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EXCAVATION CAMPAIGN 1999 - MASSUH

A new church in the village of Massuh in the territory of the diocese of Esbus in Jordan.

The Pope's pilgrimage to the Holy Land last March that started on Mount Nebo in Jordan has brought to the attention of many the wealth of a land rich of a past interwoven with the biblical narrative and the origins of the Church. The Pope has traced the footsteps of Moses, who died here, and those of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ both of whom, as stated in the Gospel by John, strarted there mission here.

The scanty historical references recall how the populations in Transjordan, having distant biblical origins (Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites and Aramites), accepted readily the word of Jesus "as far as to fill the churches of God", as the Bishop Eusebius wrote in the 4th century. Archaeological research on the plateau, which has intensified in the last decades, bears witness to the maximum expansion of the Christian presence in the cities and villages as well as in the steppe and the most inhospitable desert during the 6th century. Recent discoveries at Madaba, on Mount Nebo and Umm al-Rasas, in the territory of the Madaba diocese, have confirmed the vitality of the Christian community in the Jordanian territory up to the second century of the Hegira, 8th — 9th century of the Christian era, after two centuries of Islamic occupation.

Summer atop the Moabite plateau is sunny but well ventilated. It is also the time of year that is normally chosen by the archaeological missions to carry on with their activities. Summer 2000 has also brought its contribution through the by now well tested collaboration between the Jordanian Department of Antiquities and the archaeologists of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum on Mount Nebo. Excavations have been carried out at Umm al-Rasas, 30 km east of Madaba in the steppe and at Massuh, a village in the cultivated countryside 10 km north of the city.

At Umm al-Rasas, this is the third campaign that has been dedicated to the ecavation of a large Ummayyad wine complex, brought to light in a yard lying among the Church of St. Paul, the Church of the Lions and the Chapel of the Peacocks. Departing from an extensive pressing area with no less than nine cells for grape pressing, the steps of a stone staircase have guided us to progressively descend into a cellar that developed in depth over three floors. A bold structure made up of superimposed arches covered by long stone slabs. Considering the surface area covered, one gets an idea of the agricultural exploitation of the steppe where, through an intelligent use of the rain water gathered in the cisterns, vines were extensively grown to be used in the production of wine on an industrial scale!

 
 

At Massuh the excavations concerned a sixth century church that shows traces of restorations dated to the 7th — 8th century. The fortuitous discovery of an emergent column base among the fields north of the ruins, sown with grain and used as pasture for the Bedouin herds after the harvest, attracted the attention of the archaeologists, who had already excavated among the ruins of the village in the 70's and 80's, a first church that features a double floor mosaic. The excavation had brought to light one of the most beautiful and complete examples of a 5th century decorative programme in mosiac, substituted, in a remake, with a new work of the fist half of the 6th century. The iconophobic damage sustained by the figurative motifs, during the Ummayyad epoch, bears witness to the fact that the church remained in use up to the 8th century. The inscriptions that accompanied the upper mosaic carrying the name of the bishop Theodosius as well as some members of the clergy, turned out to be a precious historical witness for the diocese of Esbus, one of the most ancient episcopal seats in Jordan, in which territory the village is to be placed.

The new church having a single apse basilica plan (25 m x 15 m), had been built and mosaiced in the first half of the 6th century, in parallel with the reconstruction of the already known church. The distruction of the central nave's mosaic surface has deprived us from the inscriptions, several of which we had read in the mosaic of the first church. We have read the only inscription that has survived on the east head of the north aisle at the threshold of a service room. It remembers a benefactor and his family: "Lord Jesus Christ, accept the offering of Epifanius your servant, with his wife and children, who in giving thanks embellished (the holy place)".

Enough of the mosaic has survived to reconstruct its decorative programme. The nave, surronded by a band of acanthus scrolls, was divided into two panels: the east having a geometric plan of scuta crosses, the west having a large circle, decorated with interlaced geometric motifs, inserted on to a square with amphorae in the corners. The geometric motifs are also found in the long panels in the aisles. In the surviving scrolls within the band we find a foliate mask in the corners, hunting scenes, birds and animals.

In the known church at Massuh we had dwelled upon the raised and prolonged presbyterium of the nave. The examination had confirmed an evolution that had taken place in the presbyterium and the closing balustrade between the 5th century and the second half of the 7th century. From a simple balustrade that interrupted the nave in the vicinity of the altar that was placed on the mosaic at the same level, there developed a raised presbyterium/bema, mosaiced with its own decorative motifs extended into the nave, reaching the extension of the presbyterium to the east during the second half of the 6th century. The height of the presbyterium in the new church, approximately 50 cms above the level of the nave is impressive, as is the widening of its sides to reach the outer extreme alignment of the column base dices. Another element that needs further study from the liturgical point of view is the addition of the double division in the two aisles, possibly related to the presence of reliquaries for the worship of the martyrs.

Amongst the liturgical furnishings that have survived there are the four stone bases for the ciborium, inserted in a second instance into the mosaic causing the partial destruction of the two peacocks that decorated it as well as the stone cross-shape container for the reliquary, inserted beneath the altar. The only surviving elments of the altar are the housings set in the lime mosaic bed. We have also been able to recover one of the ciborium's column in bituminous schist, hollowed to take a metal cross that was originally inserted therein. A colonnette inserted in the mosaic floor, set in the vicinity of the step south of the entrance to the bema, refers to an offering table.

Practically nothing remains of the perimeter walls. With the column bases, in their greater part still in situ, we have recovered some marble and bituminous schist fragments from the chancel screen slabs as well as some fragments of a half-moon shaped altar mensa made of Parian marble, the use of which is well witnessed to in the churches of the region.

The church, having no evident trace of iconophobic damage in its mosaic, must have already been abandoned in the 7th century. The ruin of the central nave's mosaic must therefore be attributed to the re-occupation following abandonment, the stripping of the building for construction material and the modern agricultural activity. The examination of the mosaic that shows considerable traces of restoration using white larger-sized tesserae and the presence of new pilaster bases inserted into the original column bases, point towards a reconstruction of the edifice with a reduced width of the central nave following a violent distruction, possibly caused by an earthquake.

We still do not know the ancient name of this village in the countryside north of Madaba, in the territory of the diocese of Esbos, set on a hillock that reaches a hieght of over 800 m. The village is referred to with its name Massuh in the writings of the Muslim historian al-Yaqut. in the battle for the Caliphate, at the time of the caliph al-Ma'moun (814-833), the pretender Sa'id ibn Khaled from the Ummayyad family, clashed with Yahyah ibn Saleh in the region south of Amman. The latter had set his troops in motion to stem the former's ambitions. Yaqut writes, "The Ummayyad locked himself inside a village called Massuh". He was dislodged from the village by the arrival of Yahyah ibn Saleh, who having quelled the revolt, "went to the village of Hesban and there built two castles and stationed himself...".

Since 1881, explorers have always seen the remains of a monumental building set on the south side of the ruins. Traces of an as yet unidentified inscription can be seen on one of the columns having a diameter in excess of 1m.

A new element to the topography of the village has been added recently by the gravediggers who have been more active and determined in their search for impossible gold. Amongst the fields to the southeast of the village ruins, they have combed thoroughly an extensive arcosolium cemetary hewn in the underground rock that has been meticulously plundered. Together with the two churches, the cemetary turns out to be another element in favour of the prosperity of this agricultural settlement in the rich Madaba countryside during the Roman-Byzantine epoch.

Michele Piccirillo
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Jerusalem


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