Discovered by Polish archaeologists, an urban complex within the ancient city of Marea without defensive walls was probably built to serve the needs of Christian pilgrims on their way to visit the St Menas shrine at Abu Mena.

Polish archaeologists working at Egypt’s Marea site have made a new discovery: a self-contained urban complex buried and in ruins. According to the journal Antiquity (August 2021 issue, published online in July), “archaeological investigations in late antique Marea, modern northern Hawwariya, Egypt, have revealed that a significant part of the site was a well-planned urban undertaking on a large scale, founded in the second half of the sixth century AD.”

This is a significant discovery because newly planned urban sites are “extremely rare” in late antiquity. At the time, Egypt was “Christian, and part of the Byzantine Empire.” The urban site was set up to be a separate entity within Marea’s borders. Marea was founded by Greeks after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC.

The Polish archaeologists working at the Marea site are sponsored by the University of Warsaw's Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology (PCMA). They have been using new technology to search the site more thoroughly than just digging. Thanks to these innovative approaches the discovery of the previously underground urban complex became possible.

Quoted in Ancient Origins, "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 PCMA team believes that the urban complex was built by Christian pilgrims travelling across Egypt. According to the Express, “the small town, which covers an area of about 32 acres, would have served as a stop along the route to Abu Mena – a monastery complex some 31 miles southwest of Alexandria.” It would have been frequented by the poor and the rich alike, the team says.

Experts say the discovery has “revolutionised” their understanding of Marea, a city that has been popular with researchers from around the globe who are carrying out numerous excavations. Marius Gwiazda and Tomasz Derda write in Antiquity that “since the late 1970s, Egyptian, American, French and Polish archaeologists have been conducting archaeological excavations at this site.”

Dr Gwiazda said: "In recent years we have revolutionised our understanding of this ancient city. All thanks to the use of non-invasive and geophysical methods in conjunction with excavations."

The unique nature of of Byzantine Marea

There was heavy construction going on in Egypt during the Greek (332 BC - 30 BC) and Early Roman (30 BC-313 AD) periods. However, afterwards there wasn’t much new construction during the Byzantine period because there were already many settlements in existence.

According to the Express, “after the Muslim conquest of Egypt between 639 and 646 AD, there was no need to build any more towns and cities – the Romans and Macedonians had built enough for centuries to come.”

However the urban complex found in Marea, described as “a city within a city” by Ancient Origins, 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, quoted in Ancient Origins.

The settlement was built on the remnants of an old Roman wine-producing farm, and was within the city limits of Marea. It covered an area of roughly 13 hectares.

The journal Antiquity notes that the buildings consisted of “modules with repeated plans and fixed sizes (14 x 10m) and had shops and residential rooms, each “a self-contained unit used independently of the others.”

“At the same time, all the modules within each building formed a structural whole that made up a uniform straight frontage 260m in length,” the authors Marius Gwiazda and Tomasz Derda write.

"They are not like any known buildings in the Mediterranean world ," Ancient Origins quotes Dr Gwiazda as saying.

The setup also included two public baths, multiple latrines as well as a hospital, whose existence was revealed by inscriptions found on pottery.

The urban setup was a “complex system of straight streets with adjoining buildings serving various functions and an artificial waterfront linked to an extensive port infrastructure,” Antiquity notes.

The settlement discovered by Polish archaeologists “lacked defensive walls, which is clearly distinctive and suggests a different type of settlement,” the authors write in Antiquity. They also note that it was the “latest monumental Byzantine urban project before the Arab conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean in the second quarter of the seventh century AD.”

Thumbnail photo: The urban complex within the ancient settlement of Marea, Egypt. (Mariusz Gwiazda/Courtesy of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw)

Headline photo: Photograph of an ostracon (pottery sherd with writing on it) mentioning the renovation of the nosokomeion (hospital). (Tomasz Derda/Courtesy of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw)

Source: TRTWorld and agencies