Up to date, six ancient churches were discovered at Nessana – surprising number for such a small settlement.
All of them belong to basilical type, the most common architectural form of the Holy Land church edifices. Two large churches were found at the acropolis by Colt’ expedition: the Northern Church was dedicated to St. Sergius and Bacchus, popular ‘military saints’ of the Early Christianity, and the Southern Church – to the Holy Theotokos. Small monastery with the chapel was unearthed on the lower northern step of the acropolis by the expedition of the BGU. Down the hill, three more churches are known: the Central Church was exposed by the BGU, presenting one of the best examples of Byzantine basilicas in the region. Another church, perhaps with the monastery, was found during the Ottoman constructive activity a hundred years ago. To add, the remains of the chapel were discovered during the survey performed at the site by the current project team. Its exposure started in 2022 in salvage excavation of the Israel Antiquities Authority and continues in the frames of our next excavational seasons. All the churches of Nessana were built of stone and lavishly decorated with locally made carved elements, imported marble and mosaics. It seems, that most of the churches functioned simultaneously during the Byzantine and the Early Islamic period. Perhaps, the unusual number of the churches at the site has to be related to the economic wealth of Nessana and its role in the pilgrimage movement.
During the Byzantine period, Palestine, perhaps for the first time in its history, - turns into the religious centre of the whole world.
The local Greek and Aramaic speaking population meets pilgrims who are flowing from all the corners of the growing Christian oikumene – Rome, and Latin parts of the Empire, Greece, Constantinople, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Caucasus. Constantly growing flow of Christians are coming to see and touch the places of earthen life of Christ and the apostles, to wonder and to pray. Although Nessana is not related to any events mentioned in Scriptures and, to the best of our knowledge, never kept any important relics of Christendom, during the Byzantine period it becomes one of the most visited and crowdy hubs of the Holy Land. The prosperity of Byzantine-period Nessana is related to its strategic position: the settlement was located on the route of Christian pilgrims, traveling from the Holy Land to the Mount Sinai. Pilgrimage played a major role in the life of the settlement, as clearly reflected in the inscriptions and graffiti in various languages and in the testimony of the Nessana papyri. Apparently, Byzantine Nessana became an essential stopping point for pilgrims entering the Sinai desert, place where caravans were formed, guides and other essential services were supplied, and kept its role also during the Early Islamic period. The scientific problematics of the archaeology of pilgrimage is in the focus of the new excavations of Nessana: we intent to study the material evidence of the sacred journeys, planning and architectural characteristics of the settlement’s churches and hostels, pilgrims’ graffiti, and its relation to the written evidence, supplied by ancient literary sources, papyri and inscriptions discovered at the site.
In 1937, the expedition of H.D. Colt discovered papyri archives in the two ancient churches of Nessana: St. Sergius and Bacchus and Holy Theotokos. Papyri, written in Greek, Arabic and Aramaic languages, are dated to the sixth–seventh centuries.
Survived thanks to the arid climate, the papyri - private and official documents, literary and administrative documents, - kept precious information on life and economy of the site, names of some of its residents, soldiers, farmers, and clerics, their involvement in local agriculture and pilgrimage, and also revealed the ancient name of the village: Νεσάνα.
The majority of well-preserved Nessana papyri written in Greek were published in 1950s-60s, but hundreds of smaller fragments in Greek, Arabic and Aramaic were forgotten for long, and their digitalization and study started just few years ago in the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World of the New York University.
Nessana, abandoned sometime during the Abbasid period, at the ninth–tenth century CE, was inhabited once again only after thousand years, when the Ottoman authorities decide to turn it into an administrative and military center of the region,
located close to the border line established between Ottoman Palestine and British-ruled Egypt.
This new settlement, known as ‘Auja al-Hafir, has been built right on the top of Byzantine remains; some antiquities were discovered during its construction. An administrative building – Seraya, - was erected on the top of the hill, with military camp, barracks and storages built on the eastern bank of the brook, and a railway station nearby. During the WWI, the site served main logistic base for the Ottoman forces for their raids on the Suez Canal, and a military hospital operated in the lower part of the settlement. During the British Mandate, Ottoman buildings were used as storages and police station. From 1948 until 1956, Israeli – Egyptian ceasefire delegation and the UN inspectors occupied the site. After the Suez crisis of 1956, all the Ottoman compound was demolished by the IDF. Nessana expedition aims to excavate the Ottoman remains as a proper archaeological layer, alongside with first millennium finds.