Ancient Christian Settlement in Egypt Shows Evidence of Urban Planning

Dated to the sixth century C.E., the Marea complex boasted public baths and a hospital

Photograph of an ostracon mentioning the renovation of the nosokomeion (hospital)
Inscription mentioning renovation of the settlement's hospital Photos by T. Derda / Courtesy of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw

Polish researchers have discovered evidence of an early Christian settlement in the ancient city of Marea, Egypt. The find dates to the sixth century C.E., when Egypt was part of the Byzantine Empire. As the scholars write in the journal Antiquity, the site exhibits evidence of large-scale urban planning—an “extremely rare” occurrence for the time period.

“It was a big surprise to us, because around this period there were no new cities built in Egypt,” says co-author Mariusz Gwiazda, a researcher at the University of Warsaw’s Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology, as quoted by Sebastian Kettley of Express.

Marea, located at the site of the present-day northern Egyptian village Hawwariya, existed as a lively port city as early as 332 B.C.E., when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, notes Heritage Daily. The need for construction was limited by the Byzantine era, as significant infrastructure development had taken place in the region during the Greek and early Roman periods.

Situated 28 miles southwest of Alexandria on the southern shore of Lake Mareotis, Marea likely served as a rest stop during Christian pilgrims’ trips to Abu Mena, a significant monastery complex about 10 miles south of the city that also houses a shrine to Saint Menas.

New probe technology allowed the team to peer below the surface of the site and gain new insights on its history.

“In recent years we have revolutionized our understanding of this ancient city, all thanks to the use of non-invasive and geophysical methods in conjunction with excavations,” says Gwiazda, per Express.

Constructed atop the ruins of a Roman vineyard, the 32-acre complex differs from the few others erected during the late Byzantine period due to its lack of defensive walls. The fact that it dates to the latter half of the sixth century “is clearly distinctive and suggests a different type of settlement,” write Gwiazda and co-author Tomasz Derda in the study. The site was likely one of the last urban hubs built in the area prior to the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the mid-seventh century C.E.

Ancient Christian Settlement in Egypt Shows Evidence of Urban Planning
Latrines L1 and W1-1 connected to the artificial waterfront. The location of the sewers is marked in blue. Photos by M. Gwiazda / Courtesy of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw

As Nathan Falde notes for Ancient Origins, the settlement consisted of organized sections that included front-facing shops and residential rooms.

“They are not like any known buildings in the Mediterranean world,” says Gwiazda, as quoted by Ancient Origins.

Two public baths and at least five latrines stood slightly outside of the settlement’s center. Inscribed pottery fragments found at the site also indicate the presence of a public hospital. These facilities would have been available to people of all social classes.

“The toilets were … set in a location away from houses, which proves that the city was developed for its time,” historian and Egyptologist Bassam al-Shamaa tells Abdulla Kadry of Al-Monitor.

Per the study, the settlement was home to one of the largest Christian basilicas in Egypt. Prior to its construction, the site housed a small church and, before that, a Roman wine amphorae workshop.

“We still don’t know much about the daily life and customs of people in these ancient times in ancient Egypt and many are eager to learn more about this,” says Shamaa.

Hussein Abdel Basir, an Egyptologist and director of the Antiquities Museum of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, tells Al-Monitor that promotion of the site in the United States and Europe “would contribute in bringing in tourists from those countries to learn about Christians who lived in Egypt.” Revitalizing tourism remains an important goal for Egyptian officials: In the first eight months of 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of international visitors to Egypt dropped by 69 percent, reports Abdi Latif Dahir for the New York Times.

Marea’s newly discovered settlement joins another ancient Christian community recently found in Egypt’s Bahariya Oasis. A vast monastic site, the complex was in use between the fourth and eighth centuries C.E., according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). Highlights of the discovery included three churches and a set of monks’ cells, or living quarters.