Umm ar-Rasas, JORDAN

A slender tower looms on the horizon, accentuating a sense of isolation and loneliness that seems embedded in the wide-open expanse of the semi-arid pastoral countryside surrounding it. The tower is believed to have formed part of a monastery complex once inhabited by Christian ascetics, also known as stylites, during the early years of the Byzantine Empire (ca. 330-1453). This type of Christian monasticism saw monks spending extensive periods of time on top of towers or pillars in isolation, hence the name stylite or pillar-saint was attributed to them.

This 14 metre tower could only be accessed by a removable ladder on the outside, as the inside is solid, with no stairs in sight, while the remains of several windows can be seen at the top, indicating a small room. As I allow my hand to glide over the rough surface of its sandstone blocks, I wonder what the monks used to see when they sat ensconced in prayer. Did they pay attention to their surroundings, or were their eyes trained inwards? Could they hear the sounds of life drifting towards them from the city, 1.5 kilometres away, and if they did, did it evoke a longing in their souls to join the commotion or were they content to commune with God alone?

With too many questions and no answers, I turn my back on the tower, and focus my attention on the vast stretch of rubble that once was a thriving city. Inhabited since the Iron age, layers of life lay unexplored under the most recent stones that were used for construction. In ancient times it was a Moabite town called Kastron Mefa’a, while the Bible mentions it first as the Roman military outpost of Mephaath (Joshua 13:18 / Jeremiah 48:21). Amongst the ruins, now referred to as Umm ar-Rasas, 30 kilometres south of Madaba, door lintels, cisterns, niches, two olive presses, a winery, and a myriad of graceful arches are amongst the features that can be found. My feet crunch as I step carefully through the sepia landscape. Above me, a cloudless blue sky provides a splotch of colour, while on the ground, a couple of olive green bushes stubbornly cling to life. Dust devils twirl and soar, drawing dust into tall columns that dance through the dry summer landscape.

The mid-day heat covers the countryside in a cloak of lethargy. Nothing stirs. I am the only visitor to this extensive site, and my heart skips a beat, when a sudden rustle to my right makes me jump. I have disturbed a jackal, who, unperturbed, trots off towards a cascade of stones. The light sand colour of his pelt blends so perfectly with that of the landscape and fallen stones, I almost did not see him. At the top he hesitates, turns his head towards me, and as suddenly as he appeared, slinks off to find another pool of shade.

I stand stunned for a couple of seconds, before turning towards the enormous steel structure that covers the ruins of Saint Stephen’s Church to find my own reprieve from the baking sun. During the Byzantine and Umayyad Period the town was inhabited by a prosperous Christian community, which can be seen from the many ruined churches that were found. Four inside the walled city and eleven outside of it.

Of these, the remains of Saint Stephen’s Church hold the most wonderful and complete mosaic floor imaginable, and as I walk slowly over the steel walkways, hovering above it, to get a good glimpse of the extraordinary artistic mosaics, which include the representation and names of various towns in Palestine, Jordan and Egypt, I wish I could take my shoes off, and rest my feet on them, imagining these fragments of coloured stone to be cool and soothing. Even though time has bleached the once vibrant colours, they are still distinct and striking.

The warm breeze that wafts through the covered space, cools the sweat pearling on my body, and brings an unexpected coolness I luxuriate in. The silence is heavy and motionless, except for the squeak of metal under my feet. I delay my leave-taking for as long as I can. Not only am I reluctant to brace myself for the hot walk back to the welcome embrace of the air-conditioned car, but the silence and solitude of the landscape has woven its magic on my soul, for I can imagine myself sitting for a while like a stylite in quiet contemplation on top of the tower, now hovering in the distance, soaking up the echelons of time, history and life.

Admission: Free

Visited: August 2015

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