Nowadays, not many people are familiar with this unique archaeological site, but the ancient Jordanian town of Um er-Rasas must have been quite important in antiquity. It is mentioned in the Bible (Jeremiah 48:21) under its earlier name, Kastron Mefaa, as well as in the writings of the Christian historian Eusebius around 500 CE.
Artifacts unearthed from the ruins of Um er-Rasas (also spelled Umm ar-Rasas) suggest this site was inhabited since at least the Iron Age, around 800 BCE. The ancient Romans established a military camp here, then the site became a religious center for early Christians in Byzantine times, and eventually an Islamic center during the early period of Islam. Amazingly, remains from all three civilizations have been found, making Um er-Rasas a microcosm of Middle Eastern history.
At first sight, Um er-Rasas may come across as rather underwhelming, as it looks like a vast expanse of rubble. However, once you start meandering through it, you start realizing how rich this archaeological site is, with layers upon layers of ancient history narrated through the language of architecture. A guide can greatly enhance a visit, but even an untrained eye can appreciate the endurance of millennia-old archways, pillars, and walls.
Among the highlights are a fortified military camp, 16 churches, a square tower, and mosaic floors. The mosaic of St Stephen’s Church is of particular artistic and historical significance, as it dates back to the Byzantine Empire and depicts locations in Palestine and Egypt. Archaeologists have discovered that this priceless mosaic is actually sitting on another, older mosaic. The narrow square tower is also interesting, as it is, in fact, a Stylite tower. Stylite hermits were Christian ascetics that used to ascend to the top of this kind of towers to fast, pray, and meditate for years on end.
Know Before You Go
Um er-Rasas is about 50 miles (76 km) south of Amman. The site is about 7 miles (14 km) off King's Highway.