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TELL ABU MINA – THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE OF THE OLD HOLY CITY OF SAINT MENAS

March 2, 2016

Abu Mina.JPEG

The above is a watercolour painting by Henri-Joseph Redouté dated June 1799. It depicts Tell Abu-Mina, the archaeological site of the old Coptic Christian town of Saint Mina, which was built in the desert of Mariout, approximately 60 km southeast of Alexandria. Redoute (1766 – 1852), was a Belgian artist who went to Paris and became a member of the Commission des sciences et des arts during the Egyptian campaign (1798-1799). It is while he was in Egypt that he made his painting, titling it Tell abou-Menna. Colline du père Menna dans le Delta. Vu à l’est de Farchy.[1]

The old Coptic Christian town of Saint Mina was named after the Egyptian soldier, Saint Mina (or Minas or Mena or Menas or Mennas) the Wonder Worker, who was martyred in Phrygia, in Asia Minor, in 296 AD, during the reign of Diocletian (284 – 305). His body was brought to Egypt where it was eventually buried in the Western (Libyan) Desert near a spring at the western side of Lake Mareotis (Mariout), not far away from Alexandria. Legend has it that the location of the tomb was forgotten, but later miraculously discovered. Miracles made the tomb of St. Mina a pilgrimage magnet location for the sick and faithful. Around the tomb arose impressive churches, monasteries, baptisteries, cells, kitchens, refectories, store-rooms, wine presses, cisterns, market-place, paved-streets, kilns, hospices, dormitories and hostels, depositories, baths, pools, and accommodation for several thousand inhabitants, including several hundred priests, and thousands of shopkeepers, workmen, soldiers, etc., many vineyards of grapes and vine. The beautiful pavements of the city and its coloured marble columns were unequalled, and emperors like Constantine I (312 – 337), Arcadius (395 – 408) and Zeno (457 – 474) left their mark on the city that became one of the greatest pilgrimage destinations in the whole of Christendom, and certainly the greatest in Egypt.

This great city, however, was to be destroyed after the Arabs occupied Egypt in 640 AD, and Muslim rulers, Arabs and the Berber looted it, destroyed and reduced its great buildings and monuments to rabble, and so, it became, in the Middle-Ages, as the History of the Coptic Patriarchs describes it, “like unto desert”.[2] And so it went into oblivion, but the destroyed site preserved its name, and became known as “Abu Mina” or “Karm Abu Mina” or “Tell Abu Mina” – ‘abu’ being a corruption of the Coptic ‘apa’, meaning father; ‘karm’ being the Arabic for vineyard; and ‘tell’ being the Arabic for hill, which I think was created by the heaps of the destroyed architecture.

It is this site which Redoute saw in Egypt in 1799 and immortalised it in his water-colour, “Tell Abou-Menna”. Whether the past glory of the site had crossed his mind, it is difficult to tell. For the world to appreciate the greatness of the city, it had to wait until in 1905-1907 the German archaeologist Carl Maria Kaufmann (1872 – 1951) made his discoveries and wrote extensively about the city, to astonish may by the splendour of the past city.[3] To protect the site, the UNESCO declared the site World Heritage Site in 1979; and then, in 2001, it added it to the List of World Heritage in Danger.

And modern Copts, too, did their part in reviving the memory of the Egyptian martyr. Saint Mina has always been a popular martyr with the Copts; and to the modern Coptic Pope Cyril VI (10 May 1959 – 1971), Saint Mina was an idol and personal intercessor as he was to many Copts. So, as soon as Pope Cyril VI was elected, he obtained from the Egyptian government a permit to rebuild the monastery of Saint Mina approximately one kilometer north of the ancient archaeological site; and, on 27 November 1959, he laid the foundation stone of the new Saint Mina Monastery. It was quickly inhabited by monks, and enlarged with a cathedral, churches, cells, hostels, and many other buildings, and including gardens and farms. Today, its land extends to over 100 feddan.

Today, a visit to the Monastery of Saint Mina must be accompanied by a visit to the nearby excavation site of the old town if one would like to understand more the history of this holy area.

Abu Mina Cathedral.PNG

The new Cathedral of Saint Mina

 

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[1] Available at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

[2] For more history on the Monastery of Saint Mina, see: Otto F.A. Meinardus, Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts (Cairo, AUP, 2002), pp. 168-179.

[3] See: J. C. Ewald Falls, Three years in the Libyan Desert, travels, discoveries, and excavations of the Menas expedition (Kaufmann expedition); trans. Elizabeth Lee (London, 1913).

 

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