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  at Nitl and Umm al-Rasas


* Nitl
* Nitl - Pict.
* Rasas
* Rasas - Pict.


Director: - Michele Piccirillo
Equipe: - Basema Hamarneh, Stefano De Luca, Vincent Michel.
Sections, prospects, plans: - Eugenio Alliata
Photographers: - Max Mandel, Fr. Michele Piccirillo

From the contemporary literature of the Byzantine period, written in Greek and Syriac, we know that the steppe to the east of the cultivated land was inhabited by the semi- nomadic tribes at the service of the empire. This stretch of land, which we improperly call desert, is known to the Arabs as badiah or barriyah. In 502, at the time of Emperor Anastasius, the group of the Banu Ghassan and the roman empire of the east signed a treaty, successively reconfirmed at the time of Justin and Justinian, with which the christianised Bedouin tribes were entrusted with the defence of the immense territory which extended to the Euphrates river, border with the Persian empire. All the sixth century was characterised by the feats of Jabala ben Harith ben Jabala (known to us by the name of Arethas), of al-Mundir (known by us with his Greek name Alamundaros) and those of his son Nu‘man. With their mobile troops, mostly on camel back, they defended the limes stretching from Palmira to Aila on the Red Sea against the trespassing by the tribes of the Banu Lakhm who on their part were at the service of the Persian empire on the west bank of the Euphrates. The weakening of the christianised Bedouin tribes at the time of emperor Mauritius, towards the end of the century, made possible the Persian invasion of Syria-Palestine in 613. This was an anticipation of the definitive loss of the southern provinces to the invading Islamic armies in 636 who found unguarded the southern flank of the boundary.

The relationship of the tribal group with the empire started with Jabala ben Harith who died in battle in 528. They reached their apogee with his son Arethas phylarchos, or head of the tribe, who in 529 was honoured by Justinian with the title of King of all the Arabs. He was also given the title of Patritius thus becoming the first among the Arabs to receive this title which included being called "my father" by the emperor.

The confrontation with the group of the Lakhm in defence of the empire reached its apex with the victory of 544. This is seen by historians as the brilliant result of the imperial decision to concede the regality to Arethas. The neutralisation from the oncoming danger on the eastern flank led to the armistice of 577 and the "pax aeterna" with the Persian empire in 561 entered into for 50 years, the most important diplomatic achievement obtained by Justinian toward the end of his long career. These peaceful conditions favoured an impressive economic development in the Provincia Arabia as has been uncovered by the archaeological excavations of the last decades in today's Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

The presence in the territory of these special auxiliary troops at the service of the empire was already archaeologically sufficiently documented by the inscriptions. In the upper mosaic of the Church of Kaianos in ‘Uyun Musa valley at Mount Nebo, the mosaicist left us also the picture of one of these Christian soldiers remembered among the benefactors of the church. The Arab cameldriver is represented standing and half-naked, wearing a long loin cloth with a cloak thrown over his left shoulder. A large bow is held over his left shoulder, while he holds, with his left hand, the sword in its wide sheath. The exploration of the ruins at Umm al-Rasas in the steppe of Madaba, identified with the fortified suburb of Kastron Mefaa, begun by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Summer 1986 and of which the twelfth archaeological campaign has just come to an end, is bringing to light one of the Christian Arab centres of the diocese still active during the Islamic period.

An ecclesiastical complex of unusual characteristics is coming to light at Nitl, a village of the steppe 10km from Madaba on the road to Umm al-Rasas. After an attentive on-the-spot investigation we had started the archaeological exploration in summer 1984. The short sounding limited to the apsed area of a church was sufficient to make us understand that the building formed part of a complex built during the sixth century and remained in use for at least three centuries. Civil use of the area resulted during the Mameluk and Ummayyad periods. The patronal character of the edifice has been outcoming since the resumption of the excavations in 1996 and the last two campaigns carried out by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in '97 and '98. It is clear that the complex is made up of two large parallel churches. They were intercommunicating and each had only one nave which was covered by arches and stone slabs. A chapel and a diaconicon where later added to the south. A linking narthex in the façade, in relation to the main entrance, gave the possibility to enter in the two churches and in the south-west chapel. To date the chapel, the diaconicon and the southern church have been completely excavated. All these had mosaic floorings. The mosaics have been sufficiently preserved. This notwithstanding the prolonged use of the buildings with their flooring before the definitive fall of the roof. This took place quite recently judging from the pottery found under the stones of the fall which was found under a thick layer of ashes. The ashes came from various fireplaces and tawabin used to bake bread which were present both on the mosaic and on the intermediate and definitive fall.

The remains of the mosaic permits us to affirm that the decorative pattern was carried out by Ammonis, a name which can be read in an inscription written in one of the vine shoots scrolls. These vine shoots spring forth from four handled jars placed in the corners of the eastern panel of the mosaic carpet, a carpet laid down keeping in mind a stone slab opening for a hypogeum multiple tomb. This tomb lied in the central nave of the church slightly off centre towards the south thus resulting in a privileged prominence.

The reading of the other preserved inscriptions permits us to formulate a first hypothesis regarding the persons buried in the tomb whose remains we could see by opening the stone trap door or "pellaikon" which still had the two metal hooks. In one of the inscriptions we read the name of the presbyter Saola during whose time the holy place was built and finished. A name which we had already read in 1984 in an inscription in the south service room of the church. In a second inscription partially tampered by an ancient restoration we could read, after the title of "illustrious", the beginning of the Arabic name of a high ranking personage (Thalaaba, the fox) followed by the closing title of "phylarchos", head of the tribe, a title which the Byzantine administration conferred on the nomad leaders subjected to the empire. We have ample witness of these in the sources and epigraphy of Syria-Palestine. In another inscription the contribution of a high ranking officer, John the Adiutor, is remembered with the Latin term which had entered the Greek of the imperial administration.

Three other inscriptions had been completely destroyed. The main surprise came from a one line inscription which accompanies a geometric motif decorating the space between two pillars of the arches on the southern wall: "Arethas son of al-Arethas". A name rendered famous in the Byzantine world by Arethas king of all Arabs. A name which was carried by two inhabitants of Nitl which we are tempted to place in relation with the Arab auxiliary troops who were stationed in the steppe.

The inscriptions give us also the name of the saint for whom the church was dedicated: Saint Sergius, the martyred soldier during the persecution of Deocletian and whose tomb was particularly venerated at the sanctuary church of the Holy Cross at Resafa on the eastern limes by the nomad Christians and by Alamundaros - al-Mundir their king, son and successor of Arethas.

After three excavation campaigns we are only half way through the exploration. The continuation might clarify the interpretations given to date to a monument which in the region finds parallels of equal importance only in the big ecclesiastic complexes of the Memorial of Moses on Mount Nebo and St. Stephen complex at Umm al-Rasas.

Keeping in mind the practically isolated location of the vast complex on a hill of the steppe at the doors of Madaba, I believe that the pointing to a patronal church of an influential family of "phylarchoi"/Christian tribe leaders of the region is only a possibility which awaits only further confirmation from the excavation of the other nearby church.



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