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Archaeology in Israel: Nitzana

Nitzana is a ruined town in the Negev identified with ʿAwjā al-Ḥafīr on the Ismailiya road, 50 miles southwest of Beersheba.

Nessana was the ancient name of the site as revealed in the papyri found there. It was founded in the second or first century B.C.E. by the Nabateans, who built a small fort with round towers (two of which were found in the excavations there) on a small hill dominating the wide and fertile Wadi Ḥafīr. Hasmonean coins found there indicate that the place had commercial relations with Judea. The site was abandoned after the Roman occupation of Petra, the Nabatean capital, in 106 C.E., but was rebuilt as a frontier post by the emperor Theodosius I (379–95). The soldiers of the garrison received plots of land in the valley, and a town was built beneath the fortress (now called Hospice of St. George). Nitzana was connected by a road with Elusa, the capital of the Byzantine Negev, with Elath and with Sinai. The Byzantine town included two churches with mosaic floors (one dated 435) and a large cemetery with tombstones (dated 430–64). It prospered during this period, serving merchants bound for Egypt, pilgrims traveling to Mt. Sinai, and anchorites living in the desert. The town survived the Persian and Arab conquests; papyri discovered by the Colt Expedition in 1936 show that a mixed Arab-Greek administration persisted until approximately 750 C.E. The settlement declined and was eventually abandoned until its reoccupation by the Turks as a police post in 1908. Under the British Mandate a central headquarters for the border police was located there. In May 1948, during the Israel War of Independence, the Egyptian invasion started from this point. Israel forces took the area in December, and it was declared a demilitarized zone in the Israel-Egypt Armistice Agreement. It was also the site for the Israel-Egyptian Mixed Armistice Commission meetings until 1967.

The site was discovered by U.J. Seetzen in 1807, with the first proper investigations at the site conducted by E.H. Palmer and C.F. Tyrwhitt-Drake in 1870. A. Musil made a detailed plan of the site in 1902, followed by the investigations of C.L. Woolley and T.E. Lawrence in 1913/14. Important excavations were conducted at the site in 1935–37 by H.D. Colt, with the discovery of an important archive of papyri. In 1987 excavations were resumed at the site under the direction of D. Urman and J. Shereshevski on behalf of Ben-Gurion University. Further parts of the flight of steps connecting the town with the acropolis were uncovered. Two building complexes were unearthed close to the Southern Church, and the excavators suggest that they were used by the priests as their living quarters. Further work was done on the acropolis, and a new area of excavations was opened up next to the bank of the wadi which extends between the lower and upper towns, revealing a large living quarter dating to the Late Byzantine period built above Nabatean settlement remains. A previously unknown church with a martyrium and baptistery was uncovered in the lower town, and an unknown monastery was found on the north edge of the northern hill of the upper town. Numerous ostraca were uncovered inscribed in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, and Coptic.

In 1987 the Jewish Agency for Israel decided to establish an education center in Nitzana. The main aim was to educate Israeli and Diaspora youth about the settlement potential of the desert. The village served as an absorption center and ulpan for young immigrants. In addition, it offered various educational programs for Diaspora youth. Nitzana was also a research center for environmental studies attached to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It had a guest house with 50 rooms for visitors to the region. At the end of 2002 the educational community numbered 230 residents.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.