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The churches in the 'Uyun Musa Valley


The Valley of 'Uyun Musa

In the summer of 1984, we began the archaeological exploration of the valley of 'Uyun Musa, thus celebrating a double centennial: the journey of Egeria to Mount Nebo in the spring of 384, the date accepted by scholars (not by us!), and the first centennial of the discovery of the manuscript of Egeria's travels. The pilgrim met in the valley near the springs many monks, saw their cells and a tiny church. "Between the church and the cells was a plentiful spring which flowed from the rock, beautifully clear and with an excellent taste" -she wrote. "This - the monks told the pilgrim- is the water which Holy Moses gave the children of Israel in this desert".

In 1931 the Jordanian government opened a road to the valley to pump part of the water of the springs to Madaba. Therefore, Nelson Glueck, Fr. Saller and Fr. Bagatti could reach the valley more easily and continue exploring westwards. In 1934 Glueck surveyed the fortress of el-Mashhad near the spring, collecting Iron Age and nabatean sherds together with a number of Iron Age clay figurines. Fr. Saller and Fr. Bagatti could identify several Byzantine ruins along the path which leads to the Roman road on the Mushaqqar ridge, a road with its milestones already known from the survey of Fr. Germer-Durand in 1884.

A more detailed map of the Roman road Esbous-Livias taken by the pilgrims to reach the memorial of Moses was drawn in the year 1973 by the members of the Hesban Expedition who surveyed and mapped the Roman-Byzantine fortress of al-Mahatta near the sixth milestone of the road.

An hermitage hewn in the rock, has been located near the springs of 'Uyun Musa. Buildings of the Byzantine period have been identified among the vineyards, and near the spring of 'Ain Jemmaleh, further west. Since the summer of 1984, two small Byzantine dayrs have been excavated: the church of Kaianos and the dayr of the Deacon Thomas.

The Church of Kaianos

A rescue excavation in a farmhouse has revealed a church of a small dayr with two superimposed mosaic floors.The upper church, like the lower one, has a slightly raised, square presbytery, decorated with a geometric motif of octagon enclosed by a swastika meander. The central nave was decorated with two panels enclosed in a guilloche.

Figuratively the most interesting motif is the portrait of an anonymous camel-driver, partly destroyed. The camel driver is depicted half nude, partly dressed with a loin-cloth, and with a mantle on his shoulders. He carries a bow on his shoulders, and holds a whip in his right hand, while a big sword hangs on his side. The figure, which is seen several times in the Safaitic and Thamudic graffiti of the desert, depicts an Arab Christian soldier, one of the Ghassanids unified by the Byzantine government under al-Harith, elected philarchos, patrician and king of all the Arabs. The figure of the mosaic fits very well the description of the Arabs, Saracens and Ismaelites given by the Latin historian Ammianus Marcellinus and by Saint Jerome in the Vita Malchi Monaci.

The lower church was originally built above two multiple tombs located respectively in the presbytery and in the main nave. The area of the presbytery was decorated with a plain motif of flowers with a Greek inscription of a funerary character: "In memory of Kaianos and for the repose of our father Rabebos and John and for the salvation of Casiseos..." The same text is repeated in Christo-Palestinian Aramaic on the northern side of the presbytery translated by Fr. Emile Puech: "The reader will remember the good works of our Lord Gayyan the priest Casiseos and the heirs who have made the furnitures...". Both texts refer to a community of monks. In the name of Rabebos our father, an ordinary title for the abbot, we possibly have the same name of the abbot Robebos recorded in the inscription of a funerary chapel east of the basilica of Moses on the mountain.

The dayr of Deacon Thomas

The dayr of Deacon Thomas is located along the path which connects the springs with the Roman road. It was built on a flat area on the slopes of the peak of al-Mashhad. The small dayr is a square building composed of the church, on the north, with a mosaiced room on the south and a paved courtyard. The mosaic was well preserved and quite intact. In the square panel of the presbytery, among four trees loaded with fruit, were a lion facing a zebu, and a lamb at the centre, which was later covered by the reliquary and the altar.

The main nave was decorated with a carpet enclosed in a frame of acanthus scrolls. The scenes are very close to those in the mosaic of the church of Saints Lot and Procopius in the village of Nebo. A comparison of the two works shows that the mosaic in the valley, although moving within the same figurative context, shows some stylistic details which unite it with the mosaics of the first decades of the sixth century AD. It can be regarded as a transitional work between the group of mosaics of the beginning of the sixth century AD and the masterworks of the middle of the same century. The flower grid of the south aisle is interrupted in front of the southern door by a medaillon decorated with an eagle and an inscription below it. The inscription records the name of the deacon Thomas, in whose honour the church has been named. The eagle, a motif found in several mosaics of the region in the same heraldic position, has two Greek letters added to the sides of its head: A and W. The two letters, normally used to indicate Christ at the sides of a cross, give a christological meaning to the eagle as a symbol of life and resurrection for the benefactors.

According to archaeological and stylistic data, the dayr was built in the first half of the sixth CenturyAD and abandoned in the Umayyad period. In a probe trench opened in the southern room outside the church, Early Bronze materials have been recovered.

Near the springs of Moses Egeria saw a small church and cells inhabited by monks. Neither the church of Kayanos nor the church of the Deacon Thomas can have any historical relation with the church that she visited. The two churches only testify to the continued presence during the VIth century of the monks met by the pilgrim in the valley and on the mountain near the memorial of Moses in the IVth century. The monks to whom primarly we are indebted for the buildings and the mosaics we have unearthed in the valley, in the village, and in the Memorial of Moses on the peak of Siyagha.

© Michele Piccirillo


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