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Umm Ar-Rasas

Umm Ar-Rasas

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,, and you can see it by making a Dead Sea Day Tour or a visit to Madaba City Actually the term “Rassas” refers to the Arabic root “Rass” indicating the action of putting something on top of something else in perfect alignment. Therefore Um er-Rasas or “mourassas” in the toponomastic of the region is a term indicating a well-built structure The builders at Umm al-Rasas used a technique which involved fitting the rocks together closely, resulting in strong structures that have resisted several earthquakes. Arches still standing, as well as the Stylite tower itself, testify to the superior quality of construction. 54UmmrRasas08big

Several of the churches have been found to have unique and remarkable floor mosaics, making Kastron Mefaa one more locality in the Madaba area—including Madaba and Nebo—for viewing this art form. The mosaics of Umm al-Rasas are later than those of Madaba, however. They can be definitively dated to the 8th century. The town’s largest sanctuary, the Church of St. Stephen, was dedicated in 785 AD, according to its mosaic inscriptions, about 150 years after Muslim rule was established in Transjordan. They give a picture of a thriving Christian community tolerated by Islam.

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, theChurch of the Riversand theChurch of the Palm Tree. Both are named fortheir 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 theChurch 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 celebratedChurch 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 fruittrees.

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 of15 major citiesas 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". 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 Styliteswhose church still survives in Syria. The mosaic floor of the Church of St. Stephen is dated by an inscription to 785 AD, well into the Islamic period. It overlays another, damaged, mosaic floor of the earIier (587 AD) "Church of Bishop Sergius." The floor is enclosed within a modern building for protection. Even after the Islamic Empire swept through the Near East in the 7th century, Umm al-Rasas remained Christian. A little more than a century later, however – not long after the building of Stephen's Church - the ecclesiastical complex and the town appear to have been abandoned. Archaeologists working at the site hope to gain a greater understanding of the forces that led to this desertion, which left the place to the keening winds that blow through the nearby wadis. Umm ar-Rasas: known as Kastron Mefaa in classical times, is located about 45km south of Amman.

Mosaic Floor: Leaves, trees, and birds inhabit alternating square and round scrolls on the outer border of the floor

Jerusalem Mosaic: The inner border of the mosaic depicts numerous towns and cities. Shown here is Jerusalem, the "Holy City" (Hagia Polis).

Dedicatory Mosaic: The dedication of the older church was preserved inside its circular medallion. On either side of the medallion is a ram and a pomegranate tree, whose symbolism is not certain in this context. The ram may represent Christ's Sacrifice, and the tree may symbolize the Resurrection.

Iconoclastic Damage: The defacement seen here was performed by Christians, during one of the Byzantine Church's episodic campaigns against the use of images in Church iconography. Only the charming figure at the far right, who is holding a cornucopia from which her grape-vine roundel originates, has survived to give an idea of the original 6th century decoration.

Stylite Tower: This Byzantine tower may have been used as a retreat for hermit monks (stylites). It had a room at the top but was otherwise solid inside. Food and drink, for the inhabitant, would have to be drawn up in a basket. The tower is currently in ruinous shape, being cracked from top to bottom as seen here.