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  A "New" Church amongst its ruins

Ten years have passed since we started, in Summer 1986, to excavate the ruins of Umm al-Rasas, 30 km to the East of Madaba and 40 km from Mount Nebo the base of the Archaeological Expedition in Jordan of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (Jerusalem).

Dawn on Mt. Nebo

Dawn on Mount Nebo

The first campaigns
The above mentioned campaign can be considered a fortunate one both on the artistic and on the historical level. This is due to the discovery of the Church of St. Stephen, one of the most complex monuments belonging to the rich Christian heritage of the diocese of Madaba. It can be compared to the discovery, a century ago, of the Madaba Map of the biblical lands. The mosaic floor of St. Stephen, with its numerous inscriptions which accompany the decorative composition opened a new vision for the historical knowledge of the Christian community during the first two centuries of Islamic domination in the region. The mosaic in fact was finished in 757, according to one of the two dedicatory inscriptions, and depicts also the cities of Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. According to one of the two dedicatory inscriptions the ruins of Umm al-Rasas are those of the ancient city of Kastron Mefa'a, a name known to the Bible, the roman sources and the primitive Islamic tradition.

The ruins of Umm al Rasas

St Stephen Church in the foregroung with the ruins in the background

The first five archaeological campaigns at Umm al-Rasas brought to light the whole ecclesiastic complex of which the Church of St. Stephen formed part together with three other churches. The results of these excavations have been published in a volume of the Collectio Maior of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (M. Piccirillo - E. Alliata, Umm al-Rasas - Kastron Mefa'a. Il complesso di Santo Stefano, Jerusalem 1993).

The partecipants

The partecipants of the 1996 Archaeological campaign

The Church of St. Paul
The continuation of the research in the urban sector between St. Stephen complex on the northern edge of the ruins and the walls of the Kastrum to the South has brought to light two more ecclesiastical complexes. The southern one rotates around the Church of the Lions which had a splendid mosaic floor by the mosaicists of Madaba. The central ecclesiastical complex is made up of the Peacocks Church and the church which was brought to light in the just ended archaeological campaign (last year it was partially excavated). We have called it the Church of St. Paul, a name we read in an invocation to the Apostle incised on a roof tile: "Saint Paul and Germanus save the Blues and Papiona son of George the lector".

Aerial view of New Church

The just excavated church of St. Paul

Alas we did not have the confirmation of the Church's name in the inscriptions in the mosaic floor. It is interesting to note that quite a number of tiles had various incisions amongst which the anonymous craftsman who enjoyed himself engraving a peacock, a snake and a terrified girl who holds her left hand raised up while keeping the right one on her hip.


Excavating the ruins

The church was buried under a heap of rubble which in some points reached higher than three metres. On this rested, in a northerly direction, the countless stones of the aligned fallen arches and those of the moulded ashlars of the calotte of the apse in the presbytery area.

The ruins of the Church

The ruins during the excavations

The building
Once the stones of the arches were removed we found out that part of the church, when still standing and after being abandoned, was used as a dwelling place. To do this, the people who accupied these spaces, adapted two distinct areas in the northern nave and another one in the southern. It was later that the roof, covered with stone slabs on the lateral naves and tiles on the central nave, gave in falling on the completely abandoned area. The pottery sherds collected go back to after the eight century as they are similar to those which were under the debris of Saint Stephen and the Church of the Lions.

A view

A view during the excavations of the ruins

There came to light also some "Bedouin" pottery, characterised by its roughness and dark clay which we identified here at Umm al Rasas. This belonged to the families who reoccupied the edifices after their abandonment by the original population. The presbytery area, being more cosy and weather-protected was also used as a fireplace. Judging from the ashes strewn in the north-west corner of the church we can say that another fireplace was used here for a long period of time. In the adaptation of the south-west area as a dwelling place, having its entrance in the southern wall, a long stone lintel was used upside down as part of the western wall. This lintel is decorated with a central cross flanked by two handled vases and two medallions with a whirling motif. Among the fallen rubble, directly on the mosaic floor, the marble lid of a small reliquary was found.

Roofing, doorways and niches
The roof of the single-apsed basilica was supported by two series of wide arches. The lateral naves were covered by long stone slabs (sometimes measuring over two metres) of fossiliferous limestone extracted from the local quarries. The building had three doors on the southern wall. The easternmost one led to a room which had a slit window. A portico supported by a central arch stood in front of the other two external doors. The church had another door in the fašade. This was out of the central axis, rather to the south and led to two rooms, one of which had a northern door. The central door on the southern wall had its lintel still in place. The other lintels, all decorated by crosses contained in circles or squares, were found near the doors. The church also had a slit window in the western corner of the northern wall.

On the eastern end of the two naves a step delimited a small space which is characterised by a niche with stone or plaster jutting moulding on the eastern walls. Most probably both spaces were covered by a barrel-vault or by a calotte. Some ashlars from the aforementioned elements remained in situ in the southern nave while in the northern one they were found among the debris. Worth noting are some holes found on the splay of the apse which probably are to be put in relation to a jutting edicule of plaster of which we recovered some elements from among the debris of the fallen stones. Among the moulded elements are to be listed the capitals of the two side pillars of the semi-dome of the central apse.

The presbytery area
The altar is in masonry, a regular feature in all the other Churches excavated to date at Umm al-Rasas. It presents at least three phases. Initially the church had a mobile altar. In a second time this became a fixed altar supported on four small columns infixed in a stone base laid on the mosaic floor on a preparation of lime and ashes mortar. In a third phase the small columns were removed and the table was supported by a masonry altar made up of soil bricks covered by a thick layer of lime plaster. During the excavations a square offering table, a complete small column and some fragments of a second one, all of bituminous schist, were recovered in the presbytery area. Most probably the offering table was placed in the north-west side of the presbytery where traces of its lodgings were found in the mosaic floor. Fragments of the greatly damaged schist balustrade were recovered. One of these carries the inscription "of Innocent the lector". The balustrade slab of the southern side of the presbytery was found in situ. It is decorated with a cross in relief and supported on the western side by a moulded pillar, also in situ.

The mosaic floor
The general mosaic plan can be outlined together with its figurative details in the central nave notwithstanding the mutilation procured by the iconoclasts and the damage sustained.

A detail

A detail: grapes

The presbytery area is surrounded by a ribbon band and is decorated by a field of small flowers on a white background. An amphora between two facing birds and two bulls facing a fruit laden tree were inserted with the former towards the apse splay while the latter towards the balustrade.


The surviving bird in the presbytery area

detail of bird

Detail of the surviving bird in the presbytery area

A one line inscription separated the flied of flowers from the balustrade. Of this only the beginning, introduced by a cross, and the end survived ("+ At the time of [bishop....was completed] this work").


A part of the remaining inscription in the presbytery area

A small panel with a geometric motif was inserted between the ribbon and the northern side of the balustrade.

The mosaic plan of the central nave was divided in three autonomous panels with an autonomous alignment in respect to the alignment of the presbytery step which results deviated in some degrees towards the south. The mosaicists tried to straighten this lack of alignment by inserting a rather unusual dedicatory inscription along the presbytery step which starts with three lines of text and ends up with two. The inscription is damaged towards the centre and it reads: "For the memory and the repose [of...and of....and] of Paul his children/ and for the salvation and the remittance of sins of Rabbus/ with their care was terminated all this work [ the month] of July of the twelfth indiction".


Part of the dedicatory inscription under the presbytery step

In the eastern rectangular panel, enclosed in a two-strand guilloche, the pictures of the benefactors were inserted at the centre with two gazelles to the sides facing three fruit laden trees (apples, pomegranates, pears).


The censer hold by the benefactor Sergis

From the tree foliage sprout vine shoots with leaves, bunches of grapes and tendrils. The benefactor Sergis is depicted standing and facing to the right with a censer in his right hand as a paramonarius of the church. Rabbus, with his son Paul are also depicted in a standing position and they are gathering fruits from the central tree placing them in a basket one of the two benefactors is holding in his hand. Instead of the disfigured motifs rhombus shaped rectangular diamonds and flowers were added.

friut basket

The friut basket carried by one of the benefactors

The central panel is the most elaborate and is twice the size of the other two. It is enclosed only on the east and west sides in a band of triflids alternated with circles and squares placed diagonally on a red background. A characteristic of this programme is the lack of a band. The geometric composition is made up of a band of cross-shaped meanders which form panels alternated with knotted circles and semicircles with cordons woven using the rainbow technique.

friut basket

A fruit basket

The personification of the Earth is placed at the centre of the cross-formed composition. At the centre of the four lateral frames the four rivers of paradise were depicted: a semi-clad seated figure holding a cane stick in his right hand and a pitcher in his left from which water is flowing. Ghion is surrounded by four fish, Tigri by four amphorae, Euphrates by four baskets full of fruit and Phison by four sea bulls. In the other frames traces of two cocks can be seen.

Detail of mosaic

A detail from the mosaic floor

The third panel towards the western door of the church was planned with vine scrolls sprouting from tufts of acanthus. The scrolls, judging from what survived the iconoclastic destruction, were decorated with the usual vintage and pastoral scenes. One can recognise a vintager who is using a pruning-hook to cut a bunch of grapes, a donkey of burden lead by a carrier and a young shepherd with his slingshot loaded with a stone.


Detail of a geometric motif

The lateral naves have a disorderly geometric programme subdivided in various panels autonomously enclosed in their proper band.

Dating the mosaic
The inscriptions lack the name of the bishop and the year when the mosaic was completed. In view of this we have to base our dating on stylistic criteria. The mosaic fits well among the works carried out in the city and in the diocese of Madaba at the time of bishop Sergius. The "twelfth indiction" which can be read in the inscription along the step of the presbytery takes us to the years 578 or 593. In the context of the other mosaics of Kastron Mefa'a, we prefer the former date.

© Michele Piccirillo
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum,
Mount Nebo - Jordan

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