On the edge of the semi-arid steppe near the Kings’ Highway, 30 kilometres southeast of Madaba lies Um Rassas, a delightful archaeological site that is often overlooked due to its remoteness. Having been designated a World Heritage Site since 2004, Um Rassas hosts some of the finest Byzantine church mosaics in the Middle East and impressive remains of ancient civilizations.
The site was inhabited since the Iron Age (7th century BC) and settled by Nabateans, Romans, and Umayyad. From Josephus, a Roman-Jewish historian of the 1 century AD, we know that the landscape of Um Rassas was once a lush fertile terrain cultivated using an elaborate irrigation system. The site is also mentioned in the Old Testament as the Moabite town of Mephaat which was to be “condemned to great destruction” (Jeremiah 48:21) and, in the Muslim tradition, is believed to be the place where the prophet Muhammad had his encounter as a child with the Christian monk Bahira and where Hanif Zeid bin ‘Amr heard the prediction that there would arise a great prophet in Mecca.
Um Rassas contains ruins from the Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim periods (3rd to 9th centuries AD) including sixteen churches and a fortified Roman military camp. The mosaics in the churches are considered of great artistic and historical value. The most famous is the maps on the mosaic floor of St Stephen’s Church which depicts old and New Testament cities on both the east and west banks of the Jordan River identified by their place names in Greek script. Other mosaic scenes describe birds and animals, fishermen and hunters incorporated into extensive geometric mosaic carpets.
The second important highlight of Um Al Rassas is the 15-meter Byzantine Stylite Tower located 1.5 km north of the main archaeological site. This was not a watchtower but the designated accommodation of the Stylite monks. The Stylites monks were early Christian hermits that lived in isolation atop a tower and practised preaching, fasting and praying, as well as the practice of mortification of the flesh for the sanctification of souls. The Stylite Tower is decorated with crosses and contains visible remains of the roof that the monks accessed by a removable ladder.
The restoration of Um Rassas started in the year 2000 and included participatory management practices. The local community is involved in the protection and preservation of the site as a way of creating sustainable revenues from tourism.
While the ruins of Um Rassas are not as remarkable as other Jordan historical highlights such as Jerash or Madaba, Um Rassas remains a site of great archaeological integrity and an example masterpiece of human creative genius. The remoteness of the site also offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy a view of rural life in Jordan away from the main thoroughfares.
Um Rassas highlights:
- The ancient churches: the Church of St Stephen, Church of the Lions, Church of Bishop Sergius, Church of the Rivers, Church of the Palm Tree, Church of Bishop Paul and the Church of the Priest Wa’il.
- Stylite Tower.