In Cotyaeum, in Phrygia, the splendid passion of St. Menna the Egyptian soldier. During the persecution of Diocletian he cast away his military belt and went into the desert to commune with the King of Heaven. Later he declared himself publicly to be a Christian and suffered cruel tortures. Finally he was put to death by the sword as he knelt in prayer thanking Our Lord Jesus Christ. After his death he became famous for many miracles. – Roman Martyrology for November 11
There are two iconographic traditions for St. Menas. In Orthodox icons he wears the uniform of a Roman imperial soldier. In Coptic images he wears civilian garb and is flanked by two camels and two crosses. The difference arises from differing hagiographic traditions.1
Both traditions have St. Menas as a Christian in the Roman army stationed in Phrygia. He left the service because of the persecutions of the 303-313 A.D. and lived for a while as a hermit in the wilderness. Then he decided to make a declaration of his faith in the arena in Cotyaeum. For this he was beheaded and his body burned.2 In the Coptic legends that continue the story, Christian soldiers who had served with Menas took his body from Phrygia to Egypt. There a pair of camels took them to a place in the desert and refused to move on, so the soldiers buried the relics and returned to Phrygia. Later the place became a major destination for pilgrims, who believed in the healing properties of water flowing from a well there. They would take it home in ampullae bearing images of St. Menas and the camels (first picture at right). Many of these are now in museums around the world, along with souvenir plaques (second picture).3
The plaques may have been intended as memorials of the one that the soldiers' leader made for the return journey to Phrygia. On the voyage to Egypt they had been attacked by sea creatures with long necks like camels.
He made a picture of saint Mînâs the martyr on a wooden tablet, dressed as he had known him in the apparel of a soldier, with pictures of the beasts which resembled camels, at his feet, and they were worshipping him. And he laid that picture upon the body of saint Mînâs, to obtain his prayers, and then he took it with him that it might be unto him a means of deliverance and a place of refuge on the sea and in war.The plaques that I have examined do not have Menas in uniform, and the beasts are actual camels, not sea creatures. These differences may be due to the influence of the ampullae images.
By the 7th century the desert place had become a large city by the name of Abu Mena, with a monastery, a basilica, baths, and of course the holy well. It fell into desuetude after the Moslems conquered Egypt, but by then the cult of this saint had spread to many other countries.4
Some believe that on the eve of the Battle of El Alamein St. Menas appeared with his camels in the German camp, terrifying the soldiers and contributing to the Allied victory.5 The account is illustrated in a fresco in Mount Athos:
Prepared in 2018 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.