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Early Christian settlement with pilgrim center unearthed in Egypt

Marea Archaeological Project

Mariusz Gwiazda | University of Warsaw's Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology | CC-BY4.0

J-P Mauro - published on 08/19/21

The small settlement could have been a natural stop for Christians on their way to the nearby Abu Mena pilgrimage site.

A team of Polish archaeologists were surprised to discover the ruins of an uncharacteristically well-planned Christian settlement in Egypt. Dated to the 6th century, the settlement was a part of the 4th-century BC port city of Marea. The find is opening experts’ eyes to the process of city planning in the region, as well as the practices of early Christian pilgrims. 

According to Al-Monitor, the site covers an area of about 33 acres, nestled within the city limits of Marea. This city, founded in 332 BC, is about 700 years older than the settlement. Experts posit that the construction of the settlement is unusual on its own. The Ancient Romans built so many structures in the region that Egypt rarely needed to create more, choosing instead to repurpose what was there. 

City planning

The design of the settlement was also atypical for the period. Marea’s development, for example, can be traced from its city center, with buildings springing up around it over time. In the Christian settlement however, the buildings are of a uniform design and size, built all at once. These “modular” buildings appear to be duplicates that provided room for residences and shops. 

The site is unique for the region and era, especially in building placement. The uniform residential buildings were spaced evenly apart and in equal rows. The houses were situated around a basilica that was built on the foundations of a previous church. 

This planned Christian neighborhood also included two areas for bathing and five public toilets. Further demonstrating the forethought put into this planned settlement, the latrines are fully equipped with sewage drains. Sherds of pottery have also been discovered in the area with markings that suggest there was a hospital. For its time, this settlement appears to have been a highly developed hotspot of Christian activity.

Pilgrimages

Speaking of Christian activity, the site was most likely a central staging ground for a pilgrimage to the nearby Abu Mena. Archaeologists at the site even believe they have identified a building that catered to pilgrims.

Located just 10 miles from the city of Marea, Abu Mena was a town with a thriving Christian monastery complex. The site was dedicated to the Coptic martyr St. Menas of Egypt and boasted the early saint’s tomb. Abu Mena was destroyed during the Muslim conquest of the 7th century.

The presence of a Christian community in Marea suggests a close connection to Abu Mena. Express notes that it is likely that Egyptians who traveled to Abu Mena would have passed through the Christian settlement at Marea. During the excavation, the team discovered European artifacts from as far as England. Experts now theorize that Abu Mena was a popular site for early Christian pilgrimage and drew visitors from all over the Western world. 

The discovery of this planned Christian settlement has allowed for a rare glimpse into daily Egyptian life from the time of the Byzantines. Bassam al-Shamaa, a historian and Egyptologist, told Al-Monitor:

“We still don’t know much about the daily life and customs of people in these ancient times in ancient Egypt and many are eager to learn more about this.” 

Read more about this exciting discovery at Al-Monitor.

Tags:
ArchaeologyChristianChurch HistoryEgypt
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