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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity

from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world

Greek inscription, probably recording a church of *Mary (Mother of Christ, S00033). Found at Izra/Zorava near Bostra (Roman province of Arabia). Probably 5th-6th c.

Evidence ID


Type of Evidence

Inscriptions - Formal inscriptions (stone, mosaic, etc.)

Archaeological and architectural - Cult buildings (churches, mausolea)

+ ἡ ἁγία Μαρία
+ Μαρθι Νεστασια

1. ΜΑΡΙΜ Seetzen || 2. ΝΕCΙΑCΙΑ Wadington

'+ Holy Mary. + Martha (?). Nestasia (?).'

IGLS 15/2, no. 176.

Cult Places

Cult building - unspecified
Cult building - independent (church)
Cult building - dependent (chapel, baptistery, etc.)

Non Liturgical Activity

Construction of cult buildings

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives



Stone lintel. H. 0.31 m; W. 1.76 m. Letter height 0.08-0.09 m. Letters probably in low-relief. Decorated with a carving of a circle (diameter: c. 0.25 m) in the middle of the inscribed face.

The inscription has been known since the early 19th c. It was first recorded by Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, a German traveller in the Levant who departed from Jever (Friesland in Lower Saxony) in 1802, and reached the Fayum Oasis in Egypt via Smyrna, central Asia Minor, Aleppo, Palestine and Sinai. Being fluent in Arabic, Seetzen travelled in the disguise of a beggar and pilgrim, exploring the Dead Sea region, and entered Mecca where he converted to Islam. In 1811 he was poisoned by his guide, while on his way to Muscat (modern Oman). Seetzen made a number of transcriptions of inscriptions from Zorava, including the present text which, he says, was carved on a stone, reused in the wall of a house ('Auf einem Steine in der Mauer eines Hauses'). The building was situated near the courtyard of the local church of George (see: E01754). In 1859 Friedrich Kruse and Heinrich Leberecht Fleischer, who commented on Seetzen's copies, reprinted the first line of the text.

In 1861/1862 Zorava was revisited by William Waddington. He found the slab still inserted in a wall, with our inscription in a 'good state of preservation', but with a scarcely legible line 2. He offered his own transcription and commented on it in his corpus of Greek inscriptions, published in 1870. The best drawing is that offered by Enno Littman who saw the inscription while participating in the American Expedition to Syria 1899/1900; an edition by William Prentice, based on Littmann's copy followed in 1908. The inscription is now apparently lost, as Maurice Sartre was unable to find it during his survey of the village.


The inscription is not easy to interpret and the readings, especially in line 2, seem doubtful. Seetzen left the inscription without any comments. Friedrich Kruse noted that only the first line was 'intelligible' and that it probably labelled a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, over whose doorway the stone presumably had originally been displayed. As for the second line, he suggested that it might have mentioned a certain Martha as a founder of the sanctuary.

A completely different, and rather implausible, interpretation of the inscription was offered by William Waddington. He said nothing on the identity of Maria, mentioned in line 1, but believed that line 2 recorded the name of 'Martha, sister of Mary Magdalene' (sometimes erroneously believed to have been the repentant prostitute who washed Jesus' feet: see Luke 7,36–50). Waddington's comments, though not completely without basis, need explanation. They are based on an unjustified identification of Mary Magdalene (whose actual identity is not clear) with Mary, a friend of Jesus presumed to have lived in Bethany (Luke 10, 38-42) and sister of Lazarus, the man resurrected by Jesus (John 11, 1-44). As the two Maries were conflated already by an early Christian tradition, it is not completely impossible that the author of our inscription had this character in mind. This theory requires, however, an assumption that both Mary and Martha are mentioned as saints in our texts, which is by no means clear. Searching for alternative theories, Waddington also compared our inscription with an account of Epiphanios, bishop of Salamis (Cyprus), who in his writings against heretics mentions a sect of
Sampsaioi also named Helkesaioi who reportedly lived in Arabia, and believed themselves to be followers of a certain 'pseudo-prophet' Helkesiaos. They venerated two of his female descendants: Marthous and Marthine/Marthana and were said to have used amulets containing dust from these two women's feet and their saliva as phylacteries (for references, see the comments to Waddington 1870, no. 2502). Waddington concluded that the name Μαρθίνη (spellt Μαρθίνε) could possibly appear in line 2 of our inscription.

Prentice did not refer to Waddington's theories (probably finding them implausible), and commented on the inscription only very briefly. He noted that in line 2 we should probably read the name Μάρθη (spelt Μαρθι) and the name Ἀναστασία (spelt Νεστασια; for this spelling see E02666). Prentice did not claim that the names referred to patrons of churches or holy figures otherwise venerated in Zorava.

Robert Devreesse at first (1942) claimed our inscription to have been an attestation of a cult of Mary, Martha, and Anastasia, but later (1945) removed Anastasia from this list. In 1949 François Halkin stated that the second line was indeed obscure and one could not use it to argue for a cult of Martha or Anastasia. In spite of this criticism, in 2000, in her essay devoted to the cult of saints in the province of Arabia, Annie Sartre-Fauriat cited our inscription as evidence for the existence of a church dedicated to Mary and Martha in Zorava, without specifying their identity. On the other hand, in the fifteenth volume of
Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie, published in 2014, the Sartres reasonably suspend judgement on the character of our text and the identity of recorded (holy) figures.

We think that the reference to the 'holy Mary' in line 1 is clear enough to consider it an attestation of the cult of Mary, Mother of Christ, who is sometimes referred to as
agia Maria in inscriptions (see: $EXXXX). Line 2 is likely to contain the name of a donor, Martha (Μάρθι = Μάρθη), followed by a corrupted form of the verb ἀνέστησεν/'erected, set up, built' or, alternatively, a vernacular form of the name Anastasia (cf. a graffito from Deir 'Ain 'Abata with the name Nestasios: E02782).

For an inscribed bronze disk from Jerusalem certainly dedicated to Maria and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, see E02819.


Sartre-Fauriat, A., Sartre, M., Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie, vol. 15/1: Le plateau du Trachôn et ses bordures (BAH 204, Beyrouth: Institut Français du Proche-Orient, 2014), no. 176.

Prentice, W.K. (ed.),
Greek and Latin Inscriptions (Publications of an American archaeological expedition to Syria in 1899-1900 3, New York: Century 1908), 336, no. 438.

Waddington, W.H.,
Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie (Paris: Firmin Didot Frères, Libraires-Éditeurs, 1870), no. 2502.

Kruse, F., Fleischer, H.L.,
Commentare zu Ulrich Jasper Seetzen's Reisen (Berlin, 1859), 78.

Seetzen, U.J.,
Reisen durch Syrien, Palästina, Phönicien, die Transjordan Länder, Arabia Petrae und unter-Aegypten, vol. 1 (Berlin, 1854), 115.

Further reading:
Devreesse, R., "", Revue Biblique (1942), 143, n. 9.

Devreesse, R., Le patriarcat d'Antioche depuis la paix de l'Église jusqu'à la conquête arabe (Paris: J. Gabalda et cie, 1945), 238.

Halkin, F., "Inscriptions grecques relatives à l'hagiographie, I, Faux martyrs et inscriptions pseudo-hagiographiques",
Analecta Bollandiana 67 (1949), 94.

Sartre-Fauriat, A., "Georges, Serge, Élie et quelques autres saints connus et inédits de la province d'Arabie", in: Fr. Prévot (ed.),
Romanité et cité chrétienne. Permances et mutations. Intégration et exclusion du Ier au VIe siècle. Mélanges en l'honneur d'Yvette Duval (Paris: De Boccard, 2000), 306, note 75.


Majuscule edition by Seetzen. From Seetzen 1854, 115.

Majuscule edition by Waddington. From: LBW, 568.

Drawing by Littmann. From: IGLS 15/1, 243.

Record Created By

Paweł Nowakowski

Date Last Modified


Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00033Mary, Mother of ChristΜαρίαCertain
S00286Mary Magdalene, follower of JesusΜαρίαUncertain

Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
Paweł Nowakowski, Cult of Saints, E02114 -