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An Early Christian Pilgrim Flask

September 6, 2018

Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him and said, “Has not the LORD anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the LORD and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies. And this shall be the sign to you that the LORD has anointed you to be prince over his heritage(1 Samuel 10:1 ESV)

 

Introduction

The waves of persecution that struck the Church in the late third century, particularly during the reign of the emperor Diocletian resulted in the death of untold numbers of Christians (Grant 1970: 225-234).  Menas, a Roman soldier and devout Christian of Egyptian extraction, perished during these purges in ca. 306.  However, the martyrdom of Menas was exceptional.  Taking leave from the army to spend time in spiritual solitude, fasting, vigils, and prayer, Menas fearlessly professed his faith to the populace assembled in the circus (stadium) at Cotyaeus in Phrygia (central Turkey). For sharing his public testimony, soldiers led Menas before the Roman prefect Pyrrhus, who ordered Menas scourged, tortured and finally beheaded.   Greatly revered at his death, traditions and legendary stories grew and the site where Mena’s remains were buried quickly became venerated.  Claims of healing and other miracles circulated among those visiting Mena’s burial site in the Mareotis desert at Karm-Abum-Abu Mena, between Alexandria, which is 45 km to the northeast, and the Valley of Natron in Egypt.  A city grew around the holy site during the period of Byzantine control and thousands began to make pilgrimages to it.  This led to a worship cult that surrounded Menas’s relics.  The burial site rapidly evolved into a national sanctuary and one of the largest pilgrimage centers in the ancient world, including a holy well, baths, temples and a basilica (Grossman 2017: 147-148).  Ultimately, Mena became the patron saint of traveling merchants and caravans.  However, the city and pilgrimages to the holy site rapidly declined after the the Persians sacked and burned the city in 619, followed by the Islamic conquest of Egypt in 641, when troops under Muslim leader ‘Amr overran the site. Ultimately, the local population neglected and largely forgot the significance of Menas and his burial site by the ninth-tenth centuries.

During the Byzantine Period, the stream of Christian pilgrims visiting Menas’s burial site was but a small part of a much larger trend that began shortly after Christianity triumphed as the official religion of the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine (306-337; Grant 1970: 309-311).  After the aged Queen mother Helena returned from her royal tour of the Holy Land, Constantine financed construction of churches over the most important biblical sites relating to the life of Christ. Christianity’s victory over Roman paganism also sparked interested in the Holy Land, biblical sites and saints, including Christian martyrs.  These factors influenced many believers from the west to make the journey to the Holy Land, such as Egeria later in the fourth century (Wilkinson 1971) and many others (e.g., Wilkinson 1977; Bartholomew and Hughes 2004; Vikan 2011; Hahn and Klein 2015; Reader 2015).  However, long held pagan beliefs among these pilgrims manifested themselves in idolatrous activity practiced at these sites as well as the belief that the holy relics (human remains and related objects) of biblical and later saints possessed supernatural qualities and/or power.  Hence, most pilgrims sought out these sites for the “blessings” of protection, forgiveness and/or healing more than any desire to view and understand the geographical context of Scripture.  Purchasing or acquiring holy “souvenirs” such as holy water from Jacob’s well and the Jordan River or blessed oil from a holy site to keep and appreciate as a talisman or blessing after returning home, was often the main purpose of Holy Land pilgrimages. 

In modern history, Saint Menas supposedly appeared leading a caravan of camels before German Afrika Corps troops during the first night of the 1942 Battle of El-Alamein (the place of Menas), which undermined German morale and contributed to an Allied victory. Historians acknowledge that El-Alamein was the battle that turned the tide of World War II.

 

Relevance to the Biblical Account

A great many hagiographic accounts exist in various languages regarding the life and martyrdom of Saint Menas (e.g., Kamel 2013).  Some of these stories, nearly all of questionable origin, are strikingly similar to certain biblical accounts.  For example, the inability of his deeply devout mother Euphemia to conceive a child ended when an icon of Mary uttered “Amen” (mena) to her while she prayed resembles the biblical accounts relating to Sarah, Hannah, Manoah’s wife and Elizabeth.  Menas’ celibacy, asceticism, and martyrdom also echo those of biblical and early Christian figures, such as Paul (Galatians 1:16-17; Acts 9:16; 21:13; 2 Timothy 4:6-8).  Samuel (1 Samuel 10:1) and Elisha (2 Kings 9:1-3) possibly used similar flasks when anointing kings of Israel with oil.

 

Physical Description

The Horn Museum terracotta flask (68.0028) dates between the fourth-sixth centuries and depicts Saint Menas with his arms raised in prayer, standing between two seated camels that purportedly returned his body to Egypt for interment.  Crosses appear to the right and to the left of his head.  Egyptian potters mass-produced these flasks (known as ampullae) using molds for distribution or sale to Christian pilgrims visiting the shrine.  Discoveries of hundreds of similar pilgrim flasks from sites in Europe as well as throughout the Mediterranean world demonstrate the widespread popularity of Saint Menas and his burial shrine as a pilgrimage destination (e.g., Anderson 2004: 81).  The flask likely held blessed oil or water from the well at Karm-Abum-Abu Mena, as was the purpose of these flasks for pilgrims(Bagatti 1971: 362-364). Archaeologist C. M. Kaufmann directed excavations at the site from 1905-1907 and unearthed some of these molds.  Amid the extensive ruins, archaeologists discovered the holy grave and well, the basilica, a monastery, numerous intercessory prayers and pleas carved by pilgrims on walls and scores of small water pitchers and oil lamps (Ward-Perkins1949; Grossman 1998; 2014, 2017).  The results appear in the 1908 scientific report (La découverte des Sanctuaires de Menas dans le désert de Mareotis: La Découverte des Sanctuaires de Ménas dans le Désert de Maréotis: Rapports sur les Fouilles Exécutées par C. M. Kaufmann Et I. C. E. Falls, dans le Sanctuaire National des Anciens Chrétiens d'Égypte) as well as a separate monograph on the iconography of Menas (Kaufmann 1910).  A popular account later appeared in English (Ewald Falls 1913).  Frend (1996: 144-150) and O’Connell (2014)provide the contextual setting in their overviews of archaeological activity in Egypt specifically relating to early Christianity during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  

 

Historical Significance

The flask, donated to the Horn Museum by SDA church elder Harold Ruppert in 1968, provides a tangible representation of the popularity of spiritual and religious pilgrimages and the related worship cults that emerged from visiting sites with holy relics. Water, oil or soil collected from such sites in small containers like the Saint Menas flask, promised miracles, protection and health benefits, for not only the visiting pilgrim, but also a eulogia(blessing) for believers left behind in the traveler’s homeland, physically or financially unable to embark on such an arduous journey.  Holy relics transported to Europe during the Byzantine Period and later, at times, became the basis for the construction of a church or shrine commemorating the venerated object.

 

Parallels

Exact and similar two-handled pilgrim flasks are attested in various cultural contexts and dates throughout the Levant.  Known examples range from New Kingdom Egypt, Iron Age Philistia, Ammon, Moab and various classical contexts.  Some examples have ornate artistic work; others a concentric bullseye design or are plain. Bagel shaped ring flasks and those with an attached bowl are rarer. The popularity of pilgrimage flasks during the Byzantine period, especially in Egypt, assured that numerous variants survived, including metal examples (e.g., Leclercq (1924: 1725-1730; 1933: 383-384; Badawy1978 346-348; Knudsen 2003; Bénazeth 2014: 233-235).  Viewable parallels include Saint Menas flasks displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/17.194.2291/), (https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/442902).  Another flask commemorating Saint Sergios (http://art.thewalters.org/detail/34878/pilgrim-flask-of-saint-sergios/) as well as one probably memorializing the resurrection of Lazarus (http://art.thewalters.org/detail/19490/pilgrim-flask-2/) belong to the Walters Art Museum collection.

 

Bibliography

 

Anderson, William

            2004    An Archaeology of Late Antique Pilgrim Flasks.  Anatolian Studies54: 79-93.

 

Badawy, Alexander

1978    The Art of the Christian Egyptians from the Late Antique to the Middle                                        Ages.  Cambridge:  MIT.

 

Bagatti, Bellarmino

1971    The Church from the Gentiles in Palestine:  History and Archaeology.  Translated by                  Eugene Hoade.  Publications of the Studium Biblicum Fanciscanum, Collectio Minor                  4. Jerusalem:  Franciscan.

 

Bagnall, Roger, and Rathbone, Dominic W.

2005    Egypt from Alexander to the Early Christians:  An Archaeological and Historical                        Guide.  Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.

 

Bartholomew, Craig, and Hughes, Fred, editors

            2004    Explorations in a Christian Theology of Pilgrimage. New York:  Routledge.

 

Bénazeth, Dominique

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Budge, Ernest Alfred W.

1909    Texts Relating to Saint Mêna of Egypt and Canons of Nicaea.  Oxford: Horace Hart.

 

Ewald Falls, J. C.

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Freeman, Charles

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Frend, William H. C.

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Grant, Robert M.

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Grossman, Peter

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2014    Christian Architecture in Egypt.  Pp. 177-193 in Coptic Civilization:  Two Thousand                    Years of Christianity in Egypt, edited by Gawdat Gabra.  Cairo: The American                              University in Cairo.

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Hahn, Cynthia, and Klein, Holger A., editors

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Jensen, Robin Margaret

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Kamel, Bishoy

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Kaufmann, Carl Maria

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Leclercq, Henri

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1933    Ménas (Saint).  Cols. 324-397 in Vol. 11/1 of Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et                de liturgie, publié par le R.P. dom Fernand Cabrol et le R.P. dom Henri Leclercq avec                 le concours d'un grand nombre de collaborateurs. Paris:  Letouzey et Ané.

 

O’Connell, Elisabeth R.

2014    The Discovery of Christian Egypt:  From Manuscript Hunters toward an Archaeology                of Late Antique Egypt.  Pp. 163-176 in Coptic Civilization:  Two Thousand Years of                      Christianity in Egypt, edited by Gawdat Gabra.  Cairo:  The American University in Cairo.

 

Reader, Ian

            2015    Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford:  Oxford University.

 

Vikan, Gary

2011    Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art.  Revised edition.  Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine                            Collection Publications 5.  Washington DC:  Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and                  Collection.

 

Ward-Perkins, John Bryan

1949    The Shrine of St. Menas in the Maryût.  Papers of the British School at Rome17: 26-                  71.

 

Wilkinson, John

            1971    Egeria’s Travels(translator and editor).  London:  SPCK.    

            1977    Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades.  London: Aris & Phillips.

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