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Treasure trove of Byzantine artifacts found at Umm al-Rasas

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 18th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The ancient city of Umm al-Rasas in Jordan has yielded a treasure trove of Byzantine artifacts ever since excavations began there in 1986. Much of the ancient city still remains buried under rubble. Visitors to the site today can see a plethora of discovered mosaics and relics of the Iron Age.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Also spelled Umm ar-Rasas and Um er-Rasas, the area was declared a World Heritage Site in 2004. Its structures date between the Third to Ninth centuries. Still much more remains to be excavated and valued. Magnificent Byzantine mosaics have been uncovered here in two churches here, dating from the Sixth and Eighth centuries.

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Enclosed inside a wall with gates on the north, Umm al-Rasas has more structures spreading outside the walls to the north. Focusing their work on the Byzantine churches, archaeologists have concentrated on four of the 11 walls. In addition to the churches, two oil presses and a winery have been uncovered.

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The most noteworthy ruins found thus far are two churches built into the east wall, the Church of the Rivers and the Church of the Palm Tree. Both are named for their mosaics and date from the Sixth century. 

Outside the northeast corner of the walls is the Church of the Lions, named for its mosaic of two lions. In the northeastern corner of the site, are the two most famous churches at Umm al-Rasas - the Church of Bishop Sergius and the Church of St. Stephen, sheltered under a green hangar.


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Next to its altar of Bishop Sergius' Church, which dates to 587 AD is a rectangular mosaic floor decorated with rams, pomegranate trees, and an inscription dating the mosaics to the time of Bishop Sergius. 

The celebrated Church of St. Stephen, from 785 AD has a magnificent mosaic floor throughout the interior. The inscription helped identify Umm ar-Rasas as the ancient city of Kastron Mefaa. Below the inscription are the outlines of donor portraits, which were removed by iconoclasts -- and fruit trees.


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Umm ar-Rasas has been inhabited since at least the Iron Age or Seventh Century, as attested by artifacts such as a basalt pillar base and a stone scarab. In ancient times, it was a Moabite town called Kastron Mefaa. The prophet Jeremiah mentioned the city (as "Mephaath") in his condemnation of Moab (Jeremiah 48:21). The 4th-century church historian Eusebius once recorded that a Roman army unit was stationed here.

Two square towers north of Umm al-Rasas were probably used by the stylite hermits, who once flourished in Jordan. These ascetics spent many years living in austerity atop a pillar, often attracting many admirers below. The most famous of these hermits is St. Simeon. The Stylites' church still survives in Syria.


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UNESCO notes that these towers are "probably the only remains of the practice." 

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