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Aerial view of Nissana Aerial view of Nessana

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Etan J. Tal - Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 4.0


Transliterated Name Source Name
Nessana Greek Νεσσανα
Nitzana Hebrew ניצנה‎‎
Nizzana Hebrew ניצנה‎‎
Auja el-Hafir Arabic عوجة الحفير‎‎
el-Audja Arabic variant يلأودجا
'Uja al-Hafeer Arabic variant 'وجا الءهافيير
el Hafir Arabic variant يل هافير

Nessana was located along the Incense Road and was settled from the Hellenistic to Early Arab periods (Avraham Negev in Stern et al, 1993). There is a Neolithic site in the vicinity. The Nessana papyri was discovered at Nessana.

Identification and History including the Nessana Papyri


Nessana is in the western part of the central Negev desert, 52 km (32 mi.) southwest of Beersheba (map reference 0970.0318). The settlement was in existence from the Hellenistic to the Early Arab periods. In 1807, U. J. Seetzen recorded the Arabic name 'Auja el-Hafir for the site on his travel map. E. Robinson discovered Nessana in 1838, but mistakenly identified it with 'Abda (q.v. Oboda). This mistake was corrected by E. H. Palmer in 1871.


Nessana seems to belong to the initial Nabatean wave of colonization in the Negev, at which time Elusa and Oboda were also founded. This is evidenced by the numerous imported Hellenistic wares found on the eastern side of the acropolis. Among these are second- and first-century BCE stamped amphora handles that originated in Rhodes, Cos, Pamphylia(?), and Italy. The early coins include those of Ptolemy IV (212 BCE), Ptolemy VIII (127-126 BCE), and John Hyrcanus (134-104 BCE). The Colt expedition assigned a fort (25 by 27m) on the eastern side of the acropolis to this period. Excavations made by the Ben-Gurion University team have shown that the monumental stairway leading from the lower city to the acropolis is not from the Byzantine period, as the Colt expedition assumed, but from the second half of the first century BCE. This writer believes that these stairs do not lead to a fort, but to a Nabatean temple.

The Middle Nabatean period (30 BCE-50/70 CE) is dated by painted Nabatean ware and Early Roman pottery, as well as by coins of Aretas IV (9 BCE-40 CE) and of Malichus (40-70 cE) or Rabbel II (70-106 CE). It seems that at this time a temple (?) was built on the eastern side of the acropolis. No finds could be dated to the Late Nabatean period. However, two coins of Septimius Severus (193-211 CE) suggest the possibility that Nessana was to some extent also inhabited in the Late Nabatean period. Activities on a very large scale began after the middle of the third century CE, and especially during the reign of Constantine II (312-337 CE). Nabatean ostraca, inscribed on pebbles with ink, may belong to the second and third centuries CE. The excavators did not date any buildings on the acropolis to this period, but ascribed the construction of the fortress to the early fifth century. On the other hand, Negev dates the large citadel to the early fourth century CE.

Shortly after the construction of the fortress on the acropolis, the North Church, which adjoins it, was built. At about the beginning of the seventh century, the South Church was built a short distance south of the citadel. There were two or three churches in the lower city, probably built in the fifth and sixth centuries, one of them excavated by the Ben-Gurion University team.

Nessana's prosperity continued throughout the Byzantine period and during the first century following the Arab conquest. To this period belong typical pottery vessels, Byzantine coins of Constans II (641-668 CE), and Arab coins imitating coins of that emperor, minted at Damascus, and in other Early Arab mints. The papyri found at Nessana, both Greek and bilingual Greek-Arabic, date from the sixth to late seventh centuries CE. There is no evidence for the existence of Nessana later than the eighth century CE.

The Nessana Papyri

The most significant discovery made at Nessana is literary, theological, and legal papyri. Among the literary papyri found by the Colt expedition were eleven books or fragments ofbooks: a Greek dictionary to Virgil's Aeneas; a fragment of Aeneas; several chapters of the Gospel of John; the Acts of Saint George; and the apocryphal letters of Abgar to Christ and Christ's reply. The 195 nonliterary documents and fragments date to 512 to 689 CE. Among them are documents relating to all spheres of life: financial contracts, marriage and divorce, division of property and inheritance, bills of sale, receipts of various kinds, letters concerning church matters, military matters, grain yields, and wheat. Bilingual Greek-Arabic documents are concerned with the requisition of wheat, oil and money, and food and poll taxes. Not all the papyri pertain to the central Negev region, however. Two lengthy documents dealing with the sale of dates must have come from the southern coastal region. Among the military documents are some their publisher explains refer to an account of the allotment of taxes by villages. In this papyrus, four sites in the central Negev, two in the Beersheba Plain, and three in the region to the north of the plain are listed. The editor suggested that the high sums of money named were taxes on landed property, to be paid by well-to-do farmers and land-owning soldiers (limitanei). This is, however, unlikely. According to the list, Nessana, Oboda, and Mampsis (Kurnub) are supposedly required to pay the same taxes; however, they differ greatly in both actual amount of landed property and population. This writer has suggested that the sums mentioned in the document are, rather, bimonthly payments of the annona militaris, which the military provincial authorities paid members of the militia recruited from the nine sites mentioned in the document. In one of the documents, in which much smaller sums of money are dealt with, payments to individuals or small groups of individuals are listed.

Exploration and Excavations


Palmer observed the remains of a church in the lower city, which according to him was in a very ruinous state, and drew a plan of the South Church on the acropolis, whose walls were still 9 m high. The walls of both the citadel and the church were still faced with ashlars. Along the riverbed of Nahal Nessana, Palmer marked the presence of three ancient wells, one of which was named by the local Bedouin Bir es-Saqiyeh (Well of the Water Wheel). A. Musil visited the site in 1902. He drew the first detailed plan of the lower city, a plan of the South Church on the acropolis, and a section of a well that the Turkish authorities cleared to a depth of 15 m without reaching the water level. E. Huntington, who visited 'Auja in 1909, described the administrative center the Turks had built in 1908 above the ruins of a church. The church had been decorated with multicolored mosaic pavements in which there were Greek inscriptions - one from the year 601 CE. He also mentioned another church, with inscriptions dating to the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries (there was a guest house on the ruins of this church). Huntington described two parallel colonnaded streets 200 m long. In the lower city, he observed remains of two additional churches. His description of the lower city is not supported by the description of any other travelers, however - including C.L. Woolley and T. E. Lawrence, who visited the site in 1914. By that time the Turks had already built three new buildings in the lower city.

In 1916, 'Auja was visited by the Committee for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments attached to the German-Turkish military command, under the direction of T. Wiegand. The new buildings were fully documented and a plan of the North Church on the acropolis, discovered then, was made. Several Greek inscriptions were copied, and the first papyrus fragments were found (see below). Nabatean painted pottery was identified as Coptic. In 1921, A. Alt published the 150 Greek inscriptions from the Negev known up to that time in the committee's publications. In 1933, J. H. Iliffe identified Nabatean painted pottery at 'Auja. The Colt expedition, under the auspices of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, excavated the site in 1935- 1936 and 1936-1937. Excavations were made on the acropolis, where the papyri were found in which the ancient name of the site, Νεσσανα, is frequently mentioned. In 1987, excavations at Nessana were resumed by the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, under the direction of D. Urman.

Excavations from 1987-1995

Excavations at Nessana in the Negev were resumed in 1987–1995 by an expedition of Ben-Gurion University, under the direction of D. Urman. In 1987–1991 the excavations were co-directed by J. Shereshevski, and in 1991–1992 by D. E. Groh.

Maps, Aerial Views, Plans, and Drawings
Maps, Aerial Views, Plans, and Drawings


  • Location Map from

Aerial Views

  • Annotated Aerial View of Nessana from
  • Aerial view of Churches of St. Sergius and Bacchus from Stern et. al. (2008)
  • Nessana in Google Earth
  • Nessana on

Plans and Drawings

Site Plans

Normal Size

  • Site plan from the Byzantine period from Stern et. al. (1993 v.3)
  • Site plan with excavation areas from Stern et. al. (2008)


  • Site plan from the Byzantine period from Stern et. al. (1993 v.3)
  • Site plan with excavation areas from Stern et. al. (2008)

Area Plans and Drawings

Byzantine Fort (Area G)

  • Plan of Byzantine Fort (Area G) from Stern et. al. (2008)

Northern Monastery

  • Reconstruction of the northern monastery from Stern et. al. (2008)

“Central” Church complex (Area F)

  • Reconstruction of the “Central” Church complex (area F) from Stern et. al. (2008)

7th century CE earthquake

Erickson-Gini (personal correspondence, 2021) relates that Nessana suffered seismic damage in the 7th century CE - sometime after 620 CE.

Notes and Further Reading

Bibliography from the Nessana Expedition Website

Excavation Reports

Colt H.D. 1962. Excavations at Nessana 1 (Auja Hafir, Palestine). London.

​ Casson L. and Hettich E.L. 1950. Excavations at Nessana 2: Literary Papyri. Princeton.

Kraemer C.J. 1958. Excavations at Nessana 3: Non-Literary Papyri. Princeton.

Urman D. 2004. Nessana: Excavations and Studies (Beer-Sheva XVII). Beer Sheva.

​ Tepper Y., Weissbrod L., Erickson-Gini T., and Bar-Oz G. 2020. Nizzana 2017. Hadashot Arkheologiyot – Excavations and Surveys in Israel 132.

​ Tepper Y., Weissbrod L., Erickson-Gini T., and Bar-Oz G. 2020. Nizzana 2019. Hadashot Arkheologiyot – Excavations and Surveys in Israel 132.

​ Tchekhanovets Y. 2022. Nessana 2022. Hadashot Arkheologiyot – Excavations and Surveys in Israel 134 (forthcoming).

Selected studies

Stroumsa R. 2008. “People and Identities in Nessana”. PhD Dissertation, Duke University.

​ Ruffini G. 2011. Village Life and Family Power in Late Antique Nessana. Transactions of the American Philological Association 141/1: 201-225.

​ Hoyland R. 2015. The Protection (Dhimma) of God and Muhammad in Early Islam: P. Nessana 77 Re-discovered. In: B. Sadeghi, A. Ahmed, A. Silverstein and R. Hoyland (eds.), Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts: Essays in Honor of Professor Patricia Crone. Leiden and Boston. Pp. 51­-71.

​ Hoyland R. 2021. P. Nessana 56: A Greek-Arabic Contract from the Early Islamic Palestine and its Context. Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 51: 133-148.

​ Hoyland R. 2021. The Arabic Papyri from Early Islamic Nessana. Israel Exploration Journal 71/2: 224-241.

​ Pogorelsky O., Stone M.E. and Tchekhanovets Y. 2019. Armenians in the Negev: Evidence from Nessana. Le Muséon 132/1-2: 123-137.

​ Bar-Oz G. et al. 2019. Ancient Trash Mounds Unravel Urban Collapse a Century before the End of Byzantine Hegemony in the Southern Levant. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Marom N. et al. 2019. Zooarchaeology and the Social and Economic Upheavals of Late Antique – Early Islamic Sequence of the Negev Desert. Nature Scientific Reports.

Fuks D. et al. 2021. The Rise and Fall of Viticulture in the Late Antique Negev Highlands Reconstructed from Archaeobotanical and Ceramic Data. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

​ Betzer P. 2021. Nessana Necropoleis: An Aerial and Ground Survey of Byzantine Era Cemeteries in the Israeli Negev. Antigua Oriente 19: 277-300. ​ Tchekhanovets Y., Rasiuk A., Levy A., Peretz A. and Pogorelsky O. 2023. The Renewed Excavations at Nessana. In: A. Golani, D. Varga, S. Rosen and Y. Tchekhanovets (eds.), Archaeological Excavations and Research Studies in Southern Israel. 19th Annual Southern Conference. Beer-Sheva (Hebrew). (forthcoming). (1990-1991), 103-104.

Auja al-Hafir

Kalbian V. 2015. Photographic Memories: The Field Hospital of Hafir el-Auja and US – Ottoman Relations. Jerusalem Quarterly 63-64: 54-71.

Peretz A. and Betzer P. 2022. Hospital, Tents and Graves: Auja el-Hafir in World War I. In: A. Golani, D. Varga, Y. Tchekhanovets and M. Birkenfeld (eds.), Archaeological Excavations and Research Studies in Southern Israel. 18 th Annual Southern Conference. Beer-Sheva. Pp. 111–128 (Hebrew).

Bibliography from Stern et. al. (1993 v.3)

Main publications

MaH. D. Colt et al., Excavations at Nessana 1, London 1962

L. Casson and E. L. Hettich, Excavations at Nessana 2: Literary Papyri, Princeton 1950

C. J. Kraemer, Excavations at Nessana 3: NonLiterary Papyri, Princeton 1958.

Other studies

Musil, Arabia Petraea 1: Edam, 88-109

Woolley-Lawrence PEFA 3, 115-121

P. H. Haensler, Das Heilige Land 60 (1916), 155ff.

61 (1916), 198ff.

62 (1917), 12ff.

K. Wultzinger and T. Wiegand, Sinai, Berlin 1921, 99-109

A. A1t, Die griechischen Inschriften der Palaestina Tertia, Berlin 1921, 37-43

B.S. J. lsserlin, Annual, Leeds University 7 (1969-1973), 17-31

A. Negev, RB 81 (1974), 400-422

id., MdB 19 (1981), 16, 32

id., Antike Welt 13 (1982), 2-33

id., Tempel, Kirchen und Cisternen, Stuttgart 1983, 193-296, 215-223

id., BAR 14/6 (1988), 36-37

D. Chen, LA 35 (1985), 291-296; R. Wenning, Die Nabatadr: Denkmdler undGeschichte, Gottingen 1987, 156-158

D. Urman, BAlAS 10 (1990-1991), 103-104.

Bibliography from Stern et. al. (2008)

Main publications

D. Urman et al., Nessana Excavations 1987–1995 (Nessana Excavations and Studies 1; Beer Sheva 17), Beer-Sheva 2004 (Heb.)


A. Negev, ABD, 4, New York 1992, 1082–1084

id., Eretz Magazine 8/30 (1993), 35–52

id., Studies in the Archaeology and History of Ancient Israel, Haifa 1993, 25*

id., Petra Rediscovered: Lost City of the Nabataeans (ed. G. Markoe), London 2003, 101–105

P. Figueras, Aram 6 (1994), 279–293

id., Atti del Congresso Internationale di Archeologia Cristiana 12, Roma 1995, 756–762

id., LA 45 (1995), 401–450 (pp. 425–430)

P. Mayerson, Monks, Martyrs, Soldiers and Saracens: Papers on the Near East and Late Antiquity (1962–1993), Jerusalem 1994, 21–39

J. Zias et al., International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 5 (1995), 157–163

R. Rubin, ZDPV 112 (1996), 49–60

id., Journal of Historical Geography 23 (1997), 267–283

id., Mediterranean Historical Review 1998, 56–74

L. Di Segni, Dated Greek Inscriptions from Palestine from the Roman and Byzantine Periods (Ph.D. diss.), 1–2, Jerusalem 1997

A. Lynd-Porter, OEANE, 4, New York 1997, 129–130

S. R. Wolff, IEJ 47 (1997), 93–96

H. Goldfus, Tombs and Burials in Churches and Monasteries of Byzantine Palestine (324–628 A.D.), 1–2 (Ph.D. diss.), Ann Arbor, MI 1998, 80–89

J. Magness, The Archaeology of the Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine, Winona Lake, IN 2003, 90–91, 176–185

D. J. Wasserstein, SCI 22 (2003), 257–272

T. Goodwin, PEQ 137 (2005), 65–76.

Wikipedia pages


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Auja al-Hafir

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Nitzana, Israel

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