The Byzantine glories of Umm er-Rasas

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.

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

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.

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Mosaics, St. Stephen's Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Mosaics, St. Stephen’s Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

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.

Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

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.

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

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.

The ascetic monks of Umm er-Rasas

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.

Stylites Tower, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Stylites Tower, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

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.

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

v

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Camels on the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Camels on the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

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.

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

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.

Stylites Tower, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Stylites Tower, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Stylites Tower, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Stylites Tower, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

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.

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

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.

Stylites Tower seen from Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Stylites Tower seen from Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

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).