Franciscan Cyberspot Franciscan Arcgaeological Institute Logo
 Mount Nebo - P.O.Box 2 Faysaliyah - 17196 Madaba - JORDAN - eMail:

Kastron Mefa'a - Umm al-Rasas


Umm al-Rasas has been identified with Kastron Mefaa in 1986. The ancient name was read in the inscriptions of the mosaic floor of the church of Saint Stephen and in the church of the Lions.

Detail of the inscription at St. Stephen Church

The toponym was already known to the Roman and Arabic sources and to the Bible. Eusebius knows a unit of the Roman army stationed on the edge of the desert at Mephaat (Onomasticon 128, 21), a locality which the historian identifies with the Levitical city of refuge of Mepha'at in the territory of the tribe of Reuben on the mishor Moab (Joshua 13, 21; 21, 37; Jeremiah 48, 21). The Notitia Dignitatum records that equites promoti indigenae, auxiliary troops of the Roman army, were stationed in the camp of Mefaa under the command of the Dux Arabiae. The Arabic historian al-Bakry knows Maypha'ah as a village of the Belqa' of Syria.

The ruins

View of the extensive ruins of Umm al-Rasas
with the excavated Church of St. Stephen in the foreground

The ruins of Umm er-Rasas, lie 30 km south-east of Madaba on the edge of the steppe and the sown (237 101 Palestinian Grid) halfway between Dhiban on the king's Highway and the Desert Road. The ruins consist of a walled area forming a fortified camp (158 m east west by 139 m north south), and an open quarter of roughly the same size to the north. About 1300 m to the north of the fort is still standing a 14 m high tower beside ruins of some edifices, stone quarries and water cisterns hewn in the rock.

The name

he name of the ruins was recorded by the first modern explorer of Jordan, U. Seetzen in 1807. It was first visited by J.S. Buckingham in 1816. Irby and Mangles arrived in 1818, Palmer in 1870, and Tristram in 1872. In 1896 Vailhé realized the Roman military nature of the fort, thus enabling Germer-Durand to connect the locality with Mefaat given as a station of the Roman army by the Onomasticon. The identification was rejected by Clermont Ganneau because the ruins lacked the ancient name. Instead he proposed to identify the Roman-Byzantine and Arabic Mephaat with Khirbet Nefa', near Jawa a ruin visited by A. Musil 10 kms south of Amman. The same scholar published in 1898 a Nabatean inscription said by the Beduin to have been found at Umm al-Rasas. In 1897 the site was visited by the Brünnow-Domaszewski expedition to the Provincia Arabia. Glueck in his survey of the site in 1933 stressed the lack of any sherd more ancient than the Roman-Nabatean period. Bagatti in 1948 draw a sketch plan of the ruins with the ecclesiastical buildings identified both in the fort and in the outer quarter.


Excavations started on the north edge of the outer quarter of the ruins in summer 1986, carried out by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. In 1987 the area of the tower was excavated. In 1988 the Swiss Max Van Berchem Foundation started the research inside the walled fort. Further excavations have been carried out yearly since those years especially in the area outside the Kastrum where various churhces have been unearthed, most of which had mosaic floors.

The ruins of Umm al-Rasas have proven to be inhabited at least from the Iron Age II (seventh-sixth centuries B.C.) to the Abbasid period (ninth century A.D.), with a floruit in the Byzantine-Umayyad period, when the town was inhabited by a prosperous Christian community. Ecclesiastically, it was part of the bishopric of Madaba.

Of the Iron Age II, only sherds mixed with late materials, a basalt pillar base decorated with petals, and a stone scarab with incised a sfynx and the name Ammon have been found. Architectonic remains, as bases, drums of columns and decorated mouldings of Roman buildings have been found reused mainly in the walls of the complex of Saint Stephen. Part of a frieze with a ram in relief in an acanthus scroll has been reused in the apse of the Courtyard church. A Latin inscription has been found on the stairway on the rear of the eastern wall of the church of Saint Stephen. Three blocks with Nabatean and Thamudic inscriptions have been used in the apse of the church of Bishop Sergius and in the eastern wall of the church of Saint Stephen. Sherds and few coins have been collected.

Taking a picture at Umm al-Rasas

To the Byzantine-Umayyad period belong the ecclesiastical complex of Saint Stephen with the church of Saint Stephen, the church of Bishop Sergius, the church of the Aedicule, and the Couryard church, built on the northern edge of the outer quarter, the church of the Lions and the two churches excavated inside the fort. Except for the church of Saint Stephen built and paved with mosaics in the Umayyad period, the other churches have been built and paved with mosaics at the end of the sixth century at the time of Bishop Sergius of Madaba

Saint Stephen

To date the mosaic floors of the church of Saint Stephen are the best dated evidence of the welfare of a flourishing urban Christian community in the region, still well organized as part of the bishopric of Madaba in the changed political context. The floor is composed of three different mosaics.

The upper mosaic floor of the bema was completed by the mosaicist Staurachios Ezbontinos son od Zada with his colleague Euremios in the month of March A.D. 756 at the time of bishop Job, as written in the inscription on the side of the altar. The mosaic is aniconic. It covers a previous mosaic of which only a small part was visible. Stylistically it seems to be a VI century mosaic. The bases of the columns of the altar inserted in it point to the same dating.

The mosaiced Church of St. Stephen

The mosaic of the church, was done at the time of Bishop Sergius in the Umayyad period (therefore Sergius II!). The statement is based on the archaeological evidence found below the mosaic floor in the two side rooms of the church, although the absolute date given in the dedicatory inscription is questionable because it was rewritten after an accidental damage suffered by the mosaic.

Unfortunately, in the mosaic of the nave the portraits of the benefactors and the scenes of hunting agriculture and pastoral life have been carefully disfigured by the iconoclasts and are often unintelligible. Thus the major interest of the mosaic floor in the church of Saint Stepehn focuses on the double geographical frame depicting cities of Palestine,of Jordan and of Egypt In the intercolumnar spaces of the north row a series of eight Palestinian cities are depicted: The Holy City of Jerusalem in which it is possible to identify the aedicule of the Holy Sepulchre according to the iconography attributed to it in the Byzantine period, Neapolis (Nablus) with the possible façade of the church of the Theotokos on Mount Garizim, Sebastis (Sebastia), Caesarea on the sea, Diospolis (Lidda), Eleutheropolis (Beit Gibrin), Askalon and Gaza. In the intercolumnar spaces of the south row a series of seven Jordanian cities are shown starting with the double plan of Kastron Mefaa-Umm er-Rasas, followed by Philadelphia (Amman), Madaba, Esbounta (Hesban), Belemounta (Ma'in), Areopolis (Rabba) and CharachMouba (el-Kerak). Two additional Jordanian cities, Limbon and Diblaton are portrayed, one at the head of each aisle, associated with portraits of benefactors and inscriptions. Another toponym without illustration mentions mount Nebo-Fisga with the superior of the monastery of the Memorial of Moses who gave an offering for the church. The inner frame, which depicts a river with fish, birds, and water flowers, as well as boats and boys fishing or hunting, also portrays a series of ten cities in the Nile Delta: Alexandria, Kasin, Thenesos, Tamiathis, Panau, Pilousin, Antinau, Eraklion, Kynopolis and Pseudostomon. The names of the benefactors in the inscriptions, mostly semitic, point to a local population.

Excavations at Umm al-Rasas are still under way not only in the Ecclesiastical complexes found outside and inside the Kastrum but also in the dwellings of the city. Among the excavations carried out worth mentioning is the Church of the Lions to the South of St. Stephen's Complex.

The presbytery of the Church of the Lions

Piccirillo, M. - Attiyat, T.,1986. The Complex of Saint Stephen at Umm er-Rasas - Kastron Mefaa. First Campaign, August 1986, ADAJ 30, 341-351

Piccirillo, M., Le iscrizioni di Umm er-Rasas - Kastron Mefaa in Giordania I (1986-1987, Liber Annuus 37, 177-239.

Piccirillo, M., 1990. L'identificazione storica delle rovine di Umm er-Rasas - Kastron Mefaa in Giordania, Biblica 71: 527-541.

Piccirillo, M., - Alliata, E., 1991, Il complesso di Santo Stefano a Umm al-Rasas - Kastron Mefaa in Giordania (1986-1991), LA 41: 327-422

Bujard, J., Haldimann, M. A.- Bonnet, C., 1988, Fouilles de la mission archéologique suisse (Fondation Max Van Berchem) à Umm er-Rasas et Umm el-Walid en 1988, ADAJ 32,:101-113.

Bujard, J. - Piccirillo, M. - Poiatti, M., 1992. Le églises géminées d'Umm er-Rasas. Fouilles de la mission archéologique Suisse (Fondation Max Van Berchem). ADAJ 36: 291-301.

© Michele Piccirillo
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum,
Mount Nebo - Jordan

The material published here
cannot be reproduced without prior consent of the author



cyber logo footer

Please fill in our Guest book form - Thank you for supporting us!
Created / Updated Friday, July 27, 2001 at 15:42:33 by John Abela ofm
This page is best viewed with Netscape at 640x480x67Hz - Space by courtesy of Christus Rex

logo logo