DISCUSSION

Ascalon, Gaza, Negev and Sinai

109. Elusa - (al-Khalasa)


A city in the northwestern part of the central Negev. The modern Arabic name of the site, el Khalasa, has preserved its ancient Arabic form, which is known to us from the Nessana papyri as al-Khalus. Elusa was the principal city of the central Negev, and is mentioned in many of & ancient sources. Ptolemy (died C. AD 150) enumerates it in his Geography among the towns of Idumea west of the Jordan. The Peutinger map situates it 71 Roman miles from Jerusalem. In the Medaba map it appears as a large town.
It seems that Elusa belongs to the group of early Nabatean foundations of the late 4th or early 3rd century BC. Evidence of this is provided by Hellenistic pottery found on the site and by a Nabatean inscription of the first half of the 2nd century BC in which Aretas, King of the Nabateans, is mentioned. At that time Elusa and Oboda were important stations on the main trade route running from Petra to the emporium of' Gaza. The conquest of Gaza by the Hasmonean Alexander Jannaeus at the beginning of the 1st century BC terminates the first chapter of' the history of the Nabateans at Elusa. Typical Nabatean pottery, early Roman sherds and a great number of' coins attest to a renewed Nabatean settlement in the 1st century AD.
Elusa reached its greatest eminence in the late Roman period, when it became the most important city in the central Negev and of that part of the Provincia Arabia. It was the birth-place of Libanius [corr. Zenobius], the famous teacher of rhetoric, who went to teach in Antioch and mentioned Elusa in his letters between AD 356 and 359. Christianity penetrated Elusa earlier than the other towns of the central Negev, and there is literary evidence of pagan and Christian communities living side by side. Bishops of Elusa participated in the councils of the church in At) 431 and 451. But tomb-stones found in the local cemetery indicate that there were pagans at Elusa as late as the early 5th century. In this period the city belonged to Palestina Tertia. The city was visited c. AD 530 by Theodosius and in 570 by Antoninus of Placentia, who made a pilgrimage to Mount *Sinai. Elusa is frequently mentioned in the papyri of Nessana, in which it is referred to as a polis. According to the same sources Elusa was still an administrative center in the early Arab period, at least up to the end of the 7th century AD. No archaeological remains that can be attributed with certainty to the early Arab period have been found at Elusa.

Avraham Negev (Ed.), The Archaeological Encyclopaedia of the Holy Land, ad v. "Elusa" (extract)

Editors' Note: New excavations are being conducted in this site (1999-2000) on behalf of the Bersheva University of the Negev by H. Goldfuss.

Herbert Donner (The Mosaic Map of Madaba, Kampen 1992, 72)
Not mentioned in Eus. On., but so much the more in Christian, Jewish and Muslim sources, also on the Peutinger Plates. Elusa is identical with al-Halasa (coord. 117-056), about 20 km southwest of Beersheba. It was founded by the Nabataeans in the 3rd century B.C. and became later on the capital of the Byzantine Negeb (Palaestina Tertia) and a bishop's see. The impressive ruins have been partly excavated after 1973 and 1980]. The representation shows a middle-sized symbol with four towers and at least two red-roofed churches. Only one church, the Byzantine basilica, has been found up to now. The late Roman towers are not connected with a wall, but lean against the inside houses. It is, however, not likely that the mosaicist wanted to portray this peculiarity.

Leah Di Segni ("The Onomastikon of Eusebius and the Madaba Map", in The Madaba Map Centenary, Jerusalem 1999, 117)
Since Arad is pictured between Elusa and Beersheba, only slightly to the east, we are brought to despair of ever locating anything in the map of the Negev as portrayed by the Madaba artist. (See also the complete article)

Herbert Donner ("The Uniqueness of the Madaba Map and its Restoration in 1965", in The Madaba Map Centenary, Jerusalem 1999, 38)
The mosaicist had special difficulties in relating the places to each other correctly. He did not succeed in solving this problem everywhere, but more frequently than one might expected. For example, Jerusalem, or at least its northern wall, is exactly situated at the latitude of the northern end of the Dead See, Hebron (al-Khalil) approximately at the latitude of Eleutheropolis (Beit Jibrin), Livias correctly east-southeast of Jericho, Mampsis (Kurnub) east-southeast of Beersheba (in reality southeast), Elusa and Orda southeast of Gaza in spite of the wrong turning of the Mediterranean coast line, etc. (See also the complete article)

Bellarmino Bagatti (Ancient Christian Villages of Judaea and Negev, Jerusalem - in the press)

Elusa, Haluza, Khalasa

In the Life of Hilarion (ch. 25; PL 23, col.41 ), St. Jerome tells us how the saint, already in full maturity and enjoying the reputation as a wonderworker, going "toward the desert of Cades to visit one of his disciples, reached Elusa together with an enormous band of anchorites precisely on the day when the annual festival had gathered the whole population of the city in the temple of Venus.
"They venerate that goddess," Jerome continues, because of the cult of the morning star, Lucifer, to whom those Moorish people are devoted. It must also be said that the city is in great part semibarbarian because of its geographic location.
"And thus, when word spread that St. Hilarion was passing through the city (he had often cured many Saracens possessed by demons), they crowded around him accompanied by their wives and children, bending their necks and shouting in the Syrian language 'Berech!' meaning 'bless.' And Hilarion, receiving them with gentleness and humility, implored them to venerate God rather than stones, and at the same time he shed floods of tears, looking up at the sky and promising that he would have visited them more often if they would only believe in Christ. Behold the extraordinary grace of the Lord! They did not let him depart before he had traced the outline of the church which should rise there and before their priest, crowned as he was, had been marked with the sign of Christ."
Like all the other writers of the period, Jerome calls all the nomadic Bedouin tribes who used to wander in the deserts of Syria, Palestine, and the Sinai peninsula Saracens. He mentions the cult of Lucifer, the morning star, connected with the cult of Venus, and calls their idols "stones." Whatever historical value one might grant to Jerome's account, it seems to us that a basis in truth must be admitted. As at Gaza, so in Elusa the influence of Hilarion on the development of Christianity was substantial. More than with preaching, this influence worked through miracles.
The story helps us understand how Christianity was introduced into the Negev through the missionary action of the monks. This is a deduction which some scholars have made on the basis of the finds in the excavations.
The Anonymous Pilgrim of Piacenza was in Elusa in 570. He learned a marvelous story from the city bishop, and decided it deserved inclusion in his Itinerary. A girl named Mary saw her husband die on her wedding night. Then within the first week of mourning she distributed her property to the poor, and right after celebrating the seventh-day rites for her husband's death she left for the desert of the Dead Sea dressed in her husband's clothes and was never seen again (Antonini Placentini Itinerarium , ch.34, CCSL 175, pp. 145-46).
In the first half of the sixth century the monk Paul lived in seclusion in Elusa. He wrote a biography of St. Theognius, bishop of Bitylion, who died in 522. The life, composed soon after the saint's death, was published in Analecta Bollandiana 10 (1891), pp. 73-113). In the early seventh century John Moschus relates a conversation between a faint-hearted monk and Abbot Victor who was leading the solitary life "in the laura of Elusa" in mid-sixth century (Pratum Spirituale , ch.164; PG 87, 3032).
The Narratiions of St. Nilus. In an autobiographical narrative, which go by the name of St. Nilus (PG 79, cols. 587-694), a story is told about a raid of barbarians on the monastery of Mount Sinai; on this occasion Nilus and his son Theodulus were captured. The son was almost killed as a sacrificial victim to the pagan gods; but finally he was released and, as the story goes, he was ordained priest by the bishop of Elusa and sent back to Mount Sinai.
These narratives, ascribed since ancient times to the fifth-century Abbot Nilus (d. after 430), have generated much discussion among scholars who generally consider them fictional (cf. DB Suppl. VI, 475-80). The monastery of St. Catherine was completed in 557 and the story, if true, would go back to a much earlier period. In any event, the story gives us a good picture of the inhabitants of the Negev in the early Byzantinre period.
The Bishops. Some are known from their signatures at the various councils. Thus, Theodulos or Ampela of Elusa signed his name at Ephesus in 431: this name, according to Reland's conjectures, would stand for Abdallah, "servant of God" in Arabic, or in Greek Theodulus. Another bishop with an Arab name, Arethas, attended the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Petrus signed the synodical epistle against Severus of Antioch, sent by the Jerusalem synod in 518, and Zenobius took part in the Jerusalem synod of 536.
In inscriptions discovered at Subeita two bishops are mentioned: George, whomlivedat the end of the sixth century or at the beginning of the seventh, and Thomas in 640. The names appear in the dedicatory inscriptions of churches, and as it was customary to record the diocesan bishop's name in these dedications, we can conclude that two bishops of Elusa are referred to here.
After the Arab conquest the town declined: the place was abandoned for centuries and fell prey to stone plunderers, especially from Gaza. Today it is a boundless plain covered with sand. Some scholars were able in passing to copy some inscriptions, especially epitaphs (Jaussen et al., RB 14 [1905], pp. 253-55; Abel, RB 18 [1909], pp. 105-06; Woolley and Lawrence, pp. 138-42). Others, like G. Lombardi, collected pottery (LA 22 [1972], pp. 335-68). Figure 28, 1-2 shows a sample: two juglets and a fragment of terra sigillata decorated with a cross. The same figure also shows inscriptions discovered in Elusa, mentioning the names of Erasinus, George, Theodore (or Theodora), and Mary.


The Cathedral of Elusa.
Isometric drawing of the sanctuary (from A. Negev - drawing by R. Fritzius).

The Ruins. Only soundings have been made; hence, very little is known about the city. On June 26 and July 21, 1980, we visited Prof. Negev's excavation [cf. LA 39 (1989) 129-142]. It is bringing to light the ruins of a Nabataean theater and a church. The dig is not yet completed; several fields are being explored by volunteers from many parts of the world. The church is a large one with three naves and an atrium. As the excavator told us, it first had only one apse but later the lateral apses were added. A unique feature of Palestinian churches, not noted elsewhere until now, is having in the apse, instead of benches with the bishop's throne, a seven-step synthronon skirting the inner wall: here it is 138 cm wide and 130 cm high, and was once faced with marble plaques like the apses and the sanctuary.
Unlike the marble facing, which was removed in antiquity, the church capitals have been well conserved; they have acanthus leaves but their workmanship is far from classical.
In the May-June 1981 issue of Le Monde de la Bible (No. 19, pp. 39-43), the excavator has given an account of his discovery, illustrated with superb photographs. He believes without doubt that the apse steps formsed the basis of the bishop's throne. For an explanation he refers to the accusations made to Paul of Samosata because he had made himself a throne like the emperor's. The throne of Elusa was doubtless not very practical, especially if the bishop was elderly. Negev also reproduces the church's plan (reconstructed on the basis of the excavation and the soundings) and a more detailed plan of the excavated apses.
A dissertation submitted by J. D. Elliot, Jr., to the Mississippi State University of Mississippi (The Elusa Oikoumene, 1981) fully treats of the topography, geology, and history of the city. The author notes, among other things, that the inhabitants, although for the most part farmers, also had some teachers and physicians among them; and they busied themselves with providing lodging to travelers. The work gives a perspective also on the relations of the city with its surrounding towns.

For more sources and bibliography see:
F.-M. Abel, Géographie de la Palestine.II (Paris 1938), s.v. "Elusa", 119.

Map Section 9 Place Sources

logo logo

Created Tuesday, December 19, 2000 at 23:40:36
by Eugenio Alliata ofm in collaboration with Stefano de Luca ofm
Webmaster: John Abela ofm - Space by courtesy of Christus Rex
copyright - Studium Biblicum Franciscanum - Jerusalem 2000