different from present-day Lake Maryut), landing on the very same jetties used by the fishermen today, some 45 kilometres southwest of Alexandria (and 30 kilometres away from Abu Mena). There, in Philoxenite, all the necessary facilities and services were available for the pilgrims on their way to the Abu Mena site. Philoxenite was everything you would expect from an important pilgrimage harbour.

Philoxenite: a tale of two cities

As we wander around Philoxenite today, we can clearly identify many of the structures that once formed part of the urban fabric of this harbour city: baths, houses, shops, paved streets, a basilica, a long quay and even an amphora kiln. The most impressive feature, however, is a set of jetties extending into the lake, with their white stones shimmering against the profound blue backdrop of the lake.

Excavations supervised by Fawzi El-Fakharani between 1977 and 1981 uncovered several structures at the site, which El-Fakharani identified as the ancient Marea, a city that was founded in the late Pharaonic period and became very important in the Graeco-Roman period. Marea, mentioned by such names as Herodotus and Al-Maqrizi, was a strategic city on the southern shore of Lake Mareotis, but no concrete evidence would confirm that Philoxenite corresponds to Marea (or was built on it). The discovery of second-century amphorae in the kiln at the site was celebrated by some as a proof that the site predates Byzantine Philoxenite. However, the whole kiln could have been recycled from an earlier Roman settlement that had nothing to do with the much older Marea.

Putting the name controversy aside, there is a lot to satisfy the curiosity of archaeologists and history fans, but little of the former glory of both Philoxenite and Abu Mena remains. No pilgrims arrive by boat anymore, and Abu Mena is in a sad state following problems triggered by land reclamation projects in the area. Even more, the site of Philoxenite is not interpreted for visitors in any way: no signposts, no maps, no nothing. The occasional visitor is left to his imagination, and the site is largely unknown, just like many other heritage sites of extraordinary historical and cultural value in Egypt.

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