Photograph by F1online digitale Bildagentur GmbH, Alamy Stock Photo
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The sun shines on ancient stone ruins preserved in Um er Rasas, Jordan.

Photograph by F1online digitale Bildagentur GmbH, Alamy Stock Photo

Um er Rasas

The ancient Jordanian town of Um er Rasas is home to 16 historic churches, secret crypts, and towering stone archways.

Location: Jordan
Year Designated: 2004
Category: Cultural
Criteria: (i)(iv)(vi)
Reason for Designation: A microcosm of Middle East history, this ancient town spans six centuries of history across the Roman and Byzantine Empires, as well as the Islamic empire. The site showcases the ruins of 16 churches from the early Christian period, some with outstanding mosaics, and the square hermit tower is one of the last of its kind in the world.

Um er Rasas resembles a lowly pile of rubble, but once inside, this age-old town descends through deep layers of history, as if cutting through a warped labyrinth of time.

Skeletal stone archways, secret crypts, and crumbling pillars are the only standing remains of this ancient site. Once a Roman military fortress at the edge of the desert plain, the large walled city evolved into an ecclesiastical center point during the Byzantine period, when a steady flow of pilgrims entered the Holy Land, traveling from one biblical site to the next.

Sixteen unique churches rose up inside the city walls, the largest of which was St. Stephen, laid with its ornate mosaic floor, the largest of its kind left in Jordan today, in A.D. 785. The mosaic displays a representation of nearby towns, providing a key to the region at that time. Other mosaic churches are decorated with flora and fauna.

The Prophet Muhammad is said to have traveled through Um er Rasas when he was a youth, as part of a passing merchant caravan. The city fell under Islamic rule in the seventh century A.D. and some mosaics were eventually defaced. Regardless, Christian pilgrims were tolerated and welcomed during the early Islamic period.

The most astonishing remnant of Um er Rasas might be the stylite tower, one mile north of the city walls. Narrow, square, and tall, the tower offered a literal isolation from the world—a separate place where monks and ascetics endured ritual mortification of the flesh while lost in fasting, prayer, and meditation—sometimes for years on end. These towers were widespread in the early medieval period; the 43-foot-high tower of Um er Rasas is the last of its kind in the Middle East.

How to Get There

Um er Rasas is just a one-hour drive southeast of Amman or 40 minutes from Madaba.

How to Visit

Um er Rasas remains one of the least visited sites in Jordan. It makes a great add-on to a visit to the Christian sites of Madaba, or on your way in and out of Amman. Take time in the museum before hiking into the ancient city, and hire a local guide if you'd like to delve deeper into the history of the remains. You can drive or walk the full mile to the remote stylite tower, but whatever you do, don’t skip it.

When to Visit

Um er Rasas is open year-round. Remember that the site is situated at a relatively high altitude. During winter months, the area is prone to wind and rain. The ruins come to life at sunset, so plan accordingly.