Political and social turmoil is still very much in evidence in Egypt today, 16 months after Mubarak’s departure and 1 year after Morsi’s election as Egypt’s President. Some of this unrest has had religious overtones, involving friction between Egypt’s ancient Coptic community, now numbering perhaps 10% of the population or 8 million persons, and some elements of the Muslim majority.
In light of the rapid pace of social and political change seen in Egypt over the past couple of years, it may be easy to forget that the Coptic community has a remarkably long history, dating to St Mark’s introduction of the new faith in the 1st Century CE, and flourishing with the founding of monasticism in the 4th Century CE Egyptian desert by St Anthony, whose monastery still stands today. There is more than ample artifactual evidence for this continuity, including a “St Menas Flask” on our website (see the image above and the link here: http://www.clioancientart.com/catalog/i386.html).
The namesake of this mold-made pottery flask, dating to the 6th or 7th Century CE, is considered by Coptic Christians to be a miracle worker and martyr. Menas lived in the late 3rd to early 4th Century when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire. He presumably was tortured and killed for his faith at a time shortly before Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, which ended persecution of Christians. He was buried at a spot in the Western Desert southwest of Alexandria. In the late 5th Century CE, the daughter of Emperor Zeno was said to have been cured of leprousy at Menas’ shrine, and great numbers of people began traveling to the spot seeking cures or Menas’ intercession.
The flask on our website is characteristic of a large body of related pottery vessels found not only in the Mediterranean Near East but as far away as Italy, France, Germany and even England. These were either carried back home by pilgrims returning from St Menas’ shrine or sending these objects back to their families. They were typically filled with holy oil or water from the shrine.
Even after the arrival of Islam in Egypt in 641 CE, when the shrine and cathedral was destroyed, and the region’s gradual conversion to a Muslim majority during the middle ages, the shrine continued as a place of pilgrimage. It has been completely rebuilt in the modern era is still a popular destination. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is on their “danger” list.
The iconography on our flask requires some explanation. Both sides show essentially the same scene, one side shown above, the other side shown here:
The figure of St Means is shown facing forward, wearing a soldier’s tunic and with arms extended in blessing. A simplified cross appears above each arm. To either side is a schematic rendering of a kneeling camel, taken from the legend that when his body was being transported into the desert at a particular spot the camels refused to go any further and this wast taken as a sign that his shrine should be erected on that spot. This imagery is enclosed by a circular border and again by another border of beads or dots.
For additional reading, we recommend:the UNESCO page for Abu Mena, including an excellent slideshow – http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/90
Here is an image we took at the Petrie Museum of Egyptology, University College, London, of several similar examples –
For more examples of Coptic antiquities from Egypt on our website –