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MONKS AND MONASTERIES IN THE NEGEV DESERT

P. Figueras

This study is a developed version of a paper read at the XVIII International Congress of Byzantine Studies, celebrated in Moscow on August 1991.1 Its main purpose is to fill a certain gap existing among scholars, historians and archaeologists, concerning the monastic history of the Roman province of Third Palestine, extending from the plain of Beersheva southwards, and including the Negev desert, most of the Sinai peninsula and the southern region of Transjordan. Indeed, those scholars who, led by an abundant monastic literature, have engaged in a serious research of the archaeological remains of the ancient Palestinian monks, such as Chariton, Eutymius and Sabas, have not crossed the limits of the Judean Desert (Vailh 1889/90; Festugire 1962/63; Hirschfeld 1991 and 1993; Patrich 1993).2 Others, having tracked the Gaza region in the steps of Hilarion at Thauatha, Sylvanus at Gerar and Seridos near Maiumas of Gaza, have come back rather frustrated (Chitty 1966b). On the other hand, a general updated history of the ancient Church of Palestine is still to be written, though very good tools are today available to anybody wishing to engage in such a scholarly adventure.3 The chapter dealing with the southern region, that is, the Negev desert, is consequently non-existent,4 and nobody has ever tried to follow the traces of a monastic presence there. It seems as if monks and monastic founders never had the
1. This study has partly been written in collaboration with Mr. Ofer Katz, a former student

of mine at Ben Gurion University, today member of the Israel Antiquities Authority. I wish to express him my deepest appreciation. 2. For studies made on Palestinian monasticism see the bibliographic references at the end of the present article. 3. See Bagatti 1972; Id. 1971, The Church from the Circumcision, Jerusalem; Meimaris 1986; Y. Geiger, Hitpashtut hannatzrut be Eretz Israel mereshitah ad iemei Iulianos [Expansion of Christianity in Palestine from its Beginning to Julians period], in Y. Tsafrir, ed., 1982, Eretz Israel from the Destruction of the Temple to the Muslim Conquest, Jerusalem, pp. 218-233 (Hebrew); Z. Rubin, Hitpashtut hannatzrut be Eretz Israel miemei Iulianos ad tequfat Iustinianos [Expansion of Christianity in Palestine, from Julian to Justinian], ibid, pp. 234-251 (Hebrew). 4. More than one researcher, however, has recently made valuable efforts in this direction, not only from the point of view of archaeology and urbanism (Shereshevski 1991), but also from the point of view of history and sociology (Rubin 1990). LA 45 (1995) 401-450; Pls. 53-58

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Fig. 1 General map of the monastic sites in the Negev.

opportunity to cross that extensive desert, although they were well established around it, in the Gaza region, in the Judean Desert and in the Sinai complex.5 The province of Third Palestine enjoyed Church organisation as much as any other province in the Roman Empire, and flourishing cities such as Petra, its capital, Elusa (alutza), Zoar, Phaino (Punon) and Aila possessed their Episcopal Sees. The presence of monks there is therefore to be expected almost as a matter of fact. If this, therefore, can be illus5. This statement is based on the well-known text of Jerome in his Vita Hilarionis (see be-

low, Elusa). The building of the first Christian churches in the towns existing in the Negev in that period could be assigned, in the first place, to the official provision of Christian worship places for the units of the Roman army stationed there since the annexation of the Nabatean territories to the Empire in A.D. 106. There is no agreement among scholars about the number, the location and the exact function of those units, that were stationed more in the towns than in the desert areas (B. Isaac, 1990, The Limits of Empire, Oxford, pp. 132134; but see P. Figueras, 1992, The Worship of Athena-Allat in the Decapolis and the Negev, Aram 4, pp. 173-183 [178-179]).

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trated by some literary or archaeological evidence, then we must logically think that some kind of relations, and not only purely spiritual ones, existed between those four monastic regional groups, namely the Judean Desert, the Gaza region, the Sinai mountain and the Negev desert. It is true that no ancient Church historian left us a particular page with dramatic events having occurred in southern Palestine, but there is enough material today, both written and archaeological, to allow us to form a realistic picture of the Negev monasticism. We must admit not only that there were monks in the Negev since the very beginning of its Christianization, but we can also start recording on the map the spots where some of the coenobia, laurae, and urban monasteries were situated. We have references to abbots, monks and hermits both in the pilgrim records and in local epigraphy. Some of their names are still written on their tombs, we can visit the remains of coenobitic monasteries and of churches served by monks, and some hermits caves and cells are easily accessible. Actually, there is also written evidence of relations having existed between monastic centers in the Negev and others outside it. We also know of some monastic activities such as writing and agriculture. Finally, we can read the names of monks who, representing monastic regional complexes in the Negev, placed their signatures on the protocols of the Ecumenical Synod of Constantinople in 536. This fact alone attests not only to the high degree of internal organization, but also to the relevance assigned by the Church authorities to that institution. In comparison with the importance of their neighbors in the Judean Desert, the monks from the Negev may have played a very humble role in the general history of the Church of Palestine. But the picture that we can trace of their presence and their importance in the general development of the region during the Byzantine period is not negligible at all. In the following pages we shall proceed to obtain the main lines of that picture through a rather systematic and analytic review of the data collected from both groups of existing sources, namely literary and archaeological. This will be done following a geographic scheme, arbitrarily set in alphabetic order and illustrated with photographs, plans and drawings. It will therefore be much more than a monastic gazetteer of the Negev, our purpose being to offer a working tool. I am well aware of the fact that, in many a case, my interpretation of a given datum and some of my guesses will be received with doubt and caution by scholars. But I am no less certain that such criticism will lead to a fruitful discussion and to further research. The sources used for the building-up of the gazetteer according to wellestablished criteria, can be listed in the following way:

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A. Literary sources: 1. Acts of Church councils or synods6 2. Patristic writings, including monastic literature7 3. Pilgrims records8 4. Local epigraphy9 5. The Nessana papyri10 B. Archaeological sources: 1. Caves carved on the walls of a wadi, with Christian symbols11 2. Building complexes including most of the typical elements of a coenobitic monastery and situated far away from any settlement12 3. Great urban basilicas having a complex of rooms around their atrium or attached to other parts of the building13 4. A complex of caves and rooms around a central chapel, in a spot remote from any other settlement14
6. Signatures of monks from the Third Palestine and from other parts of the country are

found in the Acts of the Ecumenical council gathered by Justinian in Constantinople in 536 (Schwartz 1940, 248; see below, Aila). This is a major witness, not only to the existence of monks and monasteries in the Negev, but especially to their importance as a well-organized body of the Church of Palestine in the sixth century. 7. Their list includes the names of Jerome (Vita Hilarionis, 25, PL 23), John Moschus (Spiritual Prairie, PG 87/3, 2032: Abba Victor, hesychastes in the laura of Elusa), Cyril of Scythopolis (Life of Theognios, trad. Festugire 1963, p. 66: Abba Paulos, the hesychastes of the city of Elusa), and the same Paul of Elusa (Life of Theognios, ed. Vailh, AB 10, 73118). 8. Like today, the number of Christian visitors to the Negev was very restricted in comparison with other parts of the country, as no biblical Holy Places are there to be venerated. However, many pilgrims crossed this region on their way to Mount Sinai, as the anonymous Piacenza Pilgrim, who refers to monks and monasteries in the regions of Elusa, Mizpe Shivta (see below, s.v.) and Zoar, south of the Dead Sea. For a general discussion on the issue of Byzantine pilgrims in the Negev, see Figueras 1995 (in press). 9. To the collected inscriptions from the region published by Alt (1921), we can add a list of new publications about inscriptions from 1. Nessana (G.E. Kirk and C.B. Welles, in Colt 1962, 131-197; P. Figueras, The Inscriptions, in D. Urman, New Excavations in Nessana, vol. I [in press]). 2. Oboda, Sobata, Mampsis and Elusa (Negev 1981). 3. Beersheva and its region (Figueras 1985; id. 1986; Ustinova - Figueras 1995). 4. Rueibeh (Tsafrir 1988). 5. Beersheva, Elusa, Oboda, Sobata, and other places (Figueras 1995a, in press). 10. Discovered in the course of the expeditions conducted by H. D. Colt in 1935-37 (Colt 1962), and studied and published by Kraemer (1958). 11. See below, Ein Avdat, Wadi Mueille and Mampsis. 12. See below, Tel Masos, Tel Ira. 13. See below, Sobata, Oboda, Rueibeh, Nessana. 14. See below, Mitzpe Shivta.

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It will be noticed that the list of monastic sites in the region of our concern does not pretend to be exhaustive. Some of them, like a ruin next to Tel Sheva, have never been reported as such, though they are commonly accepted as having been monasteries. I have preferred to list only those that are available by some literary support.

Aila (near present Aqaba, map ref. 145.884) Formal excavations have only recently been started in ancient Aila, the prosperous harbor-city of Nabateans, Romans and Byzantines on the Red Sea. It is partly identified with the present ruins of Um-Rashrash, on the northernmost point of the Gulf of Eilat or Aqaba, near the Jordanian city of the same name (Avi-Yonah 1977, s.v.). Nelson Gluecks expedition to the ruins of biblical Etzion-Geber also made sporadic finds from the Byzantine period near the beach. One of them was two sculptured capitals, obviously belonging to one of the local churches. One shows a Roman soldier holding a sphere with a cross on it, identified with St. Theodore by an accompanying inscription (Glueck 1939). The other represents another soldier saint in full armor, identified as St. Longinus by an inscription in Greek (ibid.; Taylor 1987, fig. 3). Another Christian inscription from the area, the tomb-stone of a certain Osedos dated to A.D. 555, was published by Schwabe (1953, 51-55). From the nearby area, Kh. el-Khalde at Wadi el-Yitm, some 25 km to the northeast of Aila, a third Christian inscription was discovered by Glueck (ibid.), witness to the presence of an ancient Christian settlement in that area. At Horvat Bodeda (map ref. 140.890), situated 7 north-west of present Eilat, the remains of a Byzantine complex were found, including a four-room building and a Christian chapel decorated with wall paintings and inscriptions, which, as far as I know, have not yet been published. Given the lonely environment of those ruins, one can logically think of the presence of a little monastery in that spot. This, however, is only a suggestion, because it is clear that in ancient times the place had been exploited as quarry. According to Woolley and Lawrence (1914/15, 145), Um-Rashrash was also called Ed-Deir, Arabic for The Monastery. Actually, no remains of any big building have so far been indicated by visitors to the spot. If there is any historic reason for that term, we can imagine the remains of a rather small group of monastic cells having later disappeared under the building of the Turkish police station. Burkhardt (1822, 511-512) also pointed out a place called Ed-Deir near Aqaba, a small island, which cannot be other than the

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present Coral Island, wrongly taken by some as ancient Yotabe.15 The only ruins to be seen today on that island are those of a medieval Arab castle, recently excavated and partly restored by the Egyptian authorities. The most valuable source of information for our knowledge of a monastic presence in Aila comes from the acts of the Constantinopolitan Council gathered by Justinian in A.D. 536 against Anthimus. There, among the names of the clergy signing the councils decisions, we find a certain John, by Gods mercy priest and monk, who signs in the name of all the monks of Aila in the Third Palestine (Schwartz 1940, 248).16 This reference is an important evidence to the fact that, not only were there monks in the region, but also that they were of orthodox denomination and sufficiently organised as to send a representative to the council. It is true that the monasteries of other cities of the Third Palestine sent delegates to the council too,17 but this only confirms, without diminishing it, the importance of Aila as a monastic center. A much later source, the so-called Notitia Graeca Episcopatuum, adds an interesting note referring to the bishopric of Aila, saying: It has under it the monastery of Great Arsenius (Palmer 1872, 554, 22). We do not know today where that monastery was situated, but it could only be within the jurisdictional radius of Ailas bishopric, certainly not far from that city.18 There is a possibility that it was situated around Mount Sinai. Indeed, we know from John Moschus that a laura of the Ailanites (tn Ailiotn) had been founded there in the sixth century by a certain abbot Antony, and where abbot Stephen was the priest (John Moschus, Spiritual Prairie, PG 87, ch. 62-66, 134).

15. Today its is currently assumed that Yotabe or Jotabe should be looked for at todays Straights of Tiran, near the southern entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba or Eilat. 16. This important reference to the existence of monks and monasteries in Aila and surroundings during the Byzantine period has been strangely ignored by all historians and archaeologists concerned by Palestinian monasticism. 17. Thus we not only have twice the signature of Elias, by Gods mercy deacon and monk, and in the name of the monks of Augustopolis of the Third Palestine (Schwartz 1940, 51. 93), but also the mention of all archimandrites and monks in the third Palestine (ibid., 37, 40; 51, 29) and the monks of the monasteries of the three Palestines (ibid., 25, 33 [35]). 18. It would be wrong to look for historical links between this great Arsenius and the well-known Abbot Arsenius referred to in the Apophtegmata Patrum (PG 65, 71-442), a well-instructed noble man who embraced monastic life in the Egyptian desert in the fourth century, of whom many edifying anecdotes are told. In Sobata, one of the Negev towns, and thus nearer to Aila but still too far, the tomb of a triceblessed Arsenius, monk and priest was discovered on the floor of the baptistry chapel in the north church (see below, Sobata).

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Relations between the monks of Mt. Sinai and the people of Aila are also known from other sources. There is not only the fact that Stephen, the builder of the Sinai basilica about the mid-sixth century, was from Aila, according to the inscription on one of the roof beams (Sevenko 1966, 257. 262). But a century later, Anastasius, a monk from Sinai, reports on the visit paid by bishop Sergius of Aila to Abbot Orentius of Sinai at his deathbed (Nau 1902, 71). The same source also tells the story of a famous monk from Sinai who summoned one of his spiritual brothers from Aila before his death (ibid., 67).

Birosaba (Beersheva, map ref. 130.072) This city, possibly to be identified with biblical Beersheva despite other more generalised views, is known from different sources, literary as well as epigraphic and archaeological, to have existed on the same place in the Byzantine period. To the first group belongs: 1) Eusebius Onomasticum19 in the fourth century, 2) the records of pseudo-bishop Eucherius20 in the fifth, and 3) the geographic mosaic pavement from Madaba21 in the sixth. Archaeological evidence includes the imposing remains of churches, whose existence has been recorded since the Middle Ages.22 Byzantine ruins on the spot were later acknowledged by a number of western scholars, such as Robinson (1838), Seetzen (1855), Abel (1903b), Musil (1907), Woolley and Lawrence (1914/15).23 When the present town of Beersheva was planned by the Ottoman government and the building activity started at the turn of the century, only a small number of fortuitous

19. This source refers to the town as kome megiste, a very big village, in which a fortress (phrourion) of soldiers (Jerome: praesidium militum Romanorum) is situated (Klostermann 1904, 50f). 20. Pseudo-Eucherius, bishop of Lyons, who writes some fifty years after Jerome and uses his Latin translation of the Onomasticum, calls Berosaba vicus maximus, i.e. a very big village, situated twenty miles south of Hebron (Wilkinson 1977, 54). 21. Avi-Yonah 1954, n. 98. 22. Thus Sir John de Maundeville, A.D. 1322-1365 (ed. T. Wright, 1968, Early Travels in Palestine, New York, p. 160), and L. de Sudheim, A.D. 1338, De itinere Terre Sancte (ed. G. C. Neumann, 1884, Archives de lOrient Chrtien, Paris, p. 348). 23. Pieces of major historical interest among these occasional finds were the fragmentary inscriptions today known as Imperial Decree of Beersheva (Alt 1921, 4-25), dealing with the regulation of civil payments to the Roman army. Other inscriptions have more recently been discovered and only partially published (see above, footnote 9).

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discoveries of church ruins, mosaic pavements, Greek inscriptions, farm installations and necropolises could be rescued for study and publication (Figueras 1982).24 An informal sketch of the ruins of ancient Birosaba was drawn in 1903 by Fr. Abel, O.P., during one of his visits to the spot when the building of the new town had just started (Fig. 2). That sketch indicates a place near the wadi running to the south of the present old city with the name Ed-Deir, The Monastery. We cannot know, of course, if those were really the ruins of a monastery. But their location, somewhat away from the town and near the wells along the wady that would ensure enough water for a monastic community, confers some plausibility to the popular identification of those ruins by later generations of local Arabs. More important may be the fragmentary inscription on a tomb-stone found in the present city, including, with no clear context, the term monastery (Figueras 1985, 20, no. 12; 1994, no. 18c). As far as formal excavations are concerned, Byzantine Beersheva has not been the object of a comprehensive project, but the sporadic digs conducted there by modern Israeli archaeologists so far, have brought to light important remains, including also the ruins of two possible monasteries. One is the room complex around the atrium of a rather large basilica (2415 m) discovered

Fig. 2

Birosaba, Byzantine ruins (Abel 1903a).

24. Some of the most important remains from the Byzantine period, such as a monolith cruciform Baptism font and a chancel column inscribed with Hebrew characters, were first published by Woolley and Lawrence (1914-15), but later they were unfortunately lost, probably as a consequence of the First World War.

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in 1948 and excavated in 1967 by Y. Israeli (1967), and which has now totally disappeared. It was situated at the present crossing of the Eli Cohen street and Presidents Avenue, north-east of the old city. In the course of 1991, a residential complex from the Byzantine period was discovered and partially excavated in the south of the present city, on the southern bank of Nahal or Wadi Beersheva. The doubtless Christian character of the rather sumptuous building allows us to think that it could have been, at least for a time, the premises of a monastic community. So far, no official report of this discovery has seen light, but a Greek epitaph found there in secondary use is presently being published (Ustinova Figueras 1995). New excavations in Beersheva are taking place these very days to the east of the Municipal Market, conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority under the direction of Mr. Peter Fabian, and the foundations of a huge cruciform church have been exposed.25 As written evidence of a monastic presence in Birosaba, we may adduce the correspondence of Barsanuphius, one of two famous recluse monks in Seridos monastery, between Gaza and Maiumas, in the sixth century. In no less than six of his two thousand preserved letters the great old man Barsanuphius addressed a certain Abbot John of Birosaba who was living in the same monastery (Chitty 1966a). The fact that this monk is called by the honorary title of aba, Father, or abbot, generally, though not exclusively, used in that period, as today, to address the Superior of a monastery, possibly indicates that John had been the Superior of a monastery in his native town of Beersheva before joining the monastery of Seridos. From his letters to Barsanuphius it becomes evident that he was an expert in building, or at least had been appointed supervisor of the building activity in the monastery. We also learn from the letters that he had an impatient character, that was compensated, however, by the humility with which he approached his spiritual father asking for counsel.

Elusa (El Khalassa, alutza, map ref. 117.056) The ruins of the ancient city of Elusa, which is indicated in the Peutinger map on the Jerusalem-Aila road, and in the Madaba Map as a big town, apparently fortified with city walls and towers (Avi-Yonah 1944, no. 103, pl. 6), are situ-

25. See a short report of the dig, with a picture of the mosaic found, in Yediot Aaronot 31 July 1994, p. 10.

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Fig. 3

Elusa, plan of ruins (Negev 1988, 115).

ated some 20 km south of present Beersheva, in a desert zone, near the socalled alutza sands. The spot was visited by several travelers in the last century, and was identified with ancient Elusa as early as 1835 by Robinson (1841). The visit to the spot by the Dominican Fathers of the cole Biblique in Jerusalem yielded several Greek inscriptions from the Byzantine period and earlier (Jaussen - Savignac - Vincent 1904). Archaeological evidence of the presence of monks or monasteries in ancient Elusa has not appeared so far, neither from the short dig conducted on that spot in 1938 by H.D. Colt, nor from the excavations undertaken there by A. Negev in 1973, 1979 and 1980, which exposed only the Nabatean theater and part of the cathedral church (Fig. 3) (Negev 1993). The evidence, however, comes from the Church literature. In the sixth century A.D., John Moschos mentions in his famous book Spiritual Prairie a certain Victor, whom he calls hesychastes - i.e. hermit - in the laura of Elusa (PG 87/3, 2032). Another source, an extensive biography of St. Theognios, bishop of Bitylium in Northern Sinai (Vailh 1891) has as its author Abbot Paul of Elusa, who had succeeded Theognios as superior of his monastery near Je-

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rusalem. Paul must have deserved such name after a long stay in one of the monasteries of the most important city, actually the only real city, of the Byzantine Negev, and See of the only bishop of the central Negev (Figueras 1981, 153; on Elusa see also Mayerson 1983). A third and more explicit source from the same period are the records of the so-called Piacenza Pilgrim, who visited the place about 570 A.D. The bishop of the city told him about a young lady called Mary, whose husband had died on the very night of the wedding. She bore it with courage, and within a week she had set all his slaves free, and given away all his property to the poor and to monasteries. She then disappeared from the city, and was seen living as a wandering hermit in the desert across the Jordan, in the Dead Sea region (Wilkinson 1977, 85). The same pilgrim tells us how he and his companions discovered a monastery of women in those parts, more than sixteen or seventeen of them who were in a desert place, and given food by the Christians. They had a donkey at their service, and they used to give food to a lion, tame from the time it was a cub (ibid., 87). These are for the moment the scarce data that can be collected from the sources. There is no doubt that, if a proper excavations program is once enterprised in the ruins of ancient Elusa, a better picture will be reached of the monastic presence in and around the most important of the cities of the central Negev.

Ein Avdat (map ref. 128.025) (Phot. 1) This is one of the very few remains of a Byzantine hermitage in the Negev desert, in contrast with the numerous laurae that are found in narrow canyons or wadis of the Judean desert. Here we have a small group of four caves, partly excavated artificially in the soft limestone rock of the northern wall of Nahal Tzin, near the source of Ein Avdat, 60 m above the bed of the wadi and 40 m under the the top of the precipice. Access to the caves is by narrow steps carved into the rock, apparently by the ancient monks (Phot. 2). These four caves were examined during the survey conducted on the spot by Z. Meshel and Y. Tsafrir on behalf of the Israel Department of Antiquities in the seventies (Meshel - Tsafrir s.a.). Cave No. 1 (Fig. 4): This is a natural cave that was adapted as living premises. It has two rooms, measuring 4.54.8 m and 1.61.5 m respectively. Both the location and the shape of the cave are typical of the Byzantine hermitages in Palestine. A cross was carved in the rock, above the niche on the wall that was probably used as a cupboard, near the main entrance to the cave.

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Fig. 4

Ein Avdat, cave no. 1 (Meshel-Tsafrir, Fig. 2).

Cave No. 2 (Fig. 5): This cave has only one big room, measuring 5.305.60 m. Outside the entrance to the cave, a low bench was carved along the rock wall (Phot. 3), forming a sort of balcony overlooking the impressive view (Phot. 4). A short Greek inscription was found painted in red on the wall inside the cave, an invocation to Saint Theodore (Fig. 5). The fact that the south church of Oboda or Avdat, some 5 km south of these caves, was dedicated to that same saint, seems to link the small community of hermits living near Ein Avdat to the central monastery, a coenobium, in Oboda (see below, s.v.). Tsafrir raises the slight possibility that the man named Zacharia who wrote the inscription in the cave could be the young man of the same name who was buried in the floor of the church of Saint Theodore (Negev 1981, 29, no. 16; Meshel-Tsafrir, 11). Cave No. 3 (Fig. 6): This is a one-room cave situated 7 m above Cave no. 2. Excavated in the flat face of the rock, it measures 2.256.15 m. At the time of its use, access to the cave was made possible through a series

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of small steps dug out of the rock. However, it is possible that the excavation of this cave was never completed. Cave No. 4 (Fig. 7): It is situated 20 m north of Cave no. 2, and it measures 3.501.70 m at its maximum. Its height reaches 1.75 m. Two flat surfaces inside the cave had been purposely cut into the rock to serve as storage devices. The excavators suggest that this cave was also used as kitchen (ibid. p. 17).

Fig. 5 Ein Avdat, cave no. 2 (Meshel-Tsafrir, Fig. 3). Inscription in cave. no. 2 (Meshel-Tsafrir, 11, ill. 6).

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Fig. 6 Ein Avdat, cave. no. 3 (Meshel-Tsafrir, Fig. 4).

Fig. 7 Ein Avdat, cave. no. 4 (Meshel-Tsafrir, Fig. 5).

orvat ur (also Khir bet or a or aur a, map ref. 143.077) These ruins, situated about 100 m south-east of the present cross-roads of the Hebron-Beersheva and Arad-Tel Aviv roads, were noticed by the German traveler Seetzen in 1805, the British surveyors Conder and Kitchener (1883, 396-397) and again visited by Woolley and Lawrence (1914/15). The latter pointed out that no traces of a church were visible on the spot. However, evidence of two groups of Byzantine buildings has been reported in the recent archaeological survey conducted on the spot by Y. Govrin (HA 1984, 76; Govrin 1992, 44*-45*.55-60). The first group includes a large basilica, with an atrium on its west and some rooms around it (2151 m) (Fig. 8). The second one, situated near the northern walls of the first, is a complex of rooms and courtsyards built of large flint stones (Fig. 9). According to its publisher, this second complex could represent a monastery (Govrin 1992, 58, 2).

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Fig. 8-9 58, 3).

orvat ur, plans of monastery and church complexes (Govrin 1991,

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orvat Kuseife

(map ref. 155.073)

These important ruins, situated on the road to Arad, represent a big settlement from the Byzantine period. As early as in 1901, a church was reported there by Musil (1908, 18). Mader, who visited the spot in 1911/14, reported the presence of two other churches, to the south of the first one (Mader 1918, 225). It was A. Ovadiah who suggested that the northern church (Fig. 10) was served by a monastic community (Ovadiah 1970, 121), although this cannot be proved until real excavations are conducted on the spot. Should this be the case, it would be another example of monastic churches situated in or very near to towns, as in Rueibeh, Sobata and Oboda (below, s.v.). So far there is no way to identify orvat Kuseife with one of the towns mentioned in the few literary sources referring to the Negev, though some scholars would like to identify it with the civil settlement of Malatha (Oppidum Malathis) (Avi-Yonah 1977, 78, s.v. Malatha), which is still a matter of controversy.26

Fig. 10 orvat Kuseife, plan of church complex (Ovadiah 1970, Pl. 51).

26. No archaeological proof can be adduced for the normally accepted identification of ancient Malatha with the site today called Tel Malata or Tel el-Mil (map ref. 152.069), 18 km west of present Arad. On the other hand, a fragmentary inscription found in orvat Karkur Elit (186 - 082), 7 km north of Beersheva, mentions a certain Salamanos, priest of Malath[a] (Figueras 1985, 39 [no. 31] and 42 [no. 34]).

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Fig. 11

orvat Soah, plan of church complex (Govrin 1991, 98, 1).

orvat Soa (Khirbet Sawa) (map ref. 148.075) (Fig. 11) An architectural complex, including a large Byzantine church (1940 m), is situated on the southern side of a hilltop covered with the ruins of ancient settlement. The rectangular structure (2538 m) adjoining the church from the south apparently served as living-quarters. This site, already reported by the British survey more than a century ago (Conder - Kitchener 1883, 409-410), has been recently surveyed again by Y. Govrin on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority (Govrin 1992, *67.97-99), who also published its schematic plan. In his opinion, that I fully share, this complex was probably a monastery. Indeed, its situation on the edge of the village, the number of spacious rooms adjoining the church from the south, and a defense tower (88 m) from the north, are elements that we find in better documented monasteries, from the Negev as well as from other regions.

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Mampsis (Kurnub, Mamshit) (map ref. 156.048) (Fig. 12) The ruins traditionally called Kurnub by the local Arabs were identified with the ancient town called Mampsis in Eusebius Onomasticum (8:8) in the fourth century and numerous sixth century sources such as the Madaba Map (Avi-Yonah 1944, 96), the Nessana Papyri (Kraemer 1958, 124) and others (Shereshevski 1991, 21-22). In the second century C.E., the geographer Ptolemy (V, 15, 7) recorded that town as Maps. The ruins are situated 5 south-east of todays Dimona, on the eastern side of the Northern Negev. Although visited and surveyed by several scholars, large scale excavations were not conducted in the site till 1965 by A. Negev. Together with other parts of the town, such as the city-walls and two big residential buildings, he also excavated the two Byzantine churches, which are probably the oldest ones in the Negev (Negev 1974, 400-404; 1988, 64-82).

Fig. 12 Mampsis (Kurnub, Mamshit), plan of ruins (Negev, New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, Mamshit).

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The eastern church (Fig. 13). This beautiful building, which also includes a baptistry chapel annexed to its southern wall, has a complex of several rooms on its western side and a tower at its north-western angle. The purpose of such a stronghold in a Parish church, as it certainly was, could not be anything but the defense of a community of people living in and around it, most probably a monastic community serving in that church. A similar case in the Negev is the southern church in Oboda (see below, s.v.).

Fig. 13

Mampsis, plan of the east church complex (Negev, ibid.).

The western church (Fig. 14). This so-called Nilus Church, from the name of its main donor, has a residential building attached behind it (Phot. 5), that could have, according to the excavator, been the house of that same man (Negev 1974, 401). Here also, such a residence attached to the church may indicate that a monastic community used to live in it. This assumption could be confirmed by several crosses on its inner lintels, but this is better done by a Greek inscription on the church floor, in front of the sanctuary. Indeed, this inscription mentions a certain Abba (Greek: TON ABBA) [son] of Zenobios the paramonarios. 27 Its publisher has translated these words by
27. This title of paramonarios, frequent in ancient Church epigraphy, does not correspond to

a modern one in the Greek Church. Meimaris (1986, 259-260) describes paramonarios duties as related to the custody and supervision of a church and church properties in the name of the local bishop. He could be a priest, a deacon, a clerk of lower rank, or a simple monk. Unfortunately, the inscription in question, as well as the whole mosaic floor of the Nilus church at Mampsis (Mamshit - Kurnub), have recently (October 1994) been irreparably vandalised.

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P. FIGUERAS

Fig. 14

Mampsis, plan of the west church complex (Negev, ibid.).

Abba (son) of Zenobios the warden (Negev 1981, 71), taking Abba as the name of Zenobios son. Both translations are plausible, but the presence of the article before the word ABBA seems to be an indication that the latter term is to be understood as the monastic title abbas (simply Father better than abbot, i.e. Superior of a monastery), very frequent in the monastic epigraphy of that time, also in the Negev (Meimaris 1986, 235-239). If my interpretation is correct, it is easier to consider the western church of Mampsis also as a church served by a monastic community.

Mitzpe Shivta (Mishrefe) (map ref. 112.036) (Phot. 6-7) Situated on the edge of a high hill facing an extensive plain, this site includes the ruins of an enclosure wall with a gate on the western side and a small chapel on the opposite side, around which and on a lower level are living rooms, natural caves, an open cistern and a well (Phot. 6). Six km to the east of the plain, the ruins of the town of Sobata or Shivta (see below) appear on the horizon, and from this fact the present name Mitzpe Shivta, i.e. the observation point (Arab. mishrefe) upon Shivta. On his visit to the place in 1871, Palmer identified it as a Roman fortress, and thus also Musil in 1901. An opposite view was expressed by Woolley and Lawrence, who saw in it undoubtedly a monastic establishment, a laura, basing their

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Fig. 15

Mitzpe Shivta, general plan of ruins (Baumgarten 1986, 99).

opinion on the local pottery sherds and the building systems (Woolley Lawrence 1914/15). Wiegand, who had visited the place in 1916, also thought that it had been a monastery (Wiegand 1920). An archaeological survey of the ruins was conducted on the spot in 1979 by Y. Baumgarten on behalf of the Israel Department of Antiquities, as part of the general survey of the region (Segal 1986, 97-108). It was found that the western gate on the wall (Fig. 15) gave entrance to a large open space, in the middle of which were the ruins of a stone building measuring 1214.5 m. This building had been interpreted by Woolley and Lawrence as a guest-house or the residence of the Superior of the monastery. Baumgarten did not find enough evidence in the structure of the building to determine its original function.

422

P. FIGUERAS

The chapel on the eastern side of the open space (Fig. 16) includes a simple prayer hall measuring 18.26.6, with an apse on the east 1.9 m deep and a room annexed to its southern wall, apparently built later than the original building. This room measures 11.64.0 m. White and colored fragments of the plaster once covering the walls and the apse were found on the stone slabs of the pavement. The rooms, partly built, partly excavated into the rock (Fig. 17), which can be seen on a lower level than the chapel around the edge of the natural platform, have been interpreted as hermits cells by Baumgarten (1986). A similar interpretation was given by Woolley and Lawrence (1914/15) to a small tower situated to the east of the chapel. An arched structure facing east is probably a prayer cell (Phot. 7). Baumgarten, who dates the site in a general way to the late Byzantine period on an archaeological basis, suggests seeing it as the desert inn described c. 570 by the anonymous Piacenza pilgrim, who called it a fort, the guest-house (xenodochium) of Saint George, situated twenty miles from Elusa to the south, which provides something of a refuge for passers-by and gives food for hermits (Wilkinson 1977, 87).
Fig. 16 Mitzpe Shivta, plan of the chapel (Baumgarten 1986, 101). Fig. 17 Mizpe Shivta, plan of rockcut rooms (Baumgarten 1986, 101).

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I agree with Baumgartens interpretation, not only because the distance and the character of Mitzpe Shivtas buildings (monastic and military), coincide with those of the sixth century Piacenza Pilgrim, but also because it is confirmed by epigraphic evidence. Indeed, even today the visitor can read, incised on the base of a plastered arch-stone in one of the rooms partly excavated into the rock (Phot. 8), a rather long cursive inscription in Greek, starting with the words Oh Lord, the God of Saint George... It is a prayer written by a man who asks for himself, his wife, his daughter and his servants.28 The reference to Saint George certainly indicates that that saint was the Patron of the place, and the tenor of the text indicates that the kind of person who wrote it was certainly a layman passer-by, not a local monk. Like the Piacenza Pilgrim, the writer of the inscription was probably on his way to Mount Sinai, accompanied by his family and servants, and they all took a rest in that fort and monastery that provided them something of a refuge (Figueras 1995). It is to be observed that soldiers stationed around the same place where monks were living, either as hermits in a laura or as members of a closed community, is not a surprise in the Byzantine period, at least along roads that were considered dangerous for private people to walk, as we read in Egerias records (Wilkinson 1971).

Moeile (map ref. 090-010) (Fig. 18) This is the name of a place near Qadesh Barnea, today on the Egyptian side of the Israel-Egypt border in the central Negev, where a monastic cave was reported by the Dominican Father Abel (1903b). According to his description and sketch (Fig. 19), the cave included a central room that had entrances to another three small rooms. Some steps cut into the floor of the central room led to an unknown place. The general shape and other details of this cave are similar to the monastic cells found in Ein Avdat (above) and many others in the Judean desert and elsewhere. In all probability, this cave too, carved into the limestone not far from the abundant source of Ein El-Qudeirat, near which agriculture was certainly practiced in ancient times (Bruins 1986, 105-120), had been used by monks in the Byzantine period. We actually know from the Life of Hilarion written by Jerome, that monks lived in the area of Qadesh since the mid-fourth century (Hieron., Vit. Hil. 25, PL 23).

28. I hope to publish soon this interesting inscription.

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P. FIGUERAS

Fig. 18 Map showing Wadi Moeile and position of monastic cave (Abel 1903b).

Fig. 19 Monastic cave near Wadi Moeile (Abel, 1903a).

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Nessana (Nitzana, Auja el-afir) (map ref. 097.031) (Fig. 20) This town, probably founded by the Nabateans in the second century B.C., is by far the best documented of all Byzantine settlements in the Negev. Indeed, the discovery of an archive of papyri from the sixth and seventh centuries C.E. at that site (till then called by the Bedouins Auja el afir) by the American Colt Expedition in 1935 (Colt 1962), came to throw light, not only on the life of that town, but also of all the Negev and its inhabitants in general at the edge of the Byzantine period and the first decades of Muslim occupation. However, many other data relevant to our subject were also collected in Nessana from two sources other than the papyri, namely the inscriptions, some of which were already found before the American expedition (Alt 1921), and the architectural features revealed by the archaeological excavations. It is to be noted that, since 1987 till the present, a new archaeological dig has been taking place at Nessana under the direction of Dan Urman on behalf of Ben Gurion University of the Negev (Urman 1990). We can today speak of at least six churches having been built in Nessana in the Byzantine period, to which maybe another should be added, namely the one reported almost a century ago by Lagrange (1897), because it is not clear whether he describes one of our churches no. 3, 4 or 5 or a different one. He actually describes a basilica he saw on the same plain where those are found, but the shape and measurements he gives (2010 m for the church, 1510 m for the atrium) do not correspond to any of those other churches. Our list is as follows: No. 1, on the acropolis, with the names of St. Sergius and Bacchus (the north church) and No. 2, St. Mary Mother of God (the south church), were excavated by the American expedition (Colt 1962). No. 3, in the plain, had been described by former visitors, among whom Woolley and Lawrence (1914/15), but was later destroyed because the Turks wanted to transform it into a guest-house. Nos. 4 and 5 correspond to a double church recently discovered and excavated in the plain, some 150 m south of the location of No. 3, by the present Israeli expedition (Urman 1990). Finally, No. 6 is the chapel of a small monastery, also recently excavated by the same expedition, on the northern slope of the acropolis. For different reasons, as will soon become evident, we can be sure that churches no. 1, 3 and 6 were related to monks. Church no. 1, St. Sergius and Bacchus (Fig. 21). This church, apparently the most sumptuous and probably the most important of the town, to which people from numerous villages, towns and cities, including Elusa and Birosaba, used to bring offerings on the feast of the Patron Saints (Kraemer 1958, Pap. 79), was probably served by a community of monks.

426

P. FIGUERAS

Fig. 20

Map of Nessana ruins (Woolley-Lawrence 1914/15).

Its Superior is often referred to in papyri and inscriptions with the monastic title of hegoumenos (Kraemer 1958, Pap. 45.1, 46.3, 47.8, 50.4, 77.10, 147.1; Colt 1962, nos. 12, 77; see Meimaris 1986, 239-246), even though at periods he was a married person.29 In one of the papyri found
29. This apparent incongruency has been noticed by all those who have dealt with Nessanas papyri and inscriptions. A suggested solution is to consider those hegumenoi as having entered the monastic order only after they became widows.

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in a room annexed to this church, this church complex is called the mone (that is, monastery30) of St. Sergius (Kraemer 1958, Pap. 79.25,44).(30) The term monachos, monk, occurs four times in the papyri (ibid., Pap. 31.23, 90.35, 91.61; see inscription 78 in Colt 1962, 167), and the title abba, Father, no less than fifteen times. One of these references is not to the monks of Nessana but to those of Mount Sinai, with whom the former apparently held current relations. It has even been suggested to identify Father Martyrios of Mount Sinai, referred to in Pap. 89.23, with an Abbot of the same name, Superior of Mt. Sinai c. A.D. 595 (ibid., pp. 254 and 259, n. 23). The epigraphic evidence is also impressive. Besides the above said hegoumenos that occurs several times, there is an interesting graffito including a long list of eight saints, seven Fathers and three Mothers (Colt 1962, no. 38, pp. 151-152), some of them well-known Egyptian monks, others who had been famous in Palestine, while others belonged to the western Church. The list was possibly used as a sort of a calendar, as suggested by its publishers (Colt, ibid.). The list in question is as follows: Saint Mark Saint Bliphimus Saint Manicus Saint Ambrose Saint Isidore Saint Nonius Saint Pamphilus Father Romanus Father Manalas Father Cyril Father Zenobius Father Chariton Father Samur Father Sabinus Father Germanus Our Mother Anna Our Mother Martha (lit. Mathra) Our Mother Pheste

This is not the right place to comment on this list, but it is obvious that monks and nuns, some very famous, others less, were very familiar to Thaleleus, the man from Nessana, possibly himself a monk, who wrote it on the plastered voussoir stone.31 Church no. 3. The evidence on the monastic attachments of this church, the remains of which were reported by early visitors and today unfortunately destroyed (above), come particularly not only from the contents of an inscription, but also from the buildings surrounding it. Indeed, as the
30. Mone is actually a synonym for monasterion and other Greek terms meaning monastery. 31. Cf. Meimaris 1986, 236, no. 1177.

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P. FIGUERAS

Fig. 21 Nessana, plan and section of SS. Sergius and Bacchus church and monastery (church no. 1) (Colt 1962, Pl. LXIII).

plan shows, the church (17.59 m) had a spacious atrium (12.718.5 m) to the west, a rectangular hall in the north, and a room complex in the south. The latter was probably a monastery, as already suggested by Woolley and Lawrence (1914/15).

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The Greek inscription on the mosaic floor of the church was already published by Huntington (1911) and reproduced by Woolley and Lawrence (1914/15) and also by Kirk and Welles (Colt 1962). Its dedicatory text comes as a surprise in more than one aspect: For the salvation of the donors Sergius, ex-assesor and monk, Palut his sister, and John, deacon, her son, and member of the city council of the metropolis Emesa. In the year 496, fifth indiction-year, the 20th of month Gorpiaios (September 7, A.D. 609).32 It is plausible to think that those people, members of a rich family from the remote Syrian city of Emesa (today Homs), founded a monastery in Nessana on the occasion of their visit to the town. Their presence there is explained by the pilgrim movement to Mount Sinai through the Negev desert (Figueras 1995). The first person mentioned is now a monk, after he retired from his lucrative job as a lawyer in Emesa, but a monk that is legally able to dispose of his fortune, so as to offer, together with his sister and nephew, such a gift as the foundation of a monastery with its church. It could be that he himself, with or without his sister and nephew, had decided to live permanently in Nessana. At least we can imagine that they all spent enough time in the town or surroundings as to see the completion and dedication of their rich foundation. Church No. 6 (Phot. 9).33 Undoubtedly, this complex of a small chapel surrounded by rooms and a square atrium with its cistern can only be interpreted as a coenobium or the premises of a small closed monastic community. Its location is north of the complex of St. Sergius and Bacchus, on the slope of the acropolis hill. The huge well near the upper church is actually situated between both monastic complexes and could be used by both communities. The monastery seems to have been built according to a well-drafted and regular plan. Should one be allowed to speculate about this multiplication of monasteries in Nessana, we could come to the conclusion that one of them, probably the one referred to here, might be a nunnery, a monastery of women. This suggestion could be supported by the presence of the Greek word matronikia (women quarters?) in one of the Nessana papyri (Kraemer 1958, Pap. 79.29,31,62).34 The existence of monasteries of women in the

32. This is according to the Arabic or Elusa era. Ovadiah prefers to interpret it of the era of

Gaza. In the latter case, the year would be 435 C.E. 33. I thank my colleague Dr. Dan Urman for kindly allowing me to make use of the photo and to report on his discovery, still unpublished. 34. It should be observed that term is only a guess by the publishers of the corrupted text of Pap. 79, which actually only reads m[ ].

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Byzantine Negev is well attested to by the already quoted text of the Piacenza Pilgrim, who visited one of them near Elusa.35 Summarizing all the available data about Nessana in the last period of its existence from before and after the Muslim conquest, that occurred about A.D. 634, we obtain the general picture of a rich civil center in the Negev, with a rather strong economy based not only on agriculture and trade, but also on what would today be called Christian tourism (Figueras 1995b). It is possible that even the civil administration was in the hands of the Church authorities, and these were particularly linked to monastic institutions. Not by chance, the most important papyri were found in the premises of the monastery of St. Sergius (and Bacchus), whose Head held the monastic title of hegoumenos. The letters addressed by the Muslim governor of Gaza to the people of Nessana (Kraemer 1958, Pap. 73) actually arrived in the hands of that powerful person. Not by chance either, such literary pages as those of the Latin poet Vergil, together with fragments of a Latin-Greek dictionary, were found there. Two interesting writing tablets were discovered there also, still holding their wax layer with some words scratched on it by a young student. Such interesting features in the archaeological records preserved in that Nessana monastery are better explained if we just consider it as being the cultural center of the town, which certainly included a boys-school as well. If this could be proved, we would have in Nessana a kind of monasticism more akin to the ideals of St. Basil of Cappadocia than to those of St. Pachomius in Egypt or St. Chariton in the Judean desert, that is, monks involved in such social activities as organized education, not living a life only of prayer and contemplation but combined with some manual work. On the other hand, it is also very probable that monks from the Nessana area were involved in agricultural and commercial activities. The evidence comes from the papyri referring to the plot of land of a certain Victor, son of the Very Honorable Sergius Aladias, monk (Kraemer 1958, Pap. 31.2324; see also Pap. 90.35 and 91.61). As a matter of fact, it had usually been admitted by scholars that agriculture had been practiced by monks in Palestine in the Byzantine period, as the archaeological records show.36 But here we have it written in a sixth century document.

35. See above, s.v. 36. A case in point for the Negev region is the wine-press near the north church of Sobata (see below, s.v.). In the north of Israel, evidence of organized and sophisticated agricultural activity by monks of the Byzantine period has also been discovered (C. Dauphin, 1979, A Monastery Farm from the Early Byzantine Period at Shlomi, Qadmoniot 12 (45), 25-29, Hebrew; Id., A Byzantine Ecclesiastical Farm at Shlomi, in Tsafrir 1993, 43-48).

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Oboda (Eboda, Abdeh, Avdat) (map ref. 128.022) (Fig. 22) The present ruins of Avdat, situated in the central Negev on the Beersheva Eilat road (Fig. 23), represent the ancient town of Oboda of the Peutinger Map (Phot. 10) and Eboda of the Nessana Papyri (Kramer 1958, Pap. 39.2,13). These names, which the Arabs preserved under the form of Abdeh (Jaussen - Savignac - Vincent 1904), certainly correspond to that of the Nabatean king Obodas (39-9 B.C.), who was considered to have been the founder of the town, in which, according to Stephen of Byzanz, he was also buried. Apparently in the fifth century (Negev 1974, 403), the first (or north) church was built in the area of an ancient Nabatean temple on the acropolis. Later on, and probably following the construction of the huge fortress in the sixth century with its little chapel, another (the south) church was built on the acropolis (Fig. 24). On the basis of coins and inscriptions, its excavator, A. Negev, assumed that the entire town with its two churches were destroyed by the Muslims in 636 (Negev 1974, 414), but this is today much doubted.37 Actually, the first Christian inscription from the south church of Oboda dates from 550 and the last one from 617 (Negev 1981, 29 and 37).

Fig. 22

Map of Oboda (after Eini 1986, [Avdat] 6).

37. According to the results of more recent excavations, the destruction of the town in the

seventh century is probably to be assigned to an earthquake that took place in 631.

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P. FIGUERAS

Evidence of a monastic presence in Oboda comes from two sources, namely architecture and epigraphy, both from the south church. This church (Fig. 24), in basilical style (2112.6 m) and having two chapels for the veneration of relics, to the north and the south of the central apse, has an epitaph of the pavement of the church calling it Martyrium of St. Theodore (Negev 1981, 30).38 The almost square atrium (1514 m) to the western side of the basilica, surrounded by several rooms on three 23 Map of the Avdat region, showing geoof its sides (Phot. 11), proba- Fig. graphic relation between Oboda and the monastic bly had an upper story. This caves of Ein Avdat (after Eini 1986, [Avdat] 5). feature and the remains of a tower on the south-west corner of the same atrium seem to point to the presence of a monastic community, as was recognised by its excavators (Ovadiah 1970, 25). As already said, this could be the central coenobium to which the hermits from the laura of Ein Avdat (above) were connected. One of the five epitaphs on the pavement of this church complex was found in the portico of the atrium, and it refers to a certain Father (Greek ABBAC) Kapito, the presbyter, (son) of Erasinos, who died on September 22, 617 C.E. (Negev 1981, 36-37). As said above (Mampsis), the title ABBAC was much used, though not exclusively, by monastic superiors (Meimaris 1986, 235-236), and it is quite natural to see it applied to a priest who could have been the Superior of the monastery in which he was buried. A last hint to the relations between Oboda and the monastic world comes from another inscription, this time written in cursive letters in red color on the shoulder of a very large pottery container, a pithos.39
38. Beside the already mentioned graffito on the so-called Saints Cave on the slope of the acropolis, another invocation to the same Saint was found in the south church inscribed on a fragment of chancel screen (Negev 1982, 31, no. 31). 39. The pithos was unfortunately smashed to pieces, but it can today be seen, restored, in the small restaurant at the foot of Avdat, next to the parking place.

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Fig. 24 Oboda, plan of churches and monastery complex (Ovadiah [Levant 1], 124).

According to its publisher, it was found in situ in the building to the west of the acropolis, and the text on it reads: + O Lord assist. To the deacon Germanus, (sent) by the geron Theodosius (Negev 1981, 43-44). The last two words are important. Indeed, Theodosius, the geron or old

434

P. FIGUERAS

man40 here referred to, could be the famous Saint Theodosius, koinobiarch or Father of all the monasteries of the Holy Land since 492, who founded the monastery till today called Mar Dosios, near Bethlehem. Of course, we have no right to identify the two names, but one must admit that it would be a little strange that two monks of the same name living in Palestine about the same time, were honored with the same title. Anyway, the sending of a big pithos, probably full of oil or wine, was sent by a venerable monk by name Theodosius, who was certainly endowed with powerful administrative authority, to a deacon in Oboda, who could be the economus or administrator of a monastic comunity in that remote town of the Negev. We cannot exclude the possibility that, at a certain period at least, the house-caves that can be seen on the western slope of the acropolis were once inhabited by monks. This would explain the crosses and other Christian symbols decorating some of the walls, among which there is a rough drawing of a saint soldier, probably representing St. Theodore, according to the graffiti accompanying it (Negev 1981, Pl. 16, Phot. 37). Concerning the presence of nuns in Oboda, there is only a light hint in the epitaph, already published by Alt (1921, no. 114), of a woman that was virgin of God (Greek: parthene [sic!] Theou). Such an epithet seems to me to refer to a consecrated virgin, and not just to a woman that happened to die before she got married, as other cases must certainly be interpreted.41

Rueibeh (Reovot ha-Negev) (map ref. 108.048) This Byzantine town of the Negev was known to all the visiting scholars of the last century and beginning of the present one. Despite the similarity of the Arabic name Rueibeh to the town of Reovot mentioned in the Bible (Gen 26:22), there seems to be no connection between both places, as archaeology does not support it. In 1975, 1976, 1979 and 1986 excavations were conducted at the site by T. Tsafrir (partly in collaboration with R. Rosenthal-Hegginbottom), who suggested identifying the place with

40. Here in Genitive form, gerontos. Old Man was a monastic honorary title given to cer-

tain venerable monks (see Meimaris 1986, 239), such as Barsanuphius (above, Birosaba). 41. One case is in Oboda (Negev 1981, 44: ... and his daughter virgin), another one in Elusa (Alt 1921, no. 44: the virgin Sosanna). In Oboda we also find a boy who died unmarried (eteleutesen agamos), being only 17 years and seven months old (Negev 1981, 29).

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Fig. 25

Rueibeh, plan of north church and monastery (Tsafrir 1993).

Bertheiba, a Byzantine toponym referred to in Papyrus 79 of Nessana (Kraemer 1958; Tsafrir 1993, 295). Four churches were discovered in the town, in the north-west, the center, the east and the south. The one in the center had been described by Woolley and Lawrence (1914/15) as being attached to a monastery and a khan, but the presence of a monastery has not been supported by the excavations (Tsafrir 1993, 294-302). On the other hand, the north church, which has also been excavated, though not entirely, is certainly a monastery church, as its excavator has proved (Tsafrir 1988). This church, a threeabsidal basilica (Fig. 25), is situated some 100 m outside the built area of the town, and it measures 24.8013.10 m. Its special feature, an interesting crypt measuring 3.44.3 m was discovered below the presbytery and the nave, apparently for the veneration of some important relics. The access to it was provided by a flight of steps on each side. The existence of this crypt is evidence of the frequency of visitors to the town and the church, which most probably is explained by the fact that Rueibeh lay on the road connecting Elusa with Nessana, one of the pilgrim routes finally leading to Mount Sinai (Figueras 1995b, map). Assistance to pilgrims in this particular church was assured by the presence of monks. Indeed, around the southern wall of the atrium, the excava-

436

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tions cleared some rooms, particularly a long and spacious one containing a long narrow table, that was interpreted as the dining-room of the monastery (Tsafrir 1993, 300). It is not clear whether these rooms and those probably existing in the unexcavated area on the northern side of the atrium had an upper story, as was the case in the north church of Sobata (here below). A cistern in the middle of the courtyard collected rain water from the roofs of church and monastery for the maintenance of its dwellers. It must be pointed out that the inscriptions found so far in Rueibeh do not confirm the presence of monks in the town.

Sobata (Sobota, Sbeita, Shivta) (map ref. 114.032) (Fig. 26) This town was probably built by the Nabateans towards the first century C.E., and survived the Muslim conquest up to the eighth or ninth century. Its location may owe more to agricultural than to commercial criteria, being as it is remote from the normal trade routes (see Fig. 1). Its impressive ruins called the attention of many visitors, among them Palmer in 1870, Musil in 1901, and Jaussen, Savignac and Vincent, who discovered the three churches and a number of inscriptions, in 1905. A good plan of Sobota was produced by Woolley and Lawrence in 1914/15. The American-British Colt expedition worked on the spot in 1934-36, but the results of this excavation were never published. Then it was the turn of Avi-Yonah and Negev in 1958-60, but no reports were published then either. The north church was again surveyed and studied by Negev and R. Rosenthal in 1978 (RosenthalHegginbottom 1982). Fig. 26 Sobata, plan of the town showing The monastic presence in south, central and north churches and surSobata is an established fact, rounding buildings (after Eini 1986, [Shivta] 6).

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Fig. 27 Sobata, north church and monastery complex (Woolley - Lawrence 1914/15).

supported by epigraphy as well as by architectural criteria, as will hopefully be shown in the following report on the three churches. It is indeed very possible that all three, and not only the north one, were monastic churches. North church (Fig. 27). As Shereshevski (1991, 75) points out, this was the only church in Sobata built on the periphery of the site, without the

438

P. FIGUERAS

constraints or limitations of a built-up area surrounding it. It is a whole complex of buildings, including a three-absidal basilica facing east (1912 m), a spacious atrium surrounded by rooms in the west (Fig. 28), a chapel attached to the southern wall of the basilica, and a baptistry chapel to its south. The rooms around the atrium include a long hall to the west (probably a dining room), and smaller rooms to the south, all covered with arches which once supported an upper story. The northern gallery of the atrium is paved with mosaic, and a flight of steps led to its roof, which was the floor of the second story. Attached to Fig. 28 Sobata, isometric reconstruction of the eastern wall of the atriun north church and monastery (RosenthalHegginbottom, 1982, Plan 4). and close to its southern entrance, one can see a high stone-bed (Phot. 12), which might have served the monk responsible for the reception of guests and pilgrims. Many details of the building around the atrium, today collapsed (except for its outer, reinforced walls, standing up to a height of 5 meters), led most scholars to accept that it had been built to be a monastery. Other speculations, such as the interpretation of the small square in the middle of the atrium as being the basis of a column, a memorial to a holy monk who had once been lived as stylite in the neighborhood of Sobata (RosenthalHiggenbottom 1981, 232) have no supporting evidence. Epigraphy seems to strengthen the monastic character of this church. Indeed, a tomb in the baptistry is that of thrice-blessed Arsenius (son) of Abraamios, monk and priest, who died on the 4th of January, 630
42. As pointed out above (Aila), there is probably no relation between this Arsenius and another

apparently famous monk of the same name who had his monastery within the jurisdictional area of the bishop of Aila (Palmer 1871, 554, 22). Yet it is interesting to realize that, in the epitaph of our monk Arsenius of Sobata, his memory is praised with such solemn expressions as laid in Christ, resting among saints, thrice-blessed Arsenius... monk and priest (Negev 1981, 56-57).

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C.E.42 Another one in the atrium of the church is that of a son of Abbot Themos, who died on the 1st of April, 644 C.E. (Negev 1981, 52-52).43 Outside the church, a series of workshops have been interpreted as belonging to the local monastic community (Segal 1986). This is especially true of the wine press that, contrary to usual, has no compartments around the threshing pavement.44 If this was true, we would have a community of monks that were partly engaged in agriculture and partly in the service of the Christian pilgrims and visitors, who were certainly frequent in this church, judging by the presence of the baptistry, the riches of its internal decorations, and the transformation of the initial pastophoria or side-rooms into relic chapels (Margalit 1987).45 Central church (Fig. 29). All scholars agree that this is the most recent of the three churches of the town. It is a three-absidal basilica (c. 1714 m), built when the street in front of it was already in existence, and a three-arched porch connects the two. A previously existing cistern has its mouth inside the church. The latter is immediately connected to a complex of spacious buildings built around three small courtyards on its southern and eastern sides. One of them is currently called the Governors House, only because it includes a high square tower (Segal 1986). I would rather call the complex a community building, a monastery. Perhaps it had not been built with this purpose, but its sumptuous entrance, with Christian symbols decorating the lintel of the main gate (Phot. 13), seems to indicate that, in the course of time, probably when the church was built, it had been transformed into one. The existence of towers, built

43. Abba is a title mostly applied to monks. It is frequent in the monastic literature to see

monks having sons, as we realized in the case of the hegoumenoi at Nessana (above, s.v.). Another well-known case is that of Nilus, the monk of Sinai whose young son Theodulos, who was living with him in a hermitage, was once abducted by a group of Saracens and sold in the market of Sobata (PG 79, 674-683; see Mayerson 1963, 161). 44. Indeed, in all the other wine-presses in the Negev there are compartments around the threading area (Eini 1986, [Har ha-negev] 13) apparently to allow a previous inspection of the weight and quality of the grapes brought by each family to the common press, so as to receive the right payment or the appropriate quantity of wine produced. That previous inspection was purposeless if the grapes to be pressed were brought from vineyards belonging to one and the same community. 45. These were characteristics of the pilgrim churches, and so we have to interpret many of the churches in the Byzantine Negev, as they were visited by pilgrims on their way to or from Mount Sinai (Figueras 1995). As for the north church of Sobata, it has been speculated by some to be the xenodochium or inn of Saint George mentioned by the Piacenza Pilgrim. We have already seen that this identification is no more probable, after the discovery of the invocation to the God of St. George in Mitzpe Shivta (above).

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as shelters for the community in case of danger, is well known in ancient monastic architecture.46 No epigraphic evidence for the presence of monks in this central church has been preserved. Actually, only a short inscription on a abacus of stone capital, an invocation to St. Stephen, was published with relation to this church (Negev 1981, 62, no. 70). South church (Fig. 30). Situated to the east of the open pull of the town, possibly the origin of the whole urban center of Sobata, this basilica (1914.30 m) is probably the oldest of the three churches. According to a graffito detected on a wall at its entrance attesting to the frequent visits by pilgrims (Figueras 1994, no. 4, Fig. 5), this church was very probably dedicated to St. Stephen. Its only dated inscription, however, is from A.D. 639, being the commemoration of a new paving of the church under Bishop George and the Archdeacon and economus Peter (Negev 1981, 61). Also here the epigraphy does not help to see any connection with monks. However, the architecture of the mansion attached to the northern side of the church seems to demand here also the presence of a small community of church personnel. A single Parish priest with his family would certainly not need such a house. Knowing the use that is commonly referred only to Augustin of Hippo in North Africa, it is possible that here, and maybe around the central church too, we must be allowed to imagine a group of clergy living together in community of goods and sitting at the same table, rather than a community of monks of the traditional kind. Indeed, in the fifth century, besides the very well-known example of Augustins clergy, two other cases are known of the same kind of phaenomenon, one around bishop Eusebius of Vercelli (Ambrosius, Epist 63, I, 7-9), the other much nearer to our region, the case of Melas, the holy bishop of Rhinocorura (todays El-Arish) in North Sinai (Sozomen, Church History, V, 15, PG 67, 1389-90). These examples, apparently, fruit of the spontaneous initiative of inspired people,47 could have been imitated in other towns as well, such as Sobata. On the basis of that historical reality, the scholar has the right to suggest the intepretation of certain archaeological remains along the same line, even if there is no literary or epigraphic evidence for it.

46. A case in point in Palestinian monasticism is the tower in the monastery built by Jerome and Paula in Bethlehem towards the end of the fourth century, where monks and nuns took shelter during the attack by the Pelagians. 47. The text of Sozomenos concerning Rhinocolura towards the end of the fourth century is convincing: The clergy of this church dwell in one house, sit at the same table, and have everything in common (Sozomenos, Church History V, 15, in PG 67, 1389-90

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Fig. 29 Sobata, central church and monastery complex (Negev 1988, 97).

Fig. 30 Sobata, south church and monastic complex (Eini 1986, [Shivta] 10).

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P. FIGUERAS

As a complement to the review of epigraphic and archaeological hints to the presence of monks in Sobata, I will refer to an ostrakon found by the American expedition in the ruins of Sobata (Meimaris 1986, 253, no. 1267), acknowledging to a certain Abbot John, son of Victor, lector, for having performed nine parts of his duty in cleaning the cistern. Apart from the interesting fact that a member of the clergy, although the low clergy, is seen performing compulsory public duty, we realise that here the title abbot (lit. ab[b]a, in dat.) cannot but be monastic, because he was not a priest. More problematic is the reference to a certain Abba Victor, presbyter of Sobata, who appears among ten other contributors in an account of donations to the monastery of St. Sergius in Nessana (Pap. 79.52; Meimaris 1986, 189). Summarizing the hints of the monks presence in Sobata, let us remember that here, as in most other cases in the Negev, monastic life was of a different kind than those of the desert coenobia and laurae so typical of the Judean desert and existing also in some points of the Negev. Relatively small communities of clergy and/or monks lived around Parish churches, dedicated to the spiritual service of their flocks and also of the numerous pilgrims who attracted by famous relics and shrines (particularly, though not exclusively, those of the north church). Also in Sobata, as in Nessana, the monks would hold the boys-schools and thus maintain the cultural level of the civil community, even though agriculture certainly occupied some of the monks.

Tel Ira (map ref. 148.071) (Phot. 14) The ruins of a Byzantine monastery were discovered upon the ruins of an Israelite fortress in this remote site of the north-east Negev desert. The site was first surveyed by D. Alon in 1979 and was successively and/or contemporaneously excavated in several seasons by A. Biran, and I. Beit-Arieh (HA 1979, 33; 1981, 34). The plan of the monastery has never been published, but it includes a small chapel, a courtyard and several rooms (Phot. 14). An inscription, today irreparably damaged, in the fragmentary mosaics at the entrance of the chapel, linked it with a special veneration to St. Peter: Our God has blessed us. Peter has blessed us. Our God.48
48. I take this opportunity to thank Mr. Nimrod Negev, today a member of the Israel Antiquities Authority, for having called my attention, when he was still my student, to the discovery of this unusual Greek text which I copied myself in situ. Except for the House of Peter in Capernaum, no other church or chapel seems to have been dedicated to the memory of the Apostle Peter in ancient Palestine, but there was one in Rihab, in Transjordan (Meimaris 1986, 105).

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The presence of a monastery in such a remote place is a good indication of the kind of life they were pursuing, certainly very similar to most of the monasteries in the Judean desert. The fact that it had been established upon and among the ruins of an ancient city is not surprising, as the ruins furnished good stone for the building, and there was plenty water in the old cisterns. The same had occurred in some of the Herodian palaces in Palestine (Massada, Herodion, Hyrcania), as in many of the ancient temples in Egypt.

Tel Masos (Khirbet el Meshash) (map ref. 140.069) (Fig. 31) In a way similar to Tel Ira, Tel Masos monastery was also established close to the ruins of an ancient Israelite city, whose identification is not yet definitely solved. This city lay on the banks of Nahal Beersheva, and it was preceded in the same site by other settlements since the Chalcolithic period. The site was discovered by the Israeli survey headed by the late Y. Aharoni in the sixties. An Israelite city and Byzantine monastery were later excavated in 1972-1975 by a German-Israeli expedition, and the results were properly published in an extensive two-volume report (FritzKempinski 1983). The monastery ruins consisted of a building centered around a courtyard (Figs. 32 and 33). The chapel has a rectangular apse. On an angle of the same courtyard is a burial crypt with several burial places for more than one body, on whose stones some graffiti written in Syriac were reported. The identification of this complex of chapel, rooms, courtyard and crypt as a monastery is not a matter of doubt. All the necessary elements for the life and maintenance of a monastic community are there. The only doubtful thing about this place is the interpretation given to it by the excavators, and particularly by the publisher of Syriac graffiti, the late Paul Maiberger (ibid., p. 158ff). To his mind, those graffiti had been written not in Palestinian Syriac characters, but in north Syrian script, the so-called Nestorian writing. As a result, a whole theory was formed regarding the foundation date of the building, which should not be dated to the late Byzantine but to the Ummayad period. Indeed, it was said, it is not thinkable that during the rigid Orthodox Byzantine regime, a Nestorian monastery would have been allowed to be founded in Palestinian lands. The Muslims would apparently have been much more generous and large than the local Christian authorities. What one can say about this theory is that the presence of some unclear graffiti in Nestorian script (not even Nestorian in contents, as they

444

P. FIGUERAS

Fig. 31

Tel Masos, plan of monastery (Fritz-Kempinski 1983).

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Fig. 32-33 Tel Masos, suggested isometric reconstruction of chapel and monastery (Fritz-Kempinski 1983).

include only personal names and doubtful words) is certainly not enough to establish a dating. All the criteria normally taken into consideration for dating the building as Byzantine, such as pottery, are there.49 One must accept that, in the moment when all the Christian settlements till then flourishing with their churches and institutions, were being abandoned, dismantled and inconsiderately destroyed all over the Negev, it is almost inconceivable that a new monastery was planned and built, and then occupied for about one century, as it is claimed, in such a remote place as Tel Masos.

Tel Yeshua (Tel es-Sawa) (map ref. 149.076) (Fig. 34) This site lies some 20 km east of Beersheva, on the road to Arad, and has been identified with a place where a group of Jews settled on their return from the Babilonian exile (Neh 11:26). On the tel, the ruins of a square building were interpreted by Woolley and Lawrence (1914/15) without doubt as a monastery. The recent survey seems also to confirm this view
49. This is the authorized opinion of Prof. V. Fritz, excavator of the site and today director

of the German Archaeological Institute in Jerusalem, as expressed to the present writer in private communication.

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Fig. 34

Tel Yeshua, plan of the site (Govrin 1991, 89, 2).

(Govrin 1992, 88-89.*61). It had a church on its northern side and a room complex on the south. The church, which had one apse only, was paved with white mosaic.

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It must be said that this interpretation of the ruins from the Byzantine period has not been accepted by more recent archaeologists, who see in them a round Herodian tower among other buildings that were in use during the Roman and Byzantine period. Excavations have not been conducted at the site, and it is difficult to verify the truth. If Woolley and Lawrence saw the church, whose remains could later have been destroyed and dismantled, nothing stands against their interpretation. The Herodian tower could easily have been included in the monastic complex. Even if part of the building was used as a fort, the other part could serve as dwellings to a group of monks, as happened in other places, such as Mitzpe Shivta (above).

Summary Trying now to compare the results obtained with the purposes we had set to us at the start of this study, it is superfluous to point out that there is archaeological as well as written evidence of the existence of monks and monasteries in the Byzantine Negev. Rather, I would like to offer the results of this schematic research in a systematic and practical way, gathering in a general way the existing data under some significant headings: 1. 2. 3. 4. Monks in Third Palestine in general (literary evidence) Monasteries in Third Palestine in general (lit. evid.) Hermits cave: Wadi Moeile (archaeological evidence) Laurae: Ein Avdat (arch.) Elusa (lit.) Mitzpe Shivta (arch. + lit. ?) 5. Isolated monasteries: Aila region (lit.) orvat Bodeda (arch. ?) orvat Kuseife (arch. ?) orvat Soa (arch. ?) Tel Ira (arch.) Tel Masos (arch.) Tel Yeshua (arch. ?) Elusa region (nuns) (lit.) 6. Monastery near town: Nessana, church no. 6 (nunnery ?) (arch. + papyri ?) 7. Monastic or clergy communities around churches in towns:

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Birosaba (arch. + lit. ?) Mampsis, western church (arch. + epigraphy ?) Nessana, church no. 1 (arch. + epigr. + papyri) Nessana, church no. 3 (arch. + epigr.) Rueibeh, north church (arch.) Oboda, south church (arch. + epigr.) Sobata, north church (arch. + epigr.) Sobata, central church (arch.) Sobata, south church (arch.) 8. Terms: Monastery (mone) in Nessana (pap.) Monastery of women in Elusa region (lit.) Monastery of women (matronikia ?) in Nessana (pap.) Laura in Elusa (lit.) Archimandrites in Third Palestine in general (lit.) Hegumenos in Nessana (epigr. + papyri) Abbas in Birosaba (lit.), Mampsis (epigr.), Nessana (epigr.+ pap.), Oboda (epigr.), Sobata (epigr.), Elusa (lit.) Monk (monachos) in Nessana (pap.), Sobata (epigr.) Virgin of God in Oboda (epigr.) Solitary (hesychastes) in Elusa (lit.) Our Mother in Nessana (epigr.) Old Man (geron) in Oboda (epigr.) Despite the difficulties of interpretation of some of these data, there is no doubt that, also the Negev desert was heavily populated by monks during the Christian centuries. They were in great part responsible, not only for the Christianization of the local population (Elusa), but also for its religious and cultural education (Nessana). If some of them lived in absolute separation from secular affairs (Ein Avdat, Moeile), others were totally involved in the social life of the communities (Nessana). Some lived in remote cenobitic monasteries (Tel Ira, Tel Masos), others in communities around the church parishes (Sobata, Oboda). Some of them were active in agriculture (Nessana, Sobata), others took care of the pilgrims and passers-by (Nessana, Rueibeh, Mitzpe Shivta, Sobata). Among their rangs there were writers of renown (Elusa), others had been rich members of famous city-councils (Nessana). There was a small monastery of poor nuns living on charity in the middle of the desert (Elusa), but another monastery had become well-known because a great monk had lived there (Aila).

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Let us finally remember that this monasticism, till today unfairly ignored by Church historians, was well known to the Church of the sixth century, which invited some of its representatives to attend the ecumenical council at Constantinople in 536. Pau Figueras Ben Gurion University of the Negev

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