Around 2,400 years ago, the great city of Elusa arose in the heart of the Negev Desert, at the crossing point of two great trading routes: the Incense Road and the biblical Way of Shur. Elusa presumably began, as desert cities do, with a village built around an oasis. That particular area is rich in groundwater. At first a village of pagans worshipping Venus, Aphrodite (locally named al-Allat) and the like, the people there would convert to Christianity in the 4th century C.E.
We can be confident that this particular set of ruins in the heart of what is now an Israeli army firing zone is the actual Elusa (Haluza to Hebrews and al-Khalasa in Arabic) because archaeologists have now found an inscription in Greek naming the place, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Wednesday.
Much is unknown about the inscription other than its existence, but it seems to date to Emperor Diocletian’s reign, around 1,700 years ago, when the great 10th Roman Legion was being moved from inside Israel to Aqaba, which led to a lot of development in the region, the archaeologists explain.
While innumerable ancient sources name empires and cities, finding an actual inscription in place with a city’s name is extremely rare. The ancient Romans for one used milestones along their roads, but evidently nobody in antiquity felt a need to be reassured that “You are now entering Jerusalem” or “You are here, in Gath.” Archaeologists have to rely on other clues to identify ruins they find – including local tradition, which can be dead wrong. (Take the theory that Mt. Sinai is in Saudi Arabia mainly because locals say so; that doesn't hold any water at all.)
Another example of an inscription naming a city and found in that same city happened just last year in Jerusalem. That inscription was 2,100 years old.
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“It also happened in Nitzana, a town under Elusa’s jurisdiction in the Byzantine period,” Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini of the Israel Antiquities Authority tells Haaretz. That had been quite the surprise. The ruins had born the Arabic name of Hafir, but papyrus scrolls were found in the 1930s naming the town. “Its original name was Nisana,” Erickson-Gini adds.
The Elusa inscription was found in situ and names the city explicitly. What else it says remains to be seen, since the inscription is still being studied by Prof. Leah Di Segni from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, though a Caesar is clearly mentioned. It also bears saying that the inscription stone is broken.
The excavations in the ancient city of Elusa are part of a project directed by Prof. Michael Heinzelmann on behalf of the University of Cologne in cooperation with Erickson-Gini.
Taking a bath in the desert
With all due respect to the crossing points of great trading routes, why would a vast city that housed tens of thousands of people in its heyday - all the way up to the 6th century - arise in a desert armpit?
For all its inhospitable conditions, the Negev was quite heavily peopled through at least parts of its history, apparently because more attractive parts of the region became overcrowded. Archaeologists have even discovered thriving agricultural communities that reached their acme during the Byzantine era, for instance Saadon and Shivta. The miracle of farming in the desert was achieved by clever water management and by placing enormous dovecotes in the fields, fertilizing crops with guano. But these were villages, or at most small towns.
Elusa was another story entirely. With the cooperation of the Israeli military, excavations have revealed an actual metropolis, albeit not that civilians can visit it on a whim, it being in the firing zone. “We can say right now that it’s a huge place, over 450 dunams [111 acres] in area,” Erickson-Gini says.
There are buildings all over the place, but a major hallmark of its status is the sheer dimensions. “Its main streets were eight meters wide, with porticos along them for shops,” she says. The ordinary streets were five meters wide.
Moreover, in contrast to the towns of Shivta, or ancient Rehovot, which were built up as they went along, Elusa was clearly planned, Erickson-Gini says. By the terms of ancient urban development, it had a Western flavor, she says – for instance, the wide streets. But it also had markedly Middle Eastern features that do not appear in the West, such as cul de sacs at the end of the streets, where family units or even whole clans might live. Elusa was like an interface between East and West in style, she says.
One very Middle Eastern edifice may even have been an ancient emporium. Three years ago the archaeologists uncovered a vast peristyle building, with rooms built around a huge open courtyard and columns facing inwards. Lots of vases and wine jars were found there, though Erickson-Gini points out that its actual function may never be known. Pottery tentatively dates the place to Emperor Diocletian’s period: He ruled Rome from 284 to 305 C.E.
Ancient Elusa also featured a theater and nine churches, compared with three at Shivta, two at Mamshit and two at Uvdat (which does not mean all the churches operated simultaneously).
It also had a vast urban bathhouse, which is unheard of in such circles. Other Negev towns did have bathhouses from the Roman period, but they were spare, military-style structures that were apparently built by soldiers for their own use and civilians may have used them later, Erickson-Gini says. Elusa also featured pottery workshops, of which the Negev villages had none.
A supervisor at the Israel Antiquities Authority reports glimpsing a possible second bathhouse on the other side of the wadi, but if it was there, it is gone, washed away by the winter rains. In what is now Israel, Beit She’an is the only other city know to have had two bathhouses.
And remarkably – it had an international school of rhetoric. “We know that people came from abroad in the Byzantine period and perhaps earlier. They would come to this remote place for its school,” she says.
And no, despite a theory bruited about for decades, Elusa is not Ziklag, another city mentioned in the bible. “There’s nothing that old here,” Erickson-Gini says. “The earliest human remains date to about the end of the fourth century B.C.E., so it can’t be Ziklag.”
(In fact archaeologists today have no idea where Ziklag was. The bible mentions it as the place , burned down by Amalekites, who also captured two of King David's wives - they were recaptured, though. Some think Ziklag is near Elusa, but opinions differ.)
The road to Shur
So, the city arose on the crossing point of two ancient trading routes, one being the Nabatean Incense Road, which was in use connecting Petra and Gaza from at least 2,500 years ago to the 3rd century C.E.
Erickson-Gini points out that Nabatean nomads had controlled the Negev, the Sinai and all modern Jordan until the year 106 C.E., when they were subsumed by the Roman Empire. The Romans then referred to that former Nabatean region as the roman province of “Arabia,” which – despite assumptions to the contrary – is not synonymous with “Saudi Arabia.” Roman Arabia included a bit of northern Saudi Arabia, no more. When the Apostle Paul described his Arabian sojourn, it didn’t mean Riyadh. It likely meant the Negev or Sinai.
The other road is even older: the road to Shur, leading to ancient Kadesh Barnea in northern Sinai (not to be confused with the modern moshav of Kadesh Barnea in the Negev).
Shur appears in scripture several times, none in happy contexts. After fleeing her mistress Sarai, the Lord’s angel found the slave Hagar by “the spring that is beside the road to Shur” (Genesis 16:7-14). Exodus mentions the Desert of Shur, a horrible place without water; and 1 Samuel describes a sobering moment involving the legendary King Saul: “Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt.”
Somewhat later, in 1913 or 1914, Lawrence of Arabia surveyed the area of Shur theoretically looking for archaeological remnants, or according to other versions, spying on the Turks (or both). In short, the Way of Shur was a key inland trading route in the northern Sinai, and Elusa was smack in its path.
References to Elusa, in the various forms of its name, abounded in antiquity, underscoring the city’s status. One of its appearances is in the famed Madaba map, a mosaic on the floor of a church in Jordan with the oldest-known map of the Middle East, including Jerusalem. Papyri from the 2nd century Roman period mention it.
Once a thriving, thrumming city with theater, its school of rhetoric and churches galore, “today it’s like the moon,” Erickson-Gini says.
And as said, though the ruins lie in the firing zone near the main road, worry not for the antiquities. Ancient Elusa has been declared a national park, which does not mean you can go there to watch the deer and antelope play amid the ruins, and not because they’re extinct. The army has banned visitors, and while about it, itself. “They can’t drive tanks over it. They know it,” Erickson-Gini reassures. And every year the archaeologists have to renew their army permit to work there.