Who was Maria, who died on 9 February some 1400 years ago and whose burial stone has now been discovered in Nizzana National Park?
A stone bearing an inscription in Greek from the end of the Byzantine period was discovered last weekend in the confines of the Nizzana National Park in the Negev.
The flat, round stone, c. 25 cm. in diameter, was used as a tombstone in one of the cemeteries surrounding the ancient settlement.
The stone was found by a “Project 500” worker from the Israel Parks and Nature Authority while cleaning and preparing nature paths in the Nizzana National Park. The stone was left at the head of the path when it was noticed by David Palmach, the director of the Nizzana Educational Village, who realized that it bore an inscription. Palmach photographed and collected it to prevent its being looted. He also contacted the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority, and the inscription is being transferred to the National Treasuries Dept.
The inscription was deciphered by Dr Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and it refers to “Blessed Maria, who lived an immaculate life” and died on February 9th. The stone dates from the late sixth–early seventh centuries CE.
According to Tali Erickson-Gini of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Nizzana is renowned as a key site in research into the transition between the Byzantine and the Early Islamic periods. During the fifth and sixth centuries CE, Nizzana acted 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 road station that served Christian pilgrims traveling to Santa Katarina, which believers regarded as the site of Mount Sinai.”
According to Dr Erickson-Gini, Nizzana was founded in as early as the third century BCE as a Nabatean road station on a major trade route and the place was inhabited intermittently for about 1300 years, until it was abandoned in the tenth century CE and its name was forgotten.
Archaeological excavations at the site in the 1930s unearthed a papyrus archive, and the name ‘Nessana’ was rediscovered. The burial-stone find, naming the deceased as Maria, joins other stones commemorating Christians buried in the churches and cemeteries around Nizzana that have been unearthed in excavations by the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, among others.
Israel Antiquities Authority Southern District archaeologist Pablo Betzer says, “Unlike other ancient towns in the Negev, very little is known about the burial grounds around Nizzana. 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.”