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St. Sergius complex at Nitl


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Our interest in the site started in the early 1980's, when we could identify and draw up a provisional plan of an ecclesiastical complex, as well as photograph the architectural elements from previous epochs that had been reused in the houses built in the late Ottoman period (as in the small mosque), and in the first decades of the 20th century.

In agreement with the Department of Antiquities, we proceeded with the excavation of the ecclesiastical complex in 1984. After a week's work, we were forced to interrupt our research. However, the short probe was enough to understand that the apse formed part of a complex built and paved with mosaics in the 6th century, which remained in use until the 8th-9th century. It was subsequently used, as a civilian building, during the Mameluke Ottoman epochs. In the 1830's a small shop was built on the fall of the church.

With these premises, we resumed the excavations in 1996 and annually thereafter up to the summer of 1999, thus exposing the whole ecclesiastical complex.

The ecclesiastical Complex of Saint Sergius
The vast complex is made up of two large parallel single-nave churches covered by arches and stone slabs. The two churches (South Church - A; North Church - B) communicate through a door open on the inner common wall. Each church is related to its own service rooms (diakonikon) built externally on the south and north walls of the complex. A narthex on the facade enabled access from both churches to the apsed chapel added on the south wall of the complex.

In all probability the entrance to the ecclesiastical complex was through the monumental door, the threshold of which was brought to light on the south side of the paved western courtyard.

It is also probable that a large staircase, at the centre of the east side, enabled access from the courtyard to the narthex on the churches' facade.

The excavations have also clarified the existence of a deep cistern, at the same level of the churches, set in the atrium's northeastern corner.

The Walls
The entire complex was built of stone; from the perimeter walls to the slabbed roof. Rectangular squared off blocks of stone coming from Roman monuments present in the area were partially reused in the construction of the external walls.

Material stripped from the tower, built in Roman times, partly still existing to the west of the complex could also have been reused. In the same manner material from other edifices built with the same technical characteristics, found in the nearby localities of Umm al-Walid and Dulaylah might also have been used.

The moulded springers and carved cornices, used in the churches, could be from the monuments at Umm al-Walid where similar elements still survive. The same could also be true for some capitals amongst which one decorated with a motif of flowers and ovules recovered during the excavations of the South Church.

The North Church
The North Church is a single-nave building, roofed with stone slabs sustained by 9 arches. Originally the church had two doors on the facade. The north entrance had been blocked leaving a single accessible door.

The modern house, built on the church's collapse, has kept us from completing the excavation. of the presbyterium. We therefore do not know either the form or size of its presbyterium. The church certainly lacks the two service rooms on either side of the presbyterium, being obstructed by the north service room of the South Church and by the Diakonikon to its north.

During the last phase of use, benches were fitted within the intercolumnar spaces on both walls.

The church floor had been mosaiced. Having been severely damaged by the fall of the roof slabs, the floor was later restored with patches of mosaic made of larger sized white tesserae and later with a layer of lime plaster.

On the exterior, a new large wall (1.60 m width) was added later just to support the north wall of the church.

The North Diakonikon
The North Diakonikon was built as a continuation of the complex's east wall. It is a rectangular, vault-roofed hall that juts out beyond the north wall of the church. The entrance opened inside the church in the narrow passage between the north wall and the bema. It is not clear whether this singular room had any direct relationship with the presbyterium through its south wall. The floor was mosaiced with a simple geometric decorative programme.

The South Church
Similar to the North Church, the South Church too is a single-nave building, roofed with stone slabs sustained by 9 arches. Two small service rooms were set alongside the apse on either side of it. In 1984 they were both still well preserved including the roof, sustained by an arch covered with stone slabs and showing traces of a mosaiced upper floor.

Originally, the church had three entrances on the facade. In its final phase the north entrance alone was in use. It had a round rolling stone as its door. A marble slab, carrying an incised cross, was fixed in the vicinity of the south jamb. The other two doors had been blocked.

A door set between the second and third pilasters on the north wall, close to the presbyterium, gave access to the North Church. Two openings on the south wall gave access one to the diakonikon (on the eastern side) and one to the apsed chapel (on the western side). Benches for the assembly had been obtained through the addition of a stone slab inserted between the pilasters of the south wall.

A masonry element was inserted on the north wall between the third and fourth pilaster, close to the presbyterium. This element was set upon the wall's plaster with its embrasures jutting internally into the church. As a hypothesis, we identfied it with a seat (throne) for the main benefactor of the church.

The presbyterium extended to the level of the second series of pilasters and was closed off to the west by two stone slabs, initially used for the roof. A structural characteristic is represented by the step that closed off the nave and extended to the sides of the church so as to form a platform upon which the bema was built.

Two housings set in the presbyterium floor are to be placed in relation to an offering table set against the northwest chancery slab.

On the splay of the apse, there remained two steps of the synthronon. Two housings for the collonettes that supported the altar, set at the level of the apse chord, were found still inserted in the laying bed prepared for the mosaic.

The main feature of the church is a stone trap door with iron hooks, found in the central nave at the level of the second row of pilasters slightly shifted to the south, which gave access to the underlying double hypogean tomb.

The South Diakonikon
A door set between the second and third eastern pilaster of the south wall led into a quadrangular room, rendered irregular by the east wall, out of axis by a few degrees towards the northeast, an anomaly that the floor mosaicist tried to disguise with his right-angled composition. The roof rested on four arches set in a north-south direction, as were the arches of the church.

The mosaic floor, that shows no iconophobic damage, was restored with stone slabs when the room was re-occupied to form part of a Mameluk-Ottoman dwelling place built inside the church.

The Narthex
The two parallel and adjacent churches were unified by the front narthex that extends to the south reaching the apsed chapel.

Originally, the narthex was closed off to the west by a balustrade sustained by columns on the sides of a probable central staircase that rose from the paved courtyard that developed to the west at a level approximately 1 m lower. The narthex had a mosaic floor with a simple geometric design, which shows traces of restoration carried out using larger sized white tesserae.

In a second instance, a small quadrangular room was obtained on the north head of the narthex. The south wall with the entrance was laid on the mosaic floor.

The apsed Chapel
The chapel was apsed in a second instance to coincide with the restructuring of its west sector communicating with the narthex and with the church.

It seems that originally a long rectangular room had occupied the area communicating with the south diakonikon. In a second phase, the apse was added on the east, and a new wall was erected against the plastered wall on the west.

The main feature of the renovated chapel, was a reliquarium set into a raised plastered platform, obtained in the enlarged west wall. Two small cavities at the bottom of the platform were at the entrance. It seems therefore that a small chancel blocked the access to the platform. After the 1996 campaign, the chapel was looted by the gravediggers. These discovered, in the centre of the plastered platform, a small concave basin-reliquary well plastered on the inside and covered with a reused stone base sealed with the white plaster. Witnesses have assured us that the small basin was empty when it was opened.

In the floor mosaic, which survived the work of the gravediggers, together with minor traces of iconophobic damage or simply restoration, the figures are intact.

During the Mameluk-Ottoman era, the spaces between the pilasters had been filled in and brought up to the level of the arch piers, upon which rested a stone vault that covered a dwelling room fitted in the chapel.

The Hypogean Tomb
The element that characterises the South Church is the hypogean tomb that the mosaicist Ammonis had to take into consideration when planning out the decorative programme of the floor mosaic. The stone trap door, which was sealed on discovery, still had the two iron hooks, held with lead, inserted. The small descent shaft must have been closed by stone slabs at a depth of about 1 m. The central slab was slightly shaped at the centre and had holes from side to side, probably to enable the insertion of a rope for its removal at the time of burial. This slab had fallen to the bottom of the shaft at the time of the excavation.

The tomb ran in a north-south direction on either side of a small central corridor that divided the two sepulchral rooms with two embrasures. The walls of the rooms, which had been irregularly hewn out of the natural rock, had been straightened out using stonework that was then plastered. Two plates, used as incense burners, were found one on top of the other lying on the corridor's floor close to the east wall.

Both the sepulchral rooms were full of disarticulated bones.

The mosaic floor of the South Church
The floor decoration of the South Church was carried out by the mosaicist Ammonis, the name that can be read in an inscription written in one of the vine scrolls that decorate the east panel of the main carpet.

In the area of the presbyterium, two lambs facing each other across a shrub were depicted behind the altar. Both were disfigured during the iconophobic crisis. In the rectangular area in front of the altar, there remain parts of the multicoloured perimeter swastika motif.

The Nave
The long rectangular nave, surrounded by a continuous band of acanthus scrolls animated with daily life scenes, well known in the mosaics of Madaba, was divided into two panels by a derivative of the same band that crossed the nave.

In the eastern panel, superimposed vine scrolls generated from four canthari placed in the corners, rotate around the stone trap door of the hypogean tomb, as well as around the medallion set close to the west side of the panel.

The west panel is decorated with a grid of flowers filled with floral motifs, with the superimposition of a round medallion checkered with polychromed triangles.

Michele Piccirillo
SBF

 
 


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