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New discoveries at Byzantine port city of Marea in northern Egypt

Stone latrines, a ring and a bracelet are the most interesting discoveries made by a team of Polish archaeologists in the ruins of a huge basilica dating back 1,500 years in Marea, northern Egypt.

New discoveries at Byzantine port city of Marea in northern Egypt
Latrine inside the basilica [Credit: A. Drzymuchowska]
Marea was a city near ancient Alexandria. It is known that it functioned in the Roman and Byzantine periods, but the researchers have not yet established when exactly it was founded. The town was famous, among other things, for its fine wines distributed in the Mediterranean basin. The importance of Marea as a key port is demonstrated by four long piers, the longest of which measures over 120 meters and was built with solid stone blocks joined with waterproof mortar.

Excavations in the ruins of the Byzantine basilica have been conducted by Polish archaeologists since 2003. "This is the second largest known structure of this type in Egypt", says Dr. Krzysztof Babraj, who heads the mission. The artefacts discovered inside come from the late fifth to the early eighth centuries, from the time of the city's greatest splendour.

During the last research season, the researchers found a room with stone latrines. According to the researchers, they come from the times when masses were celebrated in the church.

"We believe that they were available to the believers - from the inside of the basilica, and to the pilgrims - from the outer walls of the building", said Dr. Babraj. According to the scientist, the discovery is not a surprise for researchers, because the latrines were a standard facility in ancient churches. there probably were separate rooms for women and separate for men.

New discoveries at Byzantine port city of Marea in northern Egypt
Seal-ring with an image of a saint [Credit: D. Majchrzak]
"Interestingly, the priest had a private latrine in one of the side chapels of the basilica", added the archaeologist.

Other elements discovered by Polish researchers also indicate that the basilica was partly self-sufficient - including a few meters deep well located between the two naves of the church.

In the rooms adjacent to the latrines, archaeologists discovered spectacular artefacts made of metal. The first is a bronze ring with a visible figure of a saint. "There were no similar finds in northern Egypt until now", said Dr. Babraj.

Scientists assume that the ring belonged to a bishop, who used it to stamp his correspondence. This type of ring imprint was equivalent to a signature.

New discoveries at Byzantine port city of Marea in northern Egypt
Bracelet with apotropaic symbol [Credit: D. Majchrzak]
During the last research season archaeologists also discovered a small bracelet that had been worn on the hand. Its diameter indicates that it was used by a child, researchers believe. "It was an apotropaic object, its purpose was to deter evil", added Dr. Babraj.

Recent research shows that the liturgy was celebrated in the basilica until the 8th century.

"I think that this was not caused by the Arabs taking control of Egypt, but rather by the fact that the surrounding areas that had been used as crop fields were neglected. The locals stopped cleaning the channels that supplied fresh water from the lake", explained Dr. Babraj. The researcher also pointed out that the basilica was not a construction masterpiece - after several hundred years of use the walls of the temple began to crack due to errors made by the builders.

"When the priests left the temple, from time to time it served as a temporary shelter for Bedouins, tribes living in the desert", the researcher added.

Scientists believe in the near future they will determine the exact history of the temple. All because of a huge collection of Greek records concerning the functioning of the basilica, which Polish archaeologists have discovered in one of the rooms. Translation work is underway and it is already known that most of the documents were written by one person. These include information about the construction of the Marea basilica describing the work done, the workers, their functions and remuneration they received.

Excavations in Marea are conducted by the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology UW and the Archaeological Museum of Krakow. Helen Zaleski has been supporting them financially for several years.

Source: PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland [August 26, 2017]

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