Abu Mena was a town, monastery complex and Christian pilgrimage center in Late Antique Egypt, about 45 km southwest of Alexandria. Its remains were designated a World Heritage Site in 1979. The essential elements are that his body was taken from Alexandria on a camel, which was led into the desert beyond Lake Mareotis.
At some point, the camel refused to continue walking, despite all efforts to goad it. Built in the 3rd century, the monastery commemorates an Alexandrine soldier, Menas, who was an officer in Diocletian’s army.
Menas refused to kill any Christian after his army won. He declared his Christianity publicly, which was a tremendous motive for other Christians to bear the suffering and abuse from Diocletian’s army.
Legend has it that Menas’s remains were brought back from Phrygia by camel and were buried where the animal refused to walk any more. Water welled up in the desert at that spot, filling the area with vines and olive trees, as a result of which it is known as St Menas’s Vineyards.
The Basilica of Arcadius was built in the 5th century and is in the centre of a beautiful complex just south of Alexandria in Karm Abu Menas. Its roof is supported with 56 marble columns. The baptistry is located at the western end of the basilica with corners rounded in semicircular, polychrome marble niches.
This is the only Coptic monument that shows the use of these elements in ancient Christian architecture. A church located at the west side of the basilica has strong Egyptian and Byzantine architectural influences.
The site remains sacred to the Coptic Orthodox Church which is the guardian of the site. Through contacts in the Church I was privileged to get a guided tour in October 2008 but otherwise it’s off limits for good reasons.
The damage caused by the World Bank funded irrigation project is very evident with the crypt still submerged under water. The story of St Manas, a very popular Egyptian Saint and the patron of merchants, is the subject of numerous legends and myths.
Of Egyptian or Libyan origin, he was a Roman legionary in the time of Diocletian who was converted to the Christian faith and suffered a martyr’s death in Phrygia in A.D. 296. Tradition asserts that when his comrades were carrying his body home the camels suddenly stopped on the edge of the Libyan Desert and could not be persuaded to move from the spot.
Seeing this as a sign from Heaven, the soldiers buried Menas at the place indicated whereupon 90 springs of water gushed out of the ground and gave rise to a variety of miracles.
Then pilgrims from all over the Near East began to flock to the site seeking a cure for their ailments, taking some of the water home with them in small pottery bottles made on the spot, usually decorated with a representation of St Menas between two crouching camels.
The central feature of the ancient city, the streets and houses of which can be clearly identified from the excavated remains, is the complex consisting of the Basilica the Crypt built over the Saint’s grave, the Great Basilica adjoining its east end and the Baptistery at its west end.