The Famous Egyptian Martyr Saint Menas and His Shrine at Abu Mina
Saint Menas (spelled variously as Minas, Mina, Mena and Mennas) is an Egyptian saint and martyr, and has the epithets of the Wonder-worker and the Martyr. St. Menas was one of the most well-known Egyptian saint both in the East and the West during ancient times due to the miracles he performed.
This claim finds correspondence in the archaeological record in the form of small clay bottles on which the name and image of the saint is engraved. These artifacts have been found in various parts of the Roman world. In addition, a shrine to the saint at Abu Mina was established in ancient times, and grew into a major Christian pilgrimage site.
Saint Menas is believed to have been born in 285 AD in the city of Niceous, near Memphis, Egypt. St. Mena’s father was Audexious, whilst his mother was Aufimia. The saint’s parents are reputed to have been devout Christians. The couple was childless for some time, though they desired children. On the feast of St. Mary, Aufimia prayed in front of the Icon of the Virgin, in the hopes that God would grant her a child. Legend says that a sound came to her ears, saying ‘Amen’, hence Aufimia’s decision to name her son Menas.
Pilgrim flask representing St Menas with two camels. From the area of Alexandria, Egypt. (CC BY 3.0)
When Menas was 14 years old, his father died. In the following year, he joined the army. Menas was given a decent rank in the army, as his father had been a reputable administrator in Egypt, and served under a centurion by the name of Firmilian.
When Menas was serving in Cotyaeus in Phrygia (in the western part of modern central Turkey), he heard about the persecution of Christians by the Emperors Diocletian and Maxentius. Refusing to serve these persecutors of the Christian faith, Menas decided to leave the army, and became a hermit on a mountain.
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Death of Menas
After five years of prayer and fasting on the mountain, Menas received a revelation, in which he saw martyrs being crowned by angels. A desire to join the ranks of these martyrs arose in the heart of Menas, and the saint apparently heard a voice speaking to him.
Filled with zeal, the saint returned to human society. Arriving at a celebration of a great pagan festival, Menas began to fearlessly preach the Christian faith. The authorities were certainly not amused, and Menas was arrested. He was then brought before the prefect Pyrrhus, where he was tortured and then beheaded.
Martyrdom of Saint Menas. (c. 1580) By Paolo Veronese (Public Domain)
Menas’ body was brought back to Egypt, where it was buried in the desert of Mareotis, which lies between Alexandria and the valley of Natron. Soon, the site of St. Menas’ grave became a major Christian pilgrimage site by the name of Abu Mena. The primary reason for St. Menas’ popularity amongst Christians was the miracles that were attributed to him.
Ruins of the ancient monastery at Abu Mena. (CC BY SA 3.0)
One of these is about a pilgrim who, after praying at the saint’s shrine, was given shelter for the night. Realizing that his guest was carrying some gold, the owner of the house decided to kill the pilgrim whilst he was sleeping. He then chopped the corpse up, and hid it somewhere in the house, hoping to bury it in the morning.
Before this could be done, however, St. Menas appeared as a military official on horseback. When he asked the murderer about the pilgrim who spent the night in his house, the man replied that he knew nothing. Nevertheless, the saint entered the house, found the dismembered body, prayed, and brought it back to life. Returning the gold to the pilgrim, the saint told him to continue on his journey. As for the murderous house owner, the saint chastised and lectured him, pardoned him for his crime, and prayed on his behalf. The saint then got onto his horse and disappeared.
Saint Menas. (Public Domain)
Over time, the pilgrimage center of Abu Mina grew in size as a result of its fame and popularity. At a later period of time, foreign invasions resulted in the destruction of this sacred site. In more recent times, the expansion of agricultural lands has altered the landscape of the site.
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Whilst Abu Mina was once situated in the middle of a desert, it is now described by one source as being “a historic island in the middle of tomato fields”. Lastly, it may be said that intensive irrigation has resulted in the erosion of the clayish soil directly underneath Abu Mina, weakening its foundation, and posing a threat to its very existence today.
The modern Christian monastery of Abu Mena, which is located just north of the ancient site. (CC BY 2.0)
Featured image: An icon depicting Christ and St. Menas. Photo source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
CopticChurch.net, 2014. St. Mena the Miracle-Worker. [Online]
Available at: http://www.copticchurch.net/topics/synexarion/manas.html
Dunn, J., 2013. Egypt: Abu Mina, The Ancient Christian Pilgrimage Site. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/90
Mershman, F., 1911. St. Menas. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10178d.htm
Sanidopoulos, J., 2009. Saint Menas the Great Martyr and Wonderworker. [Online]
Available at: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2009/11/saint-menas-great-martyr-and-miracle.html
The Orthodox Church in America, 2016. Martyr Menas of Egypt. [Online]
Available at: https://oca.org/saints/lives/2000/11/11/103277-martyr-menas-of-egypt
UNESCO, 2016. Abu Mena. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/90