08 January 2011

Umm ar-Rasas

The ruins of Umm ar-Rasas are situated about 30 km southeast of Madaba, halfway between Dhiban on King’s Highway and Desert Road. The ruins are comprised of a walled, fortified camp with an open quarter of roughly the same size to the north. The remains of a tower are located beside ruins of some edifices, quarries and water cisterns hewn from the rock.
A basalt pillar base and a stone scarab date the sites habitation to at least the Iron Age (7th century BCE).

Umm ar-Rasas is identified, in the biblical book of Genesis, with the Moabite town of Kastron Mefaa in the territory of Reuben.  Prophet Jeremiah, in his condemnation of Moab mentioned the city as Mephaath (Jeremiah 48.21). Eusebius, the 4th century historian recorded that a Roman army unit was stationed there. Ruins from the Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim civilizations have been found. Most of the site remains unexcavated. This UNESCO World Heritage Site includes excavations of a military garrison and several churches.

Most important of the finds to date is the mosaic floor of the Church of St Stephen, made in 785 CE. This is well after the establishment of Islam in the Middle East. It is the largest and most perfectly preserved mosaic floor in Jordan and it remains in its original place. The central panel consists of hunting and fishing scenes and another panel illustrates the most important cities of the region, including Kastron Mefaa, Philadelphia (Amman), Madaba, Esbounta (Hesban), Belemounta (Ma’in), Areopolis (Rabba), Charac Moaba (el-Kerak), Jerusalem, Nablus, Caesarea and Gaza. The decorative frame is particularly outstanding. Unfortunately much of the center of the mosaic was destroyed during the iconoclastic period, during which “graven images” were forbidden as idolatrous.
The floor was signed by six masters of the mosaic: Staurachios from Esbus, Euremios, Elias, Constantinus, Germanus and Abdela. The floor overlays the damaged floor of the earlier (587 CE) Church of Bishop Sergius. Four other churches have thus far been excavated at Umm ar-Rasas.
The most notable ruins located inside the walls are two churches built into the east wall: Church of the Rivers and Church of the Palm Tree. Both are named for their mosaics and date to the 6th century. The churches are accompanied by several arched rooms and a courtyard with wells and basins.

Two square towers north of the city were probably used by Stylite hermits who once flourished in the Middle East. These hermits spent many years living ascetically atop a pillar and often attracted many followers below. St Simeon Stylites, the best known of these hermits, still has a church named for him that survives in Syria. St Simeon climbed on a pillar in Syria in 432 and remained there until his death 37 years later. UNESCO notes that these two towers are “probably theonly remains of the practice” extant today. The towers are solid except for a small room at the top.

Visitor's Center

Church of Bishop Sergius

Church of St Paul

Church of St Stephen

Portion of mosaic floor at Church of St Stephen

Portion of mosaic floor at Church of St Stephen depicting Jerusalem

Portion of mosaic floor at Church of St Stephen depicting Madaba

Portion of mosaic floor at Church of St Stephen

Portion of mosaic floor at Church of St Stephen

Portion of mosaic floor at Church of St Stephen

Stylite Hermit's Tower

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