The ruins of Umm al-Rasas in the eastern steppe of Madaba has been inscribed on the World Heritage List at the 28th Session of the World Heritage Committee held between June 28 to July 7 in Suzhou, China.
The prestigious international acknowledgment is a reward to the joint efforts of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and of the Franciscan Archaeological Institute on Mount Nebo that started the archaeological excavations of the ruins located 30 km east of Madaba.
The joint venture started in the summer 1986 with the discovery of the amazing floor mosaic of the Church of Saint Stephen, dated to the Eighth Century in the Umayyad period, with the architectural representations of eight cities of Palestine, starting with the vignette of Jerusalem (The Holy City), nine cities of Jordan with Amman, Madaba and Kastron Mefaa, and ten cities of Egypt with Alexandria.
The Greek inscriptions gave the possibility to identify the ruins of Umm al-Rasas with the historical city of Kastron Mefaa. The name of the ancient town was written two times in the main inscription in the nave, and a third time as a label of the architectonic plan of the city itself depicted among the cities of Jordan.
The Moabite town of Mefaat on the high plateau of Moab was already known to the Bible, where it is recorded together with Madaba, Main, Nebo, Hesban, Elal and many other localities on the road which connected central Moab to the north.
In the Roman period, Kastron Mefaa was the military camp of the unity of the Arab cavalry auxiliary troops of the Roman army under the command of the Dux Arabiae.
In the Byzantine period, according to the results of the archaeological campaigns, which continued until this summer 2004, the town reached the peak of its urban development with civil houses built inside and outside the walls of the Roman camp, and a dozen of churches beautifully paved with floor mosaics at the time of Sergius, Bishop of Madaba, at the end of the Sixth Century A.D.
Kastron Mefaa flourished as a Christian city in the Umayyad Abbasid period, under the new Islamic government, as evidenced by the Church of Saint Stephen which was built and decorated in the year 718 A.D., at the time of Bishop Sergios II. In the year 756 A.D., the pavement in the presbytery of the church was renovated, and a new mosaic floor was made at a higher level by the local team of mosaicists guided by Staurachios son of Zada from Hesban. The building of the church at the time of Job Bishop of Madaba, was funded by several local benefactors, among them Kaioum the Abbot of the monastery of Moses on Mount Nebo. The Church provides historical evidence for a flourishing urban Christian community in the steppe of Jordan in the Eighth century in a period of peaceful coexistence between the Christian population and the Islamic Authority.
Kastron Mefaa was known as Mayfaah in Arabic. The town is mentioned in the Sirat al-Rasul, the first biography of the Prophet Muhammad, which has come down to us in its final form from the hands of Abu Mohammad Abd al-Malik ibn Hisham who died in 834 A.D., who edited materials originally assembled by Mohammad ibn Ishaq, who died about 768 A.D. A section of the book tells the stories of four men who, just prior to the coming of Islam, broke with the polytheism of the Quraish in Mecca. They were representatives of the famous hunafa' the pre-Islamic Arabian monotheists in the terminology of the Quran. Three of them became Christians. One of the them, Zayd ibn Amr ibn Nufayl, "stayed as he was: he accepted neither Judaism nor Christianity". As the other three, Zayd ibn Amr "had determined to leave Mecca to travel about in search of the Hanifiyah, the religion of Abraham". After a long journey through the Persian Empire and Syria in the Byzantine Empire "where he was questioning monks and rabbis" about the Hanifiyah, he arrived to Mayfaah in the land of Balqa in the territory of Madaba, where he received, as an answer, a monk's prophecy about the future mission of Muhammad.
In the year 1987 until 1998, a Swiss team of the Max Van Berchem Foundation joined efforts with the other team for the investigation on the ruins inside the castrum. Currently working on the site are still the Department of Antiquities and the archaeologists of Mount Nebo, whose work is funded by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This summer 2004, the archaeological work started on August 2.
The main results of current season are the excavations of the Church of the Reliquary between the Church of the Lions and the Church of the Tabula Ansata in the Northern Quarter of the town, built along the northern wall of the Roman Camp. Unfortunately, as in many other cases, the archaeological mission has been preceded by the gold diggers, who have looted and destroyed the reliquary under the altar in the raised presbytery of the church, after which the church was named.
A Greek inscription in the floor mosaic, west of the same altar has preserved the names of the main benefactors of the church, all citizens of Kastron Mefaa already known from the other churches excavated in the town. In the main inscription in the nave of the church, the name of Sergios Bishop of Madaba could be read together with the year 586 A.D., date of the building of the church, and the names of some benefactors as Wail son of Amrilios and Abosobeos members of the Arab community of the town.
From the few remains which survived destruction after the abandoning of the church, it is possible to reconstruct the general program of the mosaic floor, which follows the program of other churches built in the same period in the town: the Church of Bishop Sergios dated 587, the Church of Saint Sergios inside the walls, and the Church of Priest Wail built in the same year 481 of the Provincia Arabia, 586 A.D. Another example of the splendid artistic period reached in the territory of Madaba.
However, up to now, no mosaic has equalized the richness of the inscriptions and of the artistic quality of the mosaic pavement of the Church of Saint Stephen which make it one of the most important archaeological monuments of Jordan. In this mosaic of the Umayyad Abbasid period, man find a combination of many of the themes which had become progressively more popular in the earlier mosaics of Madaba, portraits of benefactors, hunting and pastoral scenes, scenes of daily life, architectural representations, birds and flowers which fill the elaborate geometric patterns, worth of the honor bestowed by UNESCO to the town of Umm al-Rasas Kastron Mefaa, which remains a symbol of peaceful coexistence among people.
© Michele Piccirillo
Franciscan Archaeological Institute on Mount Nebo