Jordan only has four UNESCO World Heritage sites. Ask people to name them, including myself before visiting Jordan, and it’s unlikely that many will get past Petra. Some people might guess Wadi Rum, but that’s not a given. Almost no one would think of Umm er-Rasas, the extraordinary Roman fort that grew into a thriving Byzantine town with sixteen churches.
Almost no one, including myself (again), has even heard of Umm er-Rasas. This might explain why, in what is supposed to be Jordan’s busiest tourist season, I found myself walking around a World Heritage Site entirely on my own. To be able to wander alone amongst the atmospheric ruins of this once magnificent city was fantastic for me, less good for the livelihoods of Jordanians.
When I arrived there was only one car parked outside the shiny new visitor centre. It belonged to the security guard who gave me a wave and then disappeared. I asked the woman running a tea stall where I could get tickets, she just waved me towards the entrance. There was no fee to visit Umm er-Rasas. Seriously, it doesn’t cost a penny to visit and there still weren’t any tourists.
I walked back out into the glare of the Jordanian sun and headed towards St. Stephen’s Church, one of the most famous in Jordan thanks to its wondrous mosaic floor…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before arriving at Umm er-Rasas I’d been driving around the countryside trying to find it. The road signs which had reassured me I was going in the right direction had become increasingly scarce and then non-existent. Luckily, while I was stopped by the side of a road in a small village, a gang of young army recruits came spilling out of a building and were delighted to help me out.
One who spoke good English said something I didn’t understand about a ‘tower’, thinking nothing of it I set off again. Half an hour later I screeched to a halt on the road after passing a very faded brown ‘tourist’ sign which simply said, ‘To the Tower’. This couldn’t be coincidence. I reversed the car and set off down a side road.
I didn’t see the Tower at first, I was distracted by a pile of ancient rubble in another field. Cursing yet another wasted side trip thanks to the Jordanian Tourist Board’s tendency to signpost every pile of old stones as a tourist attraction, I started to turn the car around. It was then I saw the Tower.
No mistaking it, this was a tower. It looked old, very old. There were the remains of some other buildings nearby, a camel wandered across to investigate my arrival, but nowhere could I find any information telling me what the Tower was and why it was here. Was it a watchtower to spy enemy troops? Was it used to gaze at the stars? The camel remained enigmatically silent on the issue.
I took some photos, shooed the camel away from the car and walked around the tower. This is when it got interesting. There was a doorway but there didn’t appear to be any stairs. Why would someone build this thing in the middle of nowhere? I didn’t yet know it but the Tower was less than a kilometre from Umm er-Rasas.
It was only later that I discovered the Tower belonged to the Stylites, Christian ascetics who enjoyed spending time contemplating life from the top of a tower or pillar. It sounds like something Monty Python would make up, but the Stylites are named after the first pioneer of tower dwelling, Simeon Stylites the Elder.
I’m not sure if he still holds the record, but the Elder Simeon apparently spent 37 years living on top of a pillar somewhere in Syria. It wasn’t long before self-proclaimed copycat Stylites were climbing up towers and staying there for prolonged periods of time. The trend peaked early in the Byzantine period, which corresponds to when Umm er-Rasas reached its pinnacle (so to speak).