Abu Mena - History and Facts | History Hit

Abu Mena

Amy Irvine

22 May 2023
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Institute for the Study of the Ancient World / Ancient World Image Bank (AWIB) / CC BY 2.0

About Abu Mena

Abu Mena, located southwest of Alexandria in Egypt, is an ancient Christian pilgrimage site. The site comprises of a town and monastery complex, and its remains were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979 for the site’s importance to the knowledge of early Christianity.

History of Abu Mena

The site was built in honour of early Christian martyr, Saint Menas of Alexandria, who died in 296 AD. Various 5th-century accounts give slightly different versions of his burial and the subsequent founding of his church, but essentially 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 walk any further – this was taken as a sign of divine will, and the body’s attendants buried it on that spot.

The tomb’s location was then thought to be forgotten until its miraculous rediscovery by a local shepherd, who is said to have seen a sheep healed by the site’s water and then used the water and dust from the tomb to heal sick people brought to him. Word of the shepherd’s healing powers spread rapidly, and the synaxarium (a book that includes short accounts on the lives of the saints) describes Constantine I sending his sick daughter to the shepherd to be cured. The book credits her with finding Menas’ body, after which Constantine ordered the construction of a church at the site.

By the late 4th century, it became a major pilgrimage destination for Christians. Small terracotta ‘Menas flasks’ were sold to pilgrims as containers for holy water, and are found widely around the Western Mediterranean, dating roughly from the century and a half before the Muslim conquest. Roman Emperor Arcadius ordered a major expansion of the facilities, and by the end of Late Antiquity, Abu Mena had become the leading pilgrimage site in Egypt, yet was destroyed during the Muslim conquests of the mid-7th century.

Abu Mena today

The site was first excavated from 1905-1907. There are very few standing remains, but the foundations of most major buildings, such as the large basilica church, are easily discernible as well as monastic buildings, a baptistery and Roman baths. The highlight is the stunning underground tomb of Saint Menas, adorned with beautiful frescoes. More recent excavations in 1998 uncovered a large dormitory for poor pilgrims, a complex to the south of the great basilica (likely the abbot’s residence) and a complex of wine presses, including underground storage rooms, dating to the 6th/7th centuries.

However, excessive groundwater extraction has caused land subsidence, meaning the site is at risk of irreparable damage. A number of the site’s buildings have collapsed or are now unstable, and the site was added to the List of World Heritage Danger in 2001. Since then, efforts have been made to preserve and stabilise Abu Mena, including the placing of sand in endangered buildings and closing them off to the public.

Getting to Abu Mena

Abu Mena is located about 31 miles southwest of Alexandria, near New Borg El Arab city.

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Egypt's UNESCO Sites

Explore the wonders of ancient Egypt with a journey to its UNESCO World Heritage sites. From the majestic Pyramids of Giza to the historic treasures of Luxor and the mystical temples of Abu Simbel, immerse yourself in the rich history and architectural marvels of this captivating land.