Umm al-Rasas (also spelled Umm ar-Rasas and Um er-Rasas) is an important archaeological site that was declared a World Heritage Site in 2004. Its structures date from the 3rd to 9th centuries and most have not yet been excavated. The site is especially known for its magnificent Byzantine mosaics, which have been uncovered in two churches dating from the 6th and 8th centuries.
History of Umm al-Rasas
This site has been inhabited since at least the Iron Age (7th century BC), as attested by artifacts such as a basalt pillar base and a stone scarab. In ancient times, it was a Moabite town called Kastron Mefaa. The prophet Jeremiah mentioned the city (as "Mephaath") in his condemnation of Moab (Jeremiah 48:21). The 4th-century church historian Eusebius recorded that a Roman army unit was stationed here.
Excavations began in 1986 at the north end of the site and have continued ever since. Most of the site still remains buried under rubble.
What to See at Umm al-Rasas
The jumbled ruins of Umm al-Rasas are enclosed inside a wall with gates on the north, south and east sides, with more structures spreading outside the walls to the north. Archaeologists have focused their work on the Byzantine churches, of which four inside the walls and 11 outside the walls have been discovered so far. In addition to the churches, two oil presses and a winery have been uncovered.
Inside the walls, the most notable ruins are two churches built into the east wall, the Church of the Rivers and the Church of the Palm Tree. Both are named for their mosaics and date from the 6th century. The area around the churches has also been excavated, revealing several arched rooms and a courtyard with wells and basins.
Outside the northeast corner of the walls is the Church of the Lions, named for its mosaic that includes two lions. Finally, at the northeastern corner of the site, are the two most famous churches at Umm al-Rasas - the Church of Bishop Sergius and the Church of St. Stephen - which are sheltered under a green hangar.
Bishop Sergius' Church (587 AD) lies to the north. Next to its altar is a rectangular mosaic floor decorated with rams, pomegranate trees, and an inscription dating the mosaics to the time of Bishop Sergius. The nave mosaic has portraits of donors and personifications of the Sea and Earth, but these were badly damaged by iconoclasts.
The celebrated Church of St. Stephen (785 AD) has a magnificent mosaic floor throughout the interior. The dedicatory inscription provided the date of the mosaic and, importantly, identified Umm ar-Rasas as the ancient city of Kastron Mefaa. Below the inscription are the outlines of donor portraits, which were removed by iconoclasts, and fruit trees.
The central panel of the nave mosaic - featuring roundels with agricultural and hunting motifs - is badly damaged, but it is the border that gets the most attention anyway. Creating a wide rectangular frame around the nave are mosaic depictions of 15 major cities as they appeared in the 8th century, each labeled in Greek. Those on the north side are in Palestine; those on the left are in Jordan.
Jerusalem has pride of place next to the altar, labeled as "Holy City" (HAΓIA ΠΩΛIC). Next to it is Kastron Mefaa itself, represented by a pillar and a church. The remaining Jordanian cities are Philadelphia (Amman), Madaba, Esbounta (Hesban), Belemounta (Ma'in), Areopolis (Rabba) and Charachmoba (Karak). Beneath Jerusalem are the Palestinian cities of Nablus, Sebastis, Caesarea, Dispolis (Lidda), Eleutheropolis (Beit Gibrin), Askalon and Gaza. At the top of the side aisles are two more Jordanian towns, Limbon and Diblaton.
Two square towers north of Umm al-Rasas were probably used by stylite hermits, who once flourished in this part of the world. These hardy souls spent many years living in austerity atop a pillar, often attracting many admirers below. The most famous of these hermits is St. Simeon Stylites whose church still survives in Syria.
UNESCO notes that these towers are "probably the only remains of the practice." They are solid inside except for a small room at the top. The east face has a carved niche and the remaining sides are carved with Greek crosses. Near the towers are various ruins, include a little church with an apse (east of the tower).
Quick Facts on Umm al-Rasas
|Names:||Kastrom Mefa'a · Mephaath · Um El Resas · Um er-Rasas · Umm al-Rasas · Umm ar-Rasas|
|Categories:||churches; archaeological sites; city ruins; ruins; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||31.500890° N, 35.920519° E|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Umm al-Rasas|
- Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa'a) - UNESCO World Heritage List
- Sue Rollin and Jane Streetly, Blue Guide Jordan, 3rd ed. (London: A&C Black, 2001), 191-93.
- Umm al-Rasas - Franciscan Archaeological Institute
- The Mosaics of the Madaba Plateau of Jordan - Jordan Jubilee
Map of Umm al-Rasas, Jordan
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