Who was Maria who died on February 9 some 1400 years ago, and whose burial stone has now been discovered in Nitzana 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 Nitzana National Park in the Negev. The flat, round stone, 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 Nitzana National Park. The stone was left at the head of the path when it was noticed by David Palmach, the director of the Nitzana Educational Village, who realized that it bore an inscription. Palmach photographed and collected the stone to protect it from thieves.
Palmach contacted the Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority, and the inscription is being transferred to the National Treasures Dept. of the IAA.
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 9. The stone dates from the late sixth–early seventh centuries CE.
According to Tali Erickson-Gini of the IAA, “Nitzana 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, Nitzana 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, regarded by believers to be the site of Mount Sinai.”
According to Dr. Erickson-Gini, Nitzana was founded 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.
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, is added to other stones commemorating Christians buried in the churches and cemeteries around Nitzana that have been unearthed in excavations by the Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
IAA Southern District archaeologist Pablo Betzer said that “unlike other ancient towns in the Negev, very little is known about the burial grounds around Nitzana. 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.”