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Cairo Churches: The Church of Saint Menas in Old Cairo And the Annexed Churches of Saint Bahnam and Saint George


The Church of Saint Menas in Old Cairo And the Annexed Churches of Saint Bahnam and Saint George

by Jimmy Dunn

Saint Menas (Mar Mina)

Saint Menas (Mar Mina)


Saint Menas was probably born in Egypt in the city of Niceous (Nakyus, near Memphis, though some sources provide that it is further into the Delta) and there he was martyred during the reign of the Roman Emporer, Diocletian, probably around 300 AD.

We are told that his mother, Ophemia, was barren. It was said that when she praying in front of Virgin Marys icon, appealing for her intercession that God may give her a child, she heard a voice saying amen . Therefore, when her prayer was answered, and she had a son, she called him Menas. His father Odexius, who was employed with the Roman Empire, died when Menas was young. When he joined the army, he was given a high rank in recognition of his fathers prominence.

The Greek Acts, published with a Latin translation in "Analecta Bollaniana", III 258 (Surlus XI 241) tell us that Menas was a Christian who served under the tribune Firmilian while a soldier. However, when the army came to Cotyaeus in Phrygia, Menas, on hearing of the edicts issued against the Christians by Emperors Diocletian and Maximian, deserted the army in order to escape death and hid in a mountain cave for five years, where in solitude he served God by fasting vigils and prayer.

Menas was a Christian who served  under the tribune Firmilian while a soldier

However, many Christians were being put to death under Diocletian's edicts, and apparently Menas decided that he should publicly confess his faith. During the annual games in the arena at Cotyaeum in Phrygia, Mennas suddenly appeared before the spectators and announced that he was a Christian. The Romans quickly reacted to this blatant atrocity. Menas was led before the prefect Pyrrhus, cruelly scourged, put to torture. Yet he refused to recant, so Pyrrhus had him beheaded, though he allowed his body to be returned to Egypt for burial.

Saint Menas was buried in Egypt's desert of Mareotis between Alexandria and the Natron Valley (where a number of monasteries are located). The fame of the miracles wrought, spread far and wide and thousands of pilgrims came his grave. For centuries Bumma (Karm-Abum-Abu Mina) was a national sanctuary and grew into a large city with costly temples a holy well, and baths. Here, a beautiful basilica was erected by the Emperor Arcadius. Today he is looked upon as one of Christian Egypt's great saints, with some forty churches dedicated to him, though his reputation spread as a warrior saint and he was venerated in the Middle Ages as a patron of wandering peddlers, who probably were responsible for spreading his fame, and those falsely accused.


The Church of Saint Menas in Cairo

Today, probably the best known ancient site associated with Saint Menas is the ancient monastery between Alexandria and the Natron Valley, which has recently been given World Heritage status. However, one of the oldest Churches in Cairo is also dedicated to him. This church is north of Old Cairo, situated in an area known as Fum al-Khalig, north of the Roman aqueduct, at the northernmost corner of the Christian cemetery off Shari' al-Sadd al-Barrani. The area is otherwise known as Al-Hamra.

The Church of Saint Menas in Cairo

The history of the Church of Saint Menas probably dates back to about the 6th century. However, Al-Makarim (12th century), whose work on the churches and monasteries of Egypt is invaluable to scholars, states that in the year 725 (or 724) AD, the church of Saint Menas (Mar Mina) was destroyed during the reign of caliph Hisham Ibn Abdel Malik Ibn Marwan, but was rebuilt in that same year at the expense of the Christians who lived in that quarter. He refers to it as the "Great Church of Mennas and tells us that there was once a monastery associated with it. The church was again reconstructed in 1164, when cupolas were added and its marble columns were replaced by pillars, and in recent times was restored by the Committee for the Preservation of Arab Art.

An icon of St. Peter the Apostle from the church; Below Right: A comb found in the church and now in the Coptic Museum

An icon of St. Peter the Apostle from the church; Below Right: A comb found in the church and now in the Coptic Museum

The church evidences the growth of the Christian community north of the Old Babylon Fortress and Fustat, years before the two new Islamic Capitals of Al-Askar and Al-Qatai were established.


Today, only sections of the central sanctuary and the outer wall remain from the 8th century building. The current church measures about 20.5 by 15 meters and stand 13.5 meters high. Just to the right of the passage that leads through the garden to the church, there is a wall with fifteen mosaics showing the feasts of the church, from the Annunciation to the Ascension of Christ, and two additional mosaics of Saint George and Saint Bahnam. A short stairway descends to the west end of the church, and on the right is a gate of iron latticework that provides access to the tomb of two former priests.

part of the church wall shows the celebration

The church has the normal divisions of narthex, nave with side aisles and sanctuaries. The 12th century masonry pillars, numbering six with three on each side, along with four piers, separate the nave from the aisles. Just against the easternmost of the pillars stands a marble ambon supported on twelve columns. Saint Menas is honored in this central sanctuary, and on its left is a shrine with an ornamental bolster where the relics of Saint Bahnam and his sister, Sarah, are kept. Relics of Saint Menas were formerly kept in this church, but most of these were sent to his famous monastery near Alexandria in 1962. Those that remain are kept in the narthex of the church. The southern sanctuary is now used as a shrine containing a number of icons, while the northern sanctuary, accessible only from the central sanctuary, is now used as a sacristy. There is a baptistery in the southeast area of the church, accessed from the south end of the choir through a long, vaulted passage running east and west. A passage from the baptistery then leads into the Church of Bahnam. Both of the churches have many icons depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testaments, including angles and saints.

The Church of Saint Behnam and the Church of Saint George

Saint Bahnam and his sister, Sarah, were both of royal blood. However, Sarah suffered from leprosy, but was healed and then converted to Christianity. She was baptized by Matthew the Hermit. Their father, a king, persecuted his children for their conversion, and finally is said to have killed them. However, we are told that the father was cursed by an evil spirit, and was later healed by Matthew the Hermit. Both he and his queen then became Christians. Afterwards, he built a church to his martyred children.

An icon of Saint Behnam and his sister now in the Coptic Museum

An icon of Saint Behnam and his sister now in the Coptic Museum

The church of Saint Bahnam only consists of two sanctuaries, and both of those are dedicated to Saint Bahnam. The screen before the northern sanctuary, which is relatively modern dating to 1813, is inlaid with ivory. The screen on the other, southern sanctuary is somewhat older, dating to 1775.

The relics of the church include those of the Unmercenary Saint Cosmas and Damian, Saint George and Saint Takla Haymanot. From this church, a stairway leads up to the Church of Saint George, which also has two sanctuaries. It is, of course, dedicated to Saint George, and has a screen that dates to 1747. The northern sanctuary, which contans an icon of the saint along with some of his relics, is now used as a shrine of Saint George.

Return to Christian Monasteries of Egypt

References:

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

2000 Years of Coptic Christianity

Meinardus, Otto F. A.

1999

American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 5113

Cairo (The Coptic Museum Old Churches)

Gabra, Gawdat

1993

Egyptian International Publishing Company, The

ISBN 977-16-0081-8

Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neigbouring Countires, The

Abu Salih, The Armenian, Edited and Translated by Evetts, B.T.A.

2001

Gorgias Press

ISBN 0-9715986-7-3

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Last Updated: June 22nd, 2011

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