Archaeologists Find An Unusual Urban Complex Within Egypt’s Marea Site

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Archaeologists Find An Unusual Urban Complex Within Egypt’s Marea Site

Polish archaeologists carrying out excavations at the ancient Egyptian port city of Marea near Alexandria uncovered something unexpected. They found t

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Polish archaeologists carrying out excavations at the ancient Egyptian port city of Marea near Alexandria uncovered something unexpected. They found the buried ruins of a self-contained urban complex that had been constructed when Egypt was Christian and part of the Byzantine Empire (in the sixth century AD). This unique urban settlement was clearly designed to exist as a separate entity within the borders of Marea, which was founded by the Greeks following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC.

The excavations at Marea were sponsored by the University of Warsaw’s Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology ( PCMA). In addition to traditional digging, the PCMA archaeologists relied on new innovative probing techniques that allowed them to search the Marea site deeply underground. And it was these new methods that made the discovery of the previously hidden urban complex possible.

“In recent years we have revolutionized our understanding of this ancient city,” PCMA archaeologist and study participant Dr. Mariusz Gwiazda explained, “all thanks to the use of non-invasive and geophysical methods in conjunction with excavations.”

The findings have now been detailed in the July 2021 edition of Antiquity.

Map of the Byzantine urban development area in Marea, near Alexandria, Egypt (map by A.B. Kutiak & W. Małkowski, with modifications by M. Gwiazda; courtesy of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw). ( Antiquity)

Byzantine Marea: A Completely New Form of Urban Planning

During the Greek (332 BC-30 BC) and Early Roman (30 BC-313 AD) periods, heavy construction activity took place throughout Egypt. Little new building was done during the Late Roman ( Byzantine) period, since so many settlements had already been created.

But the new urban complex found at Marea—essentially a city within a city—was an exception to the rule.

“It was a big surprise to us, because around this period there were no new cities built in Egypt,” said Dr.  Gwiazda.

The urban complex was constructed in the latter half of the sixth century. The designers chose the site of an old Roman wine-producing farm as the location for their urban enclave, which allowed them to remain within the city limits of Marea. The unusual Byzantine Marea settlement covered an area of approximately 32 acres, or 13 hectares.

Latrines L1 and W1-1 connected to the artificial waterfront. The location of the sewers is marked in blue (photographs by M. Gwiazda; courtesy of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw). (Antiquity)

Latrines L1 and W1-1 connected to the artificial waterfront. The location of the sewers is marked in blue (photographs by M. Gwiazda; courtesy of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw). ( Antiquity)

Choosing efficiency over style, the builders constructed a large number of structures around 10 sq meters (100 sq ft) which were then pieced together like blocks in different arrangements to create a series of one-story buildings of different shapes and sizes. They placed homes and shops in linear rows, with no apparent segregation between residential buildings and those used for commercial or other purposes.

“They are not like any known buildings in the Mediterranean world ,” Dr. Gwiazda declared.

City planners made an effort to meet everyone’s personal and health needs. Excavations revealed the presence two public baths and multiple latrines, while inscriptions found on pottery mentioned the existence of a community hospital that served residents of the urban settlement exclusively.

The ruins taken as a whole reveal the existence of an ancient self-contained village or set of interconnected neighborhoods, which included public facilities appropriate for use by people of all social classes.

Byzantine pilgrim flask depicting St. Menas with two camels, probably made at Abu Mina, Egypt, 6th–7th century AD. (Louvre Museum / CC BY 3.0)

Byzantine pilgrim flask depicting St. Menas with two camels, probably made at Abu Mina, Egypt, 6th–7th century AD. (Louvre Museum / CC BY 3.0 )

The Purpose of the Byzantine Urban Settlement at Marea

One unique aspect of the urban complex was its lack of any defensive walls. A few other urban settlements from late Byzantine Empire times have been found in other areas of the world, and all had walls around them that would offer protection from military attack.

In their Antiquity paper, the study participants note that the lack of a protective wall “is clearly distinctive and suggests a different type of settlement.”

One structure found at the site may reveal the truth about the founding of this city-within-a city.

This structure has been identified as a building that was used by pilgrims traveling to the nearby Christian shrine in Abu Mena. This Christian holy city was constructed around the site of the tomb of St. Menas , and by the sixth century had become a popular destination for Christian pilgrims seeking the blessings of this venerated figure.

Menas was a Coptic (Egyptian Christian) soldier who served in the Roman army in the fourth century AD. He was executed by Roman authorities when he refused to renounce his Christian faith, and for this act he was recognized as a martyr and granted sainthood.

A view of part of the bath complex at Abu Mena, possibly a well. The baths at Abu Mena were extremely important to the ancient pilgrimage site because the water was supposed to have had curative powers. And the pilgrims arriving in Byzantine Marea were on their way to Abu Mena. (isawnyu / CC BY 2.0)

A view of part of the bath complex at Abu Mena, possibly a well. The baths at Abu Mena were extremely important to the ancient pilgrimage site because the water was supposed to have had curative powers. And the pilgrims arriving in Byzantine Marea were on their way to Abu Mena. (isawnyu / CC BY 2.0 )

It was said that visitors to his tomb could be miraculously healed from any type of illness or injury. This brought Christians from all over the world to Abu Mena, which like Marea was located to the west of Alexandria near Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.

Pilgrims visiting Abu Mena in the sixth and seventh centuries would have arrived in Alexandria first, before sailing across the waters of Lake Mariout and landing at the port city of Marea. From there, they would have left for Abu Mena, which was located just 11 miles (17 kilometers) to the south of Marea.

The Polish archaeologists believe that the newly discovered urban complex was built to serve the needs of Christian pilgrims who came to Egypt to visit the St. Menas shrine at Abu Mena. The Christian settlement would have offered food, lodging, goods, and services to travelers passing through the area, on their way to or coming back from Abu Mena. The urban complex may have actually been constructed by a group of pilgrims, whose love for St. Menas ran so deep that they decided to remain in the area permanently.

The situation changed dramatically in the mid-seventh century, when Muslim invaders conquered Egypt. They destroyed the holy city of Abu Mena, leaving behind nothing but ruins where the shrine of St. Menas had once stood. Pilgrims stopped coming, meaning the urban settlement at Marea that was designed to serve them would have lost is most important purpose.

Levelling layers under buildings W1-B, W1-A and St2 at the Marea excavation site. The white dotted line marks the top of the levelling layers (photographs by M. Gwiazda, courtesy of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw). (Antiquity)

Levelling layers under buildings W1-B, W1-A and St2 at the Marea excavation site. The white dotted line marks the top of the levelling layers (photographs by M. Gwiazda, courtesy of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw). ( Antiquity)

More Excavations Should Bring More Answers

As of now, the Polish archaeologists don’t know much about what happened to the urban complex in Marea in the centuries after it was built. The city of Marea was occupied until the 16th century AD, and it is conceivable that the specialized urban enclave remained in use up until that time.

Ongoing excavations in and around the newly discovered buildings will undoubtedly produce quite a few artifacts from different eras. These items should provide more answers about how the buildings in the complex were used, by whom, and for how long.

Top image: New urban precinct found in Egyptian settlement of Marea    Source: Mariusz Gwiazda / PAP

By Nathan Falde

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