Unique 1,700-year-old Greek inscription unearthed at Incense Route city in Negev
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8,000 once lived here; 'today, looks like face of the moon'

Unique 1,700-year-old Greek inscription unearthed at Incense Route city in Negev

Discovery is first in situ proof of ancient Nabatean trade hub Halutza; found by German-Israeli team using trailblazing technology to virtually plumb the depths

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Still from drone footage at the ancient Negev city of Halutza. (Emil Eljam, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Still from drone footage at the ancient Negev city of Halutza. (Emil Eljam, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Students from the University of Cologne work in the furnace room of the bathhouse that was uncovered last month at the ancient Negev city of Halutza. (Tali Gini, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Students from the University of Cologne work in the furnace room of the bathhouse that was uncovered last month at the ancient Negev city of Halutza. (Tali Gini, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Ancient Greek inscription which bears the name 'Elusa,' the ancient Greek name for 'Halutza,' found at Halutza site in February 2019 (Tali Gini, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Ancient Greek inscription which bears the name 'Elusa,' the ancient Greek name for 'Halutza,' found at Halutza site in February 2019 (Tali Gini, Israel Antiquities Authority)

A team of German and Israeli archaeologists found the X that marks the spot of an ancient Negev Nabatean city of Halutza last month, when a rare circa 300 CE Greek inscription was uncovered bearing the Greek name of the settlement, Elusa. This newly unearthed inscription, whose discovery was announced on Wednesday, is the first physical in situ documentation of the once-booming trade hub.

Some 1,700-year-ago, when the inscription was etched in stone, Halutza was a thriving community on the Incense Route, with 8,000 settlers at its peak. Now the desert site is almost barren due to intensive looting during the Ottoman period, said Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Today Halutza “looks like the face of the moon,” said Erickson-Gini.

For some archaeologists, the lack of visual clues would be a deterrent to further excavation. However, for the past three years, Erickson-Gini has participated in a German-Israeli project that is exploiting the barren site as a large-scale laboratory for testing new technology and techniques to virtually plumb the depths — before breaking ground.

Still from drone footage at the ancient Negev city of Halutza. (Emil Eljam, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Headed by Prof. Michael Heinzelmann on behalf of the University of Cologne and with funding by the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development, the team of German students from Cologne and Bonn are using a combination of archaeological methodology — old and new — to draw up a complete map of the outline city and chart its 8-meter broad roadways and the structures that flanked them.

The German team began work in 2015, with IAA cooperation starting the following year. Erickson-Gini, an American-born, 40-year veteran Israeli archaeologist, said the team headed by Heinzelmann is uniquely skilled and “probably the best in the world for what they’re doing.

“They understood the potential of the site and brought a magnificent project to it,” said Erickson-Gini. The site itself offered the proper conditions — barren waste — but the German team brought the “equipment and know-how.”

Halutza was founded in the late 4th century BCE as a station along the Incense Road, a network of trade routes that stretched some 2,000 kilometers from the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean. The portion of the ancient route in the Negev connected Petra and Gaza; later, Christian pilgrims also used the road on their way to Saint Catherine in Sinai.

Image of the god ‘El Al’ on a Roman-period oil lamp discovered at the ancient city of Halutza in the Negev. (Tali Gini, Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to an IAA press release Wednesday, the city reached its peak in the Byzantine period, during the 4th to mid-6th centuries CE, when it was known for its fine wines and was the only city in the Negev. That glory has passed in the sands of time, but its name was preserved through the Arabic name of its ruins: “el-Khalassa.”

Throughout the centuries, the name Halutza appears in historical documentation, including in the famous Madaba mosaic map, found on the floor of an early Byzantine church in Jordan, which depicts the Holy Land with Jerusalem at its center. Likewise, other inscriptions have been discovered at the UNESCO World Heritage site — including one bearing the name of a Nabatean king from circa 200 BCE that was found in 1914 by C. Leonard Woolley and T. E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia).

The new Greek-language Elusa inscription is currently being researched by Hebrew University’s Dr. Leah Di Segni, who will publish her findings in the future.

Ancient Greek inscription which bears the name ‘Elusa,’ the ancient Greek name for ‘Halutza,’ found at Halutza site in February 2019 (Tali Gini, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Re-visualizing the wasteland

To discern promising locations to excavate in the 2019 dig season, the team used data gathered from non-invasive methods such as magnetometry, which charts magnetism from burnt objects. A bathhouse and Byzantine church were uncovered.

“You go there and it’s really rather depressing,” Erickson-Gini said. But when touring with Heinzelmann and his team, “they pull out the maps that they made and you realize just what a big place this was,” she said. At its height, the city sprawled over some 450 dunams and held among other structures nine churches, three pottery workshops, a bathhouse and a huge columned building.

Entrance to a subterranean heating system for the ancient bathhouse at the Negev city of Halutza. (Tali Gini, Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to Erickson-Gini, the inscription was discovered near what appears to be a monumentally large bathhouse, along the lines of Beit She’an, that was in use until the 6th century. The team has so far unearthed part of the furnace system and a caldarium (hot room). According to the IAA release, “The well-preserved hypocaust underlying the caldarium heated the floor and walls by way of brick-built channels and ceramic pipes.”

The church is 40 meters long, and has three aisles. It originally held a marble-decorated nave and a vaulted eastward apse that was once decorated with a glass mosaic, according to the IAA press release.

Previous excavations that took place at this desert settlement in the 1960s-70s, and then in the late 1990s and early 2000s, have been back-filled to protect the ancient remains of a large theater and a church/cathedral from additional looting. Now the Halutza National Park in the Negev is part of a military zone and inaccessible to tourists.

There is no intention to develop the site for tourism at this point. The excavations are for research only, and finds from current excavations have been backfilled by the German team, said Erickson-Gini.

Students from the University of Cologne work in the furnace room of the bathhouse that was uncovered last month at the ancient Negev city of Halutza. (Tali Gini, Israel Antiquities Authority)

The three-year grant from the German-Israeli Foundation has now run out, but there is much more insight to be garnered from the site, said Erickson-Gini.

The Halutza project is “a real blessing for the research of our country,” she said.

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