A Town on Lake Mariut South of Alexandria, Egypt Tentatively Identified as Philoxenite

A Town on Lake Mariut
South of Alexandria, Egypt
Tentatively Identified as Philoxenite

by Jimmy Dunn

The ancient town, tentatively identified as Philoxenite, is located on the southern shore of Lake Mariut, a few kilometers south-east of Plithine near Alexandria. The town has often been identified with Marea, an ancient town which has not yet been identified. Though a team from Alexandria University has devoted several seasons to excavating the harbor area, and a Polish team has been working in other areas of the city, the site remains mostly untouched since antiquity, even though early travelers were aware of the ruins.

Part of the ruins of the town possibly identified as Philoxenite

The remains at Philoxenite are extensive, and include streets, houses and public buildings, along with other structures. The ruins of the town extend for several hectares. Even though simply drawing up a plan based on the walls might give a fairly accurate picture of the towns layout, even this has never been done.

However, if the town ruins are extensive, the harbor is perhaps even more impressive. There are quays measuring a kilometer in length that stretch into the lake, punctuated by a series of long breakwaters. Six stone jetties, oriented north-south, 100 meters in length form a regular series of docks from which many ships could unload their cargo. The quays along, without the jetties, would permit several hundred embarkations simultaneously. There is even a causeway built on the lake that access an island 100 meters to the east of the town where there were yet more quays and harbors. There was a tower that guarded the route from the breakwater to the island, which might have been a lighthouse or at least a landmark for navigation, though its position on the south side of the island seems unsuitable for this function.

Part of the ruins of the town possibly identified as Philoxenite

The port installations in Marea are certainly among the best preserved in Egypt, at least above water.

There has actually also been some excavation in the center of the town, where archaeologists have unearthed the quay itself, together with a colonnade that bordered it in front of some shops. The wall here is preserved to a height of about a meter. East of this a large building has also been excavated. This was a public bath, symmetrically divided into two separate parts, one intended for men and the other for women, with entrances located on opposite sides. The two sets of baths each containing both collective and private baths, along with furnaces, calidarium, tepidarium and frigidarium (various rooms moderating bath head, from very hot to cold). Here, the walls are fronted with marble from the Princes' Islands. The floors are paved with large slabs of the same material. The sides of the individual baths are made of massive blocks of marble. This double collection of baths made it possible to provide separate access for males and females. Though unexcavated, more baths can be seen to the southeast. The top of their brick walls, faced with marble, are visible, and one can make out the shape of the baths and the furnace just to one side.

The possible hostel just outside of Philoxenite

Hence, the impression we have of this town is one of impressive harbor facilities, considerable facilities for storage, and first class, if not luxurious public buildings. However, all of these ruins appear to date to the fifth and sixth centuries AD, and there are no indications of older structures. This is why the town is probably not the more ancient town of Marea, though the Polish team excavating in the region appears to continue to refer to it as such. A scholar by the name of Rodziewicz, one of the best authorities on this region, is credited with its possible identification as Philoxenite. That town is known to have been created by the praetorian prefect of the Emperor Anastasius (491-518) to accommodate pilgrims on their way to the famous monastery of Abu Mina, some thirty kilometers to the southeast in the desert. It has all the requirements one would expect for this sort of transit, including the large harbor and baths.

Another excavation, also conducted by the University of Alexandria one kilometer south of town, further attests to this function. Here, a large building, dating to the same period as the town, consists of two large peristyle courtyards around which are built about twenty individual rooms where were probably intended as accommodations for pilgrims traveling to Abu Mina. In fact, the two wings are separated by a large church. A fine mosaic in opus sectile was found in the choir of this church, made from marble fragments and colored stone. Two latrines, with a dozen stations each, give some idea of the number of visitors to this hostel. Additional baths built of brick and faced with marble have also recently been uncovered in the middle of the countryside a kilometer east of this building.

A relief of St. Menas between his two famous camels

Excavations in the region of this town have continued to produce traces of Christian occupation. As mentioned above, most of the material found dates from the fifth and sixth centuries, which appear to be the towns most flourishing period, though occupancy continued into the archaic Islamic Period. This is also consistent with the principal occupation of Abu Mina, which was visited as late as the tenth century, but saw its most important period also during the firth and sixths centuries.






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