Mike Aquilina

The Lourdes of the Ancient World

Monday November 05th 2007, 3:01 am

The shrine of St. Menas was the Lourdes of the patristic era.

Situated near the Nile delta in Egypt, “Abu Mena” — as it’s known by the Copts — flourished as a destination for pilgrims, beginning in the early fourth century. People traveled there to bathe in its healing waters, or to fill flasks to carry home for ailing friends and family members. The flasks have turned up throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Who was St. Menas? It’s difficult to say for sure. He was almost certainly a martyr. Some ancient accounts say he succumbed during the persecution of the Emperor Decius, in the mid-third century. The majority, however, place his martyrdom during the Big One, the persecution of Diocletian, at the end of that century. He is almost always portrayed as a soldier in the Roman army, exposed as a Christian and beheaded for his faith. His comrades then bore his body back home to Egypt. According to legend, the camels stopped at a certain point and refused to go on. And there Menas was laid to rest.

Soon pilgrims appeared, churches sprang up, and a veritable city arose around the burial place of St. Menas. Once the empire was officially Christian, the Emperor Arcadius had a basilica built there. The shrine flourished till Muslim rule in the seventh century. Then the place fell into disuse. Its ruins were excavated in the early twentieth century, turning up thousands of St. Menas pilgrim flasks. There has been some restoration at the site, though the ruins are now threatened by dampness from irrigation.

The pilgrim flasks still turn up everywhere — even on the Web. Mass-produced as souvenirs, they usually show the saint between two camels — the very camels who sited his shrine. Around the image you’ll usually find inscribed, in Coptic or Greek, “Blessings of St. Menas.” There’s one in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There’s another in the Louvre (you’ll have to go there and search under Menas, because I can’t get the links to work). Here’s a page full of flasks, and another, and another. You’ll even find several flasks for sale in New Jersey.

Some kind folks have posted English translations of the various lives of St. Menas. (His name is also rendered Mena and Mina. Some modern scholars believe he is none other than man we westerners venerate as St. Christopher of the dashboard.)

Amazon’s offering a new documentary on the pilgrim site: Abu Mena: A Christian Monument Egypt. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s on my wish list.

May the good saint intercede for us who remember him, and may he once again bring healing to his homeland.

(Thanks to Nader — my Coptic catechist, correspondent, and sometime commenter — who helped me as I was rooting around for details on St. Menas.)