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UNESCO World Heritage Site #239: Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa’a)

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UNESCO World Heritage Site #239: Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa'a)

UNESCO World Heritage Site #239: Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa’a)

From the World Heritage inscription:

Umm er-Rasas is strongly associated with monasticism and with the spread of monotheism, including Islam, throughout the region. The artistic and technical qualities of the mosaic floor of St Stephen’s church justify describing Um er-Rasas as a masterpiece of human creative genius. It also presents a unique and complete (therefore outstanding) example of stylite towers.
This is an archaeological site of the Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim periods. The site was founded in the 3rd century AD as a Roman military camp, closely associated with the frontier (limes) of the Roman Empire, the border with the desert and possibly with the eastern branch of the incense route.

The large camp (castrum) gave the site its ancient name – Kastron Mefa’a. The roughly square fortified castrum (about 50 m by 150 m is almost unexcavated. While the castrum itself became the core of the later settlement, the ruins of the Byzantine settlement outside it cover an area of about 200 m by 300 m.

Among the visible and partly excavated structures on the site are several churches. These can be easily identified before excavations, and attracted the main attention of archaeologists working on the site since 1986. For this reason much less is known of the character of housing, town plan and daily life.

Among the extraordinary remains on the site are several mosaic floors, one of which of special importance. The mosaic floor of the Church of St Stephen shows an incredible representation of towns in Palestine, Jordan and Egypt, including their identification. At a short distance from the town, a well-preserved tall tower from the Byzantine period is probably the only existing remain of a well-known practice in this part of the world – of the stylite ascetic monks (i.e. monks sitting in isolation for long periods on top of a column or tower). The tower has no stairs and is in a relatively isolated area.

Um er-Rasas is surrounded and dotted with remains of ancient agricultural cultivation, from water reservoirs to terracing, water channels, dams and cisterns. There are two small cemeteries on the site, one immediately to the west and the other to the east. The Eastern is an old Bedouin cemetery, whereas the Western is a modern one. About 150 m separate the site and the main modern north-south road.

In this area there are several ruins of relatively new structures, from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, but now abandoned.

Um er-Rasas is easily the least visited World Heritage Site in Jordan. It isn’t easy to get to. It isn’t on the way to somewhere else and it doesn’t get anything close to the visitors of a place like Petra. In fact, when I arrived there was no one else there. There was no one working the ticket window and the doors were wide open. Others who have visited have reported the same thing.

However, I found this site to be absolutely fascinating!

The primary reason for its listing are its incredibly well preserved mosaic floors. They are easily the largest and best preserved mosaics I’ve ever seen. They are the remains of Byzantine church floors and there are several at the site. The largest one is from the church of St. Stephen. It has been excavated and currently rests under a shelter to protect it from the elements. Many of the human images in the mosaics were destroyed during the Byzantine iconoclastic movement of the 8th century.

The rest of the site is almost entirely still buried in rubble. I’ve never before had the feeling of visiting something unexplored like I had here. You can literally walk over the buildings and look down on the arches which are still standing. I even found a shard of pottery laying on the ground! There is still an enormous amount to be discovered here. It is just a matter of funding.

Um er-Rasas is approximately a 30 minute drive outside of the city of Madaba. Unlike the other world heritage sites of Jordan, I know of no regular tours which visit Um er-Rasas. You will probably need to hire a guide or rent a car to visit the site, but it is well worth it for those who are inquisitive.

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