Archaeologists Find Byzantine Tombstone Inscribed ‘Blessed Maria’ in Israel

The tombstone of the woman who lived in the Nitzana area about 1,400 years ago joins others unearthed in excavations that belonged to Christians interred in local churches and burial grounds

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The stone from the tombstone found in the Nitzana National Park, this week.
The stone from the tombstone found in the Nitzana National Park, this week.Credit: David Palmach
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

An inscription in ancient Greek from the late Byzantine period was recently found on a stone in the Negev, reading “Blessed Maria, who lived an immaculate life.” The stone was part of the tombstone of a woman who lived in the region about 1,400 years ago. It also includes the date of her death: February 9.

The stone, which dates to the late sixth-early seventh centuries CE, was found by Nature and Parks Authority inspectors who were cleaning up the Nitzana National Park as part of an initiative to give hundreds of unemployed people jobs in nature conservation work. David Palmach, the director of the Nitzana Educational Center, identified the inscription, photographed it and reported it to representatives of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Dr. Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an expert on ancient Greek inscriptions, deciphered the writing from the photograph.

The newly-discovered tombstone joins others that belonged to Christians buried in churches and cemeteries outside Nitzana, and were unearthed in excavations carried out by researchers from Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

“Unlike other ancient towns in the Negev, very little is known about the burial grounds around Nitzana,” said Pablo Betzer, the Israel Antiquities Authority Southern District archaeologist. “The find of any inscription such as this may improve our definition of the cemeteries’ boundaries, thus helping to reconstruct the boundaries of the settlement itself, which have not yet been ascertained.”

Nitzana is considered a key site for studying the transition between the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, said Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini of the antiquities authority. “During the fifth and sixth centuries CE, Nitzana served as a center for the villages and settlements in the vicinity. Among other things, it had a military fortress as well as churches, a monastery and a roadside inn that served Christian pilgrims traveling to Santa Katarina, which believers regarded as the site of Mount Sinai,” she said.

According to Erickson-Gini, Nitzana was founded as early as the third century BCE as a Nabatean way station on a major trade route. It was inhabited intermittently for about 1,300 years before being abandoned in the 10th century CE. The name of the site had been forgotten and was rediscovered only in the 1930s, when a papyrus archive was discovered that included the name “Nessana.”

Eran Doron, head of the Ramat Negev Regional Council, said in response to the discovery that “It’s exciting to discover traces of the life that existed in Tel Nitzana in previous periods. The inscription that was found is thought to belong to a woman of status in the Byzantine period, when Nitzana was a flourishing region.” He added, “The time has come to renew our days as of old, to invest and to make the region bloom again. I invite the public to tour this enchanting place after the lockdown.”

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