The Great City of Elusa - Rare Inscription Confirms City's Name

1,700 year old inscription naming the Negev city ‘Elusa’ is first archaeological evidence of city’s name found on site.

Situated between Petra and Gaza along the Incense Road, the Negev city of Elusa (Halutza in Hebrew) was an important station on the ancient trade route connecting the Mediterranean with the Arabian Gulf, India and beyond. During excavations in the Halutza National Park, Archaeologists discovered a rare inscription bearing the name of the city itself. Elusa is mentioned in a number of historical documents such as the Nessana papyri, and is also marked on the mosaic map in Madaba. This, however, is the first time any mention of the city’s name has been found within the site itself.

The Greek inscription bearing the name Elusa.  Photo: Tali Erickson-Gini, IAA

The Greek inscription bearing the name Elusa. Photo: Tali Erickson-Gini, IAA

The inscription is being studied by Prof. Leah Di Segni from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Written in Greek, the inscription mentions several Ceasars of the tetrarchy leading researchers to believe it was written some 1,700 years ago, around 300 C.E.

Elusa was founded towards the end of the fourth century B.C.E. as a key location along the Incense Road. The city flourished during the Byzantine Period in the fourth to mid-sixth centuries C.E., at which point it was the only city in the Negev and had a population in the tens of thousands. Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini, a project member on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) says that “The export of high-quality wine from the Negev Highlands in the Byzantine period was responsible for economic prosperity that affected the entire region.”

Molded face, possibly of a god, from a Roman oil lamp.  Photo: Tali Erickson-Gini, IAA

Molded face, possibly of a god, from a Roman oil lamp. Photo: Tali Erickson-Gini, IAA

Excavations at the site are part of a three year project directed by Prof. Michael Heinzelmann on behalf of the University of Cologne in cooperation with Dr. Erickson-Gini of the IAA. The project is underwritten by the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development. As part of their research, the archaeologists used geophysical and pedestrian surveys along with remote imagery to map the site before beginning the excavations. With this data, the surveyors were able to reconstruct the city’s plan including its porticoed streets, at least three pottery workshops, a large peristyle building, and what may have been a market building.  The city’s construction displays elements of both western and eastern planning, reflecting its significant location along the major East to West trade route. At it’s height, Elusa covered roughly 450 dunams (about 111 acres).

The surveyors also identified nine churches at Elusa. According to Erickson-Gini, “Elusa was also an important station on the route used by Christian pilgrims on their way to and from Santa Katarina in southern Sinai and as such was visited by many foreign travelers.” One of these churches, uncovered during recent excavations, dates to the Byzantine period and was 40 m long. The church had three isles, a marble-decorated nave, and an eastward apse whose vault was originally adorned with a glass mosaic.

The entrance to the hypocaust under the caldarium.  Photo: Tali Erickson-Gini, IAA

The entrance to the hypocaust under the caldarium. Photo: Tali Erickson-Gini, IAA

Also discovered was an extensive bathhouse, originating in the Middle Roman period and used until the sixth century C.E. Archaeologists exposed the bathhouse’s caldarium (hot room) along with it’s well-preserved hypocaust, brick channels and ceramic pipes underlying the floor.

“The site appears to have gone out of existence by the end of the seventh century CE,” Erickson-Gini says. “The site was used as a source of building stone for Ottoman Gaza and Beer Sheba until the British Mandate period and as a result few building remains can be seen on the surface today and much of the site is hidden under the sand.”    

Thanks to the University of Cologne and the IAA, the ancient city of Elusa is being brought to light once more. A number of significant structures have already been uncovered. The inscription, written some 1,700 years ago and testifying to the site’s identity, was a particularly exciting discovery.

Aerial view of the excavation of the city bathhouse in Elusa. Photographer: Emil Aladjem, IAA

Abby VanderHart, FIAA Contributor

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