The city of Elusa, which was founded by the Nabataeans at the end of the 4th century BCE, was an important station on the ancient trade route connecting the Mediterranean with the Arabian Gulf, India and beyond.
From Roman imperial times to Late Antiquity, the city developed into the largest urban center of the region.
Elusa flourished during the Byzantine period in the 4th to mid-6th centuries CE, at which point it was the only city in the Negev and had a population in the tens of thousands.
“The export of high-quality wine from the Negev Highlands in the Byzantine period was responsible for economic prosperity that affected the entire region,” said team member Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini, an archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
“Elusa was also an important station on the route used by Christian pilgrims on their way to and from Santa Katarina in southern Sinai and as such was visited by many foreign travelers.”
“The site appears to have gone out of existence by the end of the 7th century CE,” he added.
“It was used as a source of building stone for Ottoman Gaza and Beer Sheba until the British Mandate period and as a result few building remains can be seen on the surface today and much of the site is hidden under the sand.”
Elusa is mentioned in a number of historical documents such as the Nessana papyri, and is also marked on the mosaic map in Madaba.
However, this is the first time any mention of the city’s name has been found within the site itself.
“The inscription mentions several Caesars of the tetrarchy which allow to date it around 300 CE,” the archaeologists said.
The bathhouse furnace and hypocaust discovered at Elusa. Image credit: Tali Erickson-Gini, Israel Antiquities Authority.
“In addition, during the recent excavation season, a Byzantine church and a bathhouse were uncovered.”
“The 131-foot (40 m) long three-aisled church contained an eastward apse, whose vault was originally decorated with a glass mosaic. Its nave was decorated with marble.”
“The bathhouse is a large, urban complex of which were revealed part of the furnace and caldarium (hot room).”
“The well-preserved hypocaust underlying the caldarium heated the floor and walls by way of brick-built channels and ceramic pipes. It originates in the Middle Roman period but was in use until the 6th century CE.”