Marea (or Mareia) and Mareotis: Marea was a village, then a city, in Egypt, located on the south side of Lake Mareotis, south and southwest of Alexandria. The lake, fed by canals from the Nile, gave its name to the district. The area developed into a major source of foodstuffs for Alexandria, producing in particular a renowned white wine exported all over the Mediterranean and supporting a large pottery industry to provide amphoras for the wine. The lake offered recreational opportunities for Alexandrians. In late antiquity, the shrine of St. Menas developed in the desert south of the lake, and the region served as a major transit corridor for pilgrims to the sanctuary. The decline of Alexandria after the Arab conquest and the atrophy of the Canopic branch of the Nile led to the shrinkage of the lake and to a reduction in demand for the area’s produce. The ensuing salinization of the area was exacerbated by deliberate breaches of the barrier between the sea and the lake in the Napoleonic era.
The name Mare(i)a is Egyptian, mrjt (meaning “shore” or “quay”), Coptic . In Greek its spelling varies, with Marea (, in Ionic, Herodotos 2.18, 30) normal in the documents of the Roman period but Mareia (or Maria) ( or ) attested as early as Thucydides (1.104), common in late authors, and found in a document of AD 494-500, P.Oxy. 63.4394. The region and lake are called Mareotis, (but also sometimes with an iota added). When the region was detached to form a separate nome, the administrative unit was referred to as the Mareotic nome, . The spellings in -ei or -i may have influenced the Arabic form still in use today, Maryut. There is also a later Coptic name (Niphaiat, “the Libyans”), which generally refers to the larger region west and southwest of Alexandria.
Although Herodotos and Thucydides refer to Marea as a city (polis), there is no indication that it actually held civic status before the Roman period, and Diodoros (1.68) refers to it as a village.
The principal settlement of the Mareotis, which gave its name to the region, was Mare(i)a. It has since 1866, when el Falaki made the suggestion, been identified by some scholars with extensive remains of a port on the south side of the western extension of the lake, about 45 km from Alexandria. Nearby are important villas with wine-production facilities, including a double villa probably used as a way-station for pilgrims to the sanctuary of St. Menas. Recent scholarship, led by M. Rodziewicz, has challenged this identification, arguing that the port, which has no known earlier remains or pottery, is the late antique Philoxenite, a 5th century construction to serve pilgrims headed to Abu Mina. If this is correct, the location of Marea itself remains to be settled. J.-Y. Empereur has suggested Ammareya (El-Amrieh), about 13 km northeast of the port, as a possibility. Other scholars, including Gauthier and Kees, have preferred Kom el-Idris, near modern Mirgheb, still further to the northeast on the peninsula that marks the separation of the western extension of the lake from the basin near Alexandria.
The Mareotic nome extended to the west of the lake as far as Kashn el Eish and perhaps to Marina el Alamein, probably to be identified with Leukaspis/Antiphrae of the ancient geographers. Its territory included the narrow coastal strip north of the lake (the Tainia) and the more extensive lands extending south of the lake.
Mareotis was part of Egypt until in 538 the emperor Justinian detached it from Aegyptus Prima and added it to the diocese of Libya (Edict 13. 1.9.17-22). It never had its own bishop, but was directly under the control of the bishop of Alexandria.
Mareotis was the richest part of the immediate hinterland of Alexandria and critical to its food supply. Staple grains from all over Egypt came to Alexandria by boat through the lake, unloading at the Mareotic harbor of the city. The region itself grew the more perishable crops of vegetables, fruit, and nuts, including olives, figs, dates, and almonds. The lake also provided abundant fish, and animals for meat were raised in the region.
The largest crop, however, was grapes, mostly made into the famous white wine of Mareotis, refered to in ancient authors and documents and credited with good keeping qualities. The wine was exported all over the Mediterranean. More than two dozen wine-production sites have been discovered in the region, sometimes linked to important villas. In recent years, nearly 30 pottery factories have also been found by survey, mainly along the south shore of the lake, and there were large mounds of potsherds in the same area. The production of containers for the wine was thus also a local industry. Sometimes wine factories and pottery kilns are found associated with each other. There is also evidence for the quarrying of limestone from the ridges that run parallel to the coast and for the production of glass.
There is no evidence for ancient irrigation canals in the area; water for agriculture and viticulture must have come from a combination of sources: perhaps a somewhat higher level of rainfall than in modern times (in the 20th cent., it was 40-260 mm per year), storage systems to capture and retain this irregular rainfall, and water-lifting from the lake via mechanical devices. There were also wells; the groundwater toward the east end was fresher because of its proximity to Nile canals. The area in this way supported a much larger population and higher level of production than in modern times.
Mareotis was also a zone of recreation for the Alexandrian elite, as it was in more recent times. In late antiquity it acquired another important economic base with the growth of the sanctuary of St. Menas (Abu Mina) as a pilgrimage site.
Pilgrimage & Churches
Although the mainstay of the economy of Mareotis was production of high-value goods, mainly foodstuffs, destined for Alexandria or beyond, it developed in late antiquity an active traffic in the reverse direction for pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Menas in the desert south of the lake. The pilgrims came from Alexandria’s Mareotic harbor or, from other parts of Egypt, via one of the canals linking the Nile to the lake, and traveled by water to the port in the middle of the western extension of the lake, traditionally called Marea but perhaps to be identified as Philoxenite. From there they had 17 km of land travel to reach the martyr’s shrine with its accompanying basilica, martyr church, baptistery, and extensive facilities for accommodating pilgrims.
The port of Philoxenite/Marea itself has extensive facilities apparently related to this flow of pilgrims, and there are additional facilities not far south of the port. The distance from the port to the shrine could be covered in a single day’s travel on foot, but ancient sources record the construction of watering places along the road.
The monasteries on the north side of the lake, along the Tainia ridge, undoubtedly also attracted their share of pilgrimage traffic. Enaton, at the ninth mile from Alexandria, was the most famous, but those at the fifth and eighteenth mile, as well as one at Taposiris Magna, probably also brought visitors into the region, either by road west from Alexandria or by lake transport to the port of Taposiris.
The larger eastern part of the lake also had a part to play in pilgrimage to monasteries, for the important monastic area of Nitria lay near its southern end, requiring a journey of a day and a half by water from Alexandria.
The ancient sites of Mareotis were for many years given scarcely any attention, even though they were far better preserved and more accessible than those of Alexandria itself. In the early 20th century, when work at Abu Mina started, much was still in place. The renewed growth of Alexandria and its region led to removal of ancient stone blocks, and as recently as the 1960s, the area could for the most part be described as barely explored, with the significant exception of Abu Mina. W. Müller-Wiener’s survey work in the 1960s distinguished two types of settlements: (1) those near the lake, with dense complexes of buildings with heavy superstructures of a “normal” type, whether regularly or irregularly laid out, with the last visible phase almost always of the 5th-7th cent.; and (2) a type of ring-settlement, formed like rough enclosures of various sizes and shapes, lying farther from the lake, mostly lying on higher and stonier, but still cultivable, ground, locally called karm (vineyard, garden) in Arabic.
Considerable work of exploration has been done in the last few decades, leading to a better understanding of the ancient topography and knowledge of many sites, particularly of ancient wine production. Excavation, by contrast, has been very limited. A pottery kiln and wine factory in close proximity at Burg el-Arab were excavated, as well as sites surrounding Abu Mina. Apart from Abu Mina, work has mainly concentrated on Taposiris Magna and on the city zone on the south side of the western extension of the lake, referred to by the excavators and many others as Marea, but argued by some to be the ancient Philoxenite. Plinthine remains unexcavated, despite its obvious interest.
Philoxenite/Marea. The complex of sites near Hawwariya along the south side of the lake’s western extension has various been identified as the ancient city of Marea and as the service center for pilgrimage known from ancient sources as Philoxenite. It consists of several elements:
The history of the Mareotic region in the period after the Arab capture of Alexandria is not well known and its decline has puzzled scholars. Evidently a gradual decline in the canal system reduced the fresh-water supply of the lake, and finally the silting up of the Canopic branch of the Nile in the 12th cent. cut off the freshwater supply from the lake’s eastern end. The decline of Alexandria after late antiquity undoubtedly reduced local demand for the wine and other luxury products of the region, and the pilgrimage traffic to Abu Mina also declined. There are conflicting accounts in the medieval Arabic sources about the condition of the area.
The lake region reentered world history in 1801, when the British under Gen. Sir John Hely-Hutchinson breached the dike or isthmus between Mareotis and Lake Abu Kir on 12 April, in order to cut off the freshwater supply of the French garrison in Alexandria; the canal with Alexandria’s fresh water from the Nile ran along this dike. After a month, when the lakes were equalized in level, the British were able to send gunboats through the gap into Mareotis to the rear of French. The British used Mareotis to move troops to west side of Alexandria for the final attack, leading to the French surrender on 2 September). The breach was repaired only in 1804, and the canal was then reconstructed.
The lake was flooded a second time in 1807 by the English garrison in Alexandria in order to increase their defenses against Mohammed Ali. It was again repaired in February 1808. A final flooding occurred in 1892, as part of a reorganization of the irrigation system. A lack of sufficient fresh water coming into the lake from the Nile has led to its shrinkage in modern times to a fraction of its ancient size, or even its size in the first part of the 20th century.
Mareotis did not exist as a distinct geographical unit in pre-Hellenistic times. Its eventual territory belonged at that period in part to the western section of Lower Egyptian nome 7 (Harpoon) and in part to the northern section of nome 3 (Western). The earliest settlements may have been Libyans, perhaps primarily herdsmen. Egyptian development began perhaps in the Middle Kingdom, and the local wines were already well known in the New Kingdom (Dynasty 18).
Mareotis became more important in the Saite period, as the West Delta generally gained in importance. Marea was the location of a defensive installation built by Psammetichos I against the Libyans (Herodotos 2.30). In its neighborhood occurred, according to one account, a battle between Apries and Amasis (Diodoros 1.68). The revolt of the Libyan prince Inaros against Artaxerxes I broke out in this region (463-454 BCE).
The area of Mareotis became enormously more important and developed in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Late Roman periods. By the Roman period it had become an independent nome, or administrative division, with its principal town officially a city rather than a village. The exact limits of its territory are difficult to define. Not all of it was settled in typical Egyptian fashion in villages. Rather, the territory appears to have been partly made up of large rural estates—no doubt owned mainly by Alexandrians—centered on the production of wine and oil in large quantities, with vineyards and gardens thus accompanied by wineries, oil presses, and potteries, and partly of areas called chora, or “country” with a possessive name in the plural after it: the country of the Mastitai, for example. Exactly what type of settlement or nomadic zone is represented by these phrases is unclear.
The visible remains in the region are mainly Roman and even more, Late Roman. It is likely that appearances are at least partly accurate, and that the peak of the area’s prosperity comes in later Roman times. Relatively little in the literary sources, the documents, and the archaeological remains informs us about the state of the Mareotic region in the Hellenistic period. Strabo’s description, however, shows that its development into a flourishing production area did not begin with the Roman period, even if that was the high point.
The lake was part of a major route to Alexandria from the Egyptian countryside; any traffic from the Nile valley above Memphis or from the western Delta passed along the Canopic branch of the river into the canals leading to the lake, where boats could reach the Mareotic harbor of Alexandria. This transit function was enhanced in late antiquity by the development of the pilgrimage routes to the sanctuary of St. Menas.
Bagnall, Roger, "Marea." Electronic Encyclopædia of the Ancient World. EEAW, Inc., 2002. http://www.eeaw.org (Accessed ).
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