Time and earthquakes have not been kind to Umm er-Rasas. Much of this ancient city lies in ruins. Little but arches of collapsed buildings, surreally rising out of the rubble, walls and doors are left to tell of the glories of its past. For all this, wandering through the remains of a city that has played host to Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic societies is an atmospheric experience.
I arrived in the early afternoon and, even though this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there was no one else here. The visitor centre looked like it had been built to accommodate tour groups and packs of archaeology buffs who never materialised. The ticket office was abandoned and covered in a thick coat of dust, the gates leading to Umm er-Rasas were wide open.
I walked down the path to a small hillock that gave me a view over the site, which sits majestically on a wide plain that once supported this entire city. It’s unfortunate that the UNESCO money appears to have run out and the vast majority of the city has not been excavated; while some excavated mosaic floors have been covered in plastic and sand, but are now exposed to the elements.
Excavations only began at Umm er-Rasas in 1986, but they almost immediately uncovered a treasure trove of historic artefacts. The highlight of which is undoubtedly the mosaics covering the floors of numerous Byzantine churches found at the site. The most impressive of these is the Church of St. Stephen which, despite being sheltered under an impressively ugly metal hanger, is simply beautiful.
The mosaics of St. Stephen’s show scenes of every day life: hunting, fishing, farming, riding an ostrich. Most impressive though is the large panel that depicts ten towns from the region, including nearby Madaba, Amman (then known as Philadelphia), Gaza, Jerusalem and Umm er-Rasas itself. It’s a thing of great beauty.
I visited St. Stephen’s Church and the nearby Church of Bishop Sergius before heading into the ruins of the old walled city. There are no signposts or information boards at the site (which is a bit rubbish for a UNESCO World Heritage Site), so it was pure luck that I managed to stumble upon two churches built into the thick defensive walls of the city.
The evocatively named Church of the Rivers and Church of the Palm Tree are wondrous to behold. They have some small unprotected mosaics on their floors, but as I walked around it was the carvings of early crosses, old water troughs, door frames and other signs of human occupation that were most moving. I stopped, sat on a rock and tried to drink in the atmosphere of this ancient place.
I spent a fascinating hour or so doing my best Indiana Jones impersonation, cambering over partially collapsed buildings, discovering mystical carvings in the stones of former houses, and finding another couple of semi-preserved churches with more mosaics. It was fabulous, but also a little tragic.
I hope that one day soon there will be enough visitors to justify reopening the ticket office, and restarting the work of excavating and conserving.