Carved on a limestone abacus. Dimensions: 0.55 m x 0.12 m. Rectangular letters. The inscribed face is weathered and partly illegible.
+ ἁγί[α Μαρία Θ]εωτώκε (palm)
[βοήθησον κ(αὶ)] ἐλήεσων τῶ δού(λου)
[- - -] ω.σι. [ἔτ]ους υϙς΄
'+ O Holy [Mary], the God-Bearer (Theotokos), [help and] have mercy upon the servant [- - -]. In the year 496.'
Text: I. Nessana, no. 92.
Saint NameMary, Mother of Christ : S00033
Saint Name in SourceΘεωτώκος
Image Caption 1From: I. Nessana, 172.
Type of EvidenceInscriptions - Formal inscriptions (stone, mosaic, etc.)
Inscriptions - Inscribed architectural elements
Archaeological and architectural - Cult buildings (churches, mausolea)
Evidence not before601
Evidence not after602
Activity not before601
Activity not after602
Place of Evidence - RegionPalestine with Sinai
Place of Evidence - City, village, etcNessana
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Nessana
Cult activities - PlacesCult building - independent (church)
Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and CustomsBequests, donations, gifts and offerings
Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and NarrativesOther lay individuals/ people
SourceNessana/Auja Hafir was an important town (actually termed a kome/'village' in documents) in the southwest Negev desert, located on the caravan route from 'Aila/'Aqaba to Gaza, and the pilgrim route towards Sinai, and is sometimes identified with the site of the hostel (xenodochium) of Saint George, visited by the Piacenza Pilgrim (see E00507; for an alternative identification, see E02006).
The site was excavated by the Colt Expedition, led by Harris Dunscombe Colt, between 1935 and 1937, on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. Although the site had suffered serious damage during World War I, it soon yielded rich epigraphical evidence (more than 150 Greek and Nabataean inscriptions), and two invaluable collections of 6th-7th c. documentary and literary papyri, comprising several distinguishable archives. The first, smaller collection of papyri, was found in Room 3 of the South Church, the other in Room 8 of the North Church. It is thanks to these documents that the ancient name of the site - Nessana - was revealed.
The Colt Expedition excavated two churches. The 'North Church' on the acropolis, probably monastic and housing a martyr shrine, they dubbed the Church of *Sergios and Bakchos. It is now known as Church no. 1. It was the biggest sanctuary in the town, and the presence of numerous graffiti suggests that it was a popular shrine, while its papyri show that it had close relations with the monks of Mount Sinai. The inscriptions we present here, come from this establishment. The second church, excavated by Colt was the 'South Church', presumed to have been dedicated to *Mary, Mother of Christ. It is now termed Church no. 2. The Colt Expedition also mentions the 'East Church'/the 'Monastic Church', which is probably the one that had been explored by Woolley and Lawrence, now termed Church no. 3, and a local cemetery. Inscriptions of different kinds were found in all of these locations.
In 1987, Dan Urman resumed the archaeological exploration of the site on behalf of the Ben Gurion Univeristy of the Negev. His campaigns led to the discovery of three more churches in Nessana: the double church (= Church no. 4-5), and a small monastic chapel (= Church no. 6).
As for the history of epigraphical research, Auja Hafir had been surveyed by several scholars interested in inscriptions well before the Colt expedition. They were: the Dominican Father La Grange, the German military chaplain Father Hänsler, Theodore Wiegand and Albrecht Alt, and two more Dominicans, Fathers Abel and Tonneau. The epigraphic finds of the Colt Expedition were first published in 1962, in the first volume of Excavations at Nessana. The expedition's epigraphist, George Eden Kirk, who made the transcriptions in the field, was, however, unable to finish the edition due to his induction into military service. The draft was forwarded to, and revised by, C. Bradford Welles, who claimed responsibility for the final shape of the text. A small group of new fragmentary inscriptions, found by Urman's mission, were published by Pau Figueras in 2004. This collection, however, yields no new evidence for the cult of saints.
DiscussionThe South Church, presumably dedicated to Mary, was a three-aisled basilica with three-apses. A chapel and three rooms were annexed to the south wall. It was a single foundation rather than a building expanded over time (as is the case of the North Church in Nessana). The excavators dated its construction, based on the style of the chancel screen and capitals, to the second half of the 6th c. or even the very early 7th c. (based on the date given in our inscription).
The inscription probably commemorates the donation of the column on which it was carved, or was one of several inscriptions giving the date of the completion of the entire church.
The date is computed according to the era of the province of Arabia, and corresponds to AD 601/602. The same date occurs on the abacus of a limestone capital from the baptistery of the North Church (see I. Nessana, no. 17).
Kirk, G.E., Bradford Welles, C., "The inscriptions", in: H.D. Colt, and others (eds.), Excavations at Nessana (Auja Hafir, Palestine), vol. 1 (London: British Schools of Archaeology in Jerusalem, 1962), no. 92.
Figueras, P., "Monks and monasteries in the Negev desert", Liber Annuus 45 (1995), 425-430.
Meimaris, Y., Sacred Names, Saints, Martyrs and Church Officials in the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Pertaining to the Christian Church of Palestine (Athens: National Hellenic Research Foundation, Center for Greek and Roman Antiquity, 1986), 84, no. 531.
Whately, C., "Camels, soldiers, and pilgrims in sixth century Nessana", Scripta Classica Israelica 35 (2016), 121-135.