Abu Mena is located south of Alexandria, between Wadi el-Natrun and Alexandria itself. The church, baptistry, basilicas, public buildings, streets, monasteries, houses and workshops in this early Christian holy city were built over the tomb of the martyr Menas of Alexandria, who died in AD 296.
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.
Archaeological excavations since 1900 have revealed that Abu Mena grew rapidly in the course of the 5th and 6th centuries. By 600 the oasis had become a pilgrimage city, centred on the great basilica complex. Archaeological excavations revealed an entire town with houses and cemeteries. They even found the house of the potters who made flasks, their shop, and the remains of some flasks, lamps and toys.
Built in the 5th century to accommodate the increasing number of Christian pilgrims, the Thermal Basilica used to store the curative waters used for the heated baths and pools surrounding the basilica. Pilgrims would fill small clay flasks (ampullae) with water from the basilica. The flasks were stamped with the seal of St Menas, showing the martyr standing between two kneeling camels. During the 5th and 6th centuries many buildings were erected around the Thermal Basilica, including a monastery on its north side.
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.
St Menas is considered to be the best-known saint in the East and the West. That is evident by the fact that numerous ampullae have been discovered in many places around the world, including Heidelberg (Germany), Milan (Italy), Yugoslavia, Marseilles (France), Dengela (Sudan) and Jerusalem.