Umm al-Rasas has been identified with Kastron Mefaa in 1986. The ancient name
was read in the inscriptions of the mosaic floor of the church of Saint Stephen
and in the church of the Lions.
Detail of the inscription at St. Stephen Church
The toponym was already known to the Roman and
Arabic sources and to the Bible. Eusebius knows a unit of the Roman army
stationed on the edge of the desert at Mephaat (Onomasticon 128, 21), a
locality which the historian identifies with the Levitical city of refuge of
Mepha'at in the territory of the tribe of Reuben on the mishor
Moab (Joshua 13, 21; 21, 37; Jeremiah 48, 21). The Notitia Dignitatum
records that equites promoti indigenae, auxiliary troops of the
Roman army, were stationed in the camp of Mefaa under the command of the
Dux Arabiae. The Arabic historian al-Bakry knows Maypha'ah as a
village of the Belqa' of Syria.
View of the extensive ruins of Umm al-Rasas
with the excavated Church of St. Stephen in the foreground
The ruins of Umm er-Rasas, lie 30 km south-east of Madaba on the edge of
the steppe and the sown (237 101 Palestinian Grid) halfway between Dhiban on
the king's Highway and the Desert Road. The ruins consist of a walled area
forming a fortified camp (158 m east west by 139 m north south), and an open
quarter of roughly the same size to the north. About 1300 m to the north of the
fort is still standing a 14 m high tower beside ruins of some edifices, stone
quarries and water cisterns hewn in the rock.
he name of the ruins was recorded by the first modern explorer of
Jordan, U. Seetzen in 1807. It was first visited by J.S. Buckingham in 1816.
Irby and Mangles arrived in 1818, Palmer in 1870, and Tristram in 1872. In 1896
Vailhé realized the Roman military nature of the fort, thus enabling
Germer-Durand to connect the locality with Mefaat given as a station of the
Roman army by the Onomasticon. The identification was rejected by Clermont
Ganneau because the ruins lacked the ancient name. Instead he proposed to
identify the Roman-Byzantine and Arabic Mephaat with Khirbet
Nefa', near Jawa a ruin visited by A. Musil 10 kms south of Amman. The same
scholar published in 1898 a Nabatean inscription said by the Beduin to have
been found at Umm al-Rasas. In 1897 the site was visited by the
Brünnow-Domaszewski expedition to the Provincia Arabia. Glueck in his
survey of the site in 1933 stressed the lack of any sherd more ancient than the
Roman-Nabatean period. Bagatti in 1948 draw a sketch plan of the ruins with the
ecclesiastical buildings identified both in the fort and in the outer
Excavations started on the north edge of the outer quarter of the ruins
in summer 1986, carried out by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. In 1987 the
area of the tower was excavated. In 1988 the Swiss Max Van Berchem Foundation
started the research inside the walled fort. Further excavations have been
carried out yearly since those years especially in the area outside the Kastrum
where various churhces have been unearthed, most of which had mosaic floors.
The ruins of Umm al-Rasas have proven to be inhabited at least from the Iron
Age II (seventh-sixth centuries B.C.) to the Abbasid period (ninth century
A.D.), with a floruit in the Byzantine-Umayyad period, when the town was
inhabited by a prosperous Christian community. Ecclesiastically, it was part of
the bishopric of Madaba.
Of the Iron Age II, only sherds mixed with late materials, a basalt pillar base
decorated with petals, and a stone scarab with incised a sfynx and the name
Ammon have been found. Architectonic remains, as bases, drums of columns and
decorated mouldings of Roman buildings have been found reused mainly in the
walls of the complex of Saint Stephen. Part of a frieze with a ram in relief in
an acanthus scroll has been reused in the apse of the Courtyard church. A Latin
inscription has been found on the stairway on the rear of the eastern wall of
the church of Saint Stephen. Three blocks with Nabatean and Thamudic
inscriptions have been used in the apse of the church of Bishop Sergius and in
the eastern wall of the church of Saint Stephen. Sherds and few coins have been
Taking a picture at Umm al-Rasas
To the Byzantine-Umayyad period belong the ecclesiastical complex of Saint
Stephen with the church of Saint Stephen, the church of Bishop Sergius, the
church of the Aedicule, and the Couryard church, built on the northern edge of
the outer quarter, the church of the Lions and the two churches excavated
inside the fort. Except for the church of Saint Stephen built and paved with
mosaics in the Umayyad period, the other churches have been built and paved
with mosaics at the end of the sixth century at the time of Bishop Sergius of
To date the mosaic floors of the church of Saint Stephen are the best
dated evidence of the welfare of a flourishing urban Christian community in the
region, still well organized as part of the bishopric of Madaba in the changed
political context. The floor is composed of three different mosaics.
The upper mosaic floor of the bema was completed by the mosaicist Staurachios
Ezbontinos son od Zada with his colleague Euremios in the month of March A.D.
756 at the time of bishop Job, as written in the inscription on the side of the
altar. The mosaic is aniconic. It covers a previous mosaic of which only a
small part was visible. Stylistically it seems to be a VI century mosaic. The
bases of the columns of the altar inserted in it point to the same dating.
The mosaiced Church of St. Stephen
The mosaic of the church, was done at the time of Bishop Sergius in the Umayyad
period (therefore Sergius II!). The statement is based on the archaeological
evidence found below the mosaic floor in the two side rooms of the church,
although the absolute date given in the dedicatory inscription is questionable
because it was rewritten after an accidental damage suffered by the mosaic.
Unfortunately, in the mosaic of the nave the portraits of the benefactors and
the scenes of hunting agriculture and pastoral life have been carefully
disfigured by the iconoclasts and are often unintelligible. Thus the major
interest of the mosaic floor in the church of Saint Stepehn focuses on the
double geographical frame depicting cities of Palestine,of Jordan and of Egypt
In the intercolumnar spaces of the north row a series of eight Palestinian
cities are depicted: The Holy City of Jerusalem in which it is possible to
identify the aedicule of the Holy Sepulchre according to the iconography
attributed to it in the Byzantine period, Neapolis (Nablus) with the possible
façade of the church of the Theotokos on Mount Garizim, Sebastis
(Sebastia), Caesarea on the sea, Diospolis (Lidda), Eleutheropolis (Beit
Gibrin), Askalon and Gaza. In the intercolumnar spaces of the south row a
series of seven Jordanian cities are shown starting with the double plan of
Kastron Mefaa-Umm er-Rasas, followed by Philadelphia (Amman), Madaba, Esbounta
(Hesban), Belemounta (Ma'in), Areopolis (Rabba) and CharachMouba (el-Kerak).
Two additional Jordanian cities, Limbon and Diblaton are portrayed, one at the
head of each aisle, associated with portraits of benefactors and inscriptions.
Another toponym without illustration mentions mount Nebo-Fisga with the
superior of the monastery of the Memorial of Moses who gave an offering for the
church. The inner frame, which depicts a river with fish, birds, and water
flowers, as well as boats and boys fishing or hunting, also portrays a series
of ten cities in the Nile Delta: Alexandria, Kasin, Thenesos, Tamiathis, Panau,
Pilousin, Antinau, Eraklion, Kynopolis and Pseudostomon.
The names of the benefactors in the inscriptions, mostly semitic, point to a
Excavations at Umm al-Rasas are still under way not only in the Ecclesiastical complexes found outside and inside the Kastrum but also in the dwellings of the city. Among the excavations carried out worth mentioning is the Church of the Lions to the South of St. Stephen's Complex.
The presbytery of the Church of the Lions
Piccirillo, M. - Attiyat, T.,1986. The Complex of Saint Stephen at Umm
er-Rasas - Kastron Mefaa. First Campaign, August 1986, ADAJ 30, 341-351
Piccirillo, M., Le iscrizioni di Umm er-Rasas - Kastron Mefaa in Giordania I
(1986-1987, Liber Annuus 37, 177-239.
Piccirillo, M., 1990. L'identificazione storica delle rovine di Umm er-Rasas -
Kastron Mefaa in Giordania, Biblica 71: 527-541.
Piccirillo, M., - Alliata, E., 1991, Il complesso di Santo Stefano a Umm
al-Rasas - Kastron Mefaa in Giordania (1986-1991), LA 41: 327-422
Bujard, J., Haldimann, M. A.- Bonnet, C., 1988, Fouilles de la mission
archéologique suisse (Fondation Max Van Berchem) à Umm er-Rasas
et Umm el-Walid en 1988, ADAJ 32,:101-113.
Bujard, J. - Piccirillo, M. - Poiatti, M., 1992. Le églises
géminées d'Umm er-Rasas. Fouilles de la mission
archéologique Suisse (Fondation Max Van Berchem). ADAJ 36: 291-301.
© Michele Piccirillo
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum,
Mount Nebo - Jordan
The material published here
cannot be reproduced without prior consent of the author