Church of St Stephen
ancient Mayfa’a, Umm al-Rasas, Jordan
Hegira 99–138 / AD 718– 56
‘Staurachios son of Zada’, the mosaicist from Hisban.
The site of Umm al-Rasas is located 30 km to the southeast of Madaba. The extensive ruins consist of a rectangular castrum (a Roman fortified camp, 158 m x 139 m) that includes four churches and an open quarter outside to the north, where eight churches have been identified.
The Church of St Stephen, which forms part of a large monastic complex, was excavated in the summer of 1986. It has a basilical plan consisting of a nave flanked by two aisles. In addition to the main entrance on the west, access to the church was also possible from two doors along the south wall. The church is of great interest both for the scores of inscriptions and the richness of the motifs on its mosaic pavement.
The dedicatory inscription along the step of the presbytery, dated to the year AH 99 / AD 718 provides us with the ancient name of Umm al-Rasas: 'Mayfa'a' or 'Kastron Mayfa'a'. It also provides evidence for an organised Christian community, administered by a deacon with a bishop and local clergy, at a date long after the arrival of the Arab Muslims.
The second inscription in the apse is dated to the year AH 138 / AD 756, the year when the geometrical decoration of overlapping ovals was laid down. It mentions the name of the mosaicist 'Staurachios son of Zada' from Hisban, and as such he is the first mosaicist in the region whose place of origin is known. However, it is the mosaic in the nave that is of particular interest.
Although the benefactors and the scenes of hunting, agricultural and pastoral life that make up the central portion of the nave mosaic were systematically disfigured by iconoclasts, the double frame that surrounds these scenes is intact. Here we find a number of vignettes of cities from Jordan and Palestine, each accompanied by its toponym in Greek. The inner frame, decorated with Nilotic scenes depicting fish, birds, and water plants as well as boats and boys fishing or hunting, also portrays a series of 10 cities in the Nile Delta.
The Church of St Stephen at Umm al-Rasas is part of a large monastic complex. An inscription in its mosaic dates to AH 99 /AD 718. It gives the ancient name of Umm al-Rasas, ‘Kastron Mayfa’a’, and provides evidence of an organised Christian community long after the arrival of the Muslims. Another inscription, dated to AH 138 / AD 756 when geometrical decoration was laid down, mentions the mosaicist Staurachios son of Zada from Hisban. The mosaic in the nave has vignettes of cities from Jordan and Palestine, each accompanied by its toponym in Greek. It also portrays ten cities in the Nile Delta.
The church is dated by the Greek inscriptions found on the mosaic floor of the church.
Piccirillo, M., The Mosaics of Jordan, Amman, 1993, pp.36–7; 233; 238–9.
Piccirillo, M., and Alliata, E., Umm Al-Rasas – Mayfa'ah I: Gli scavi del complesso di Santo Stefano, Jerusalem, 1994.
Schick, R., The Christian Communities of Palestine from Byzantine to Islamic Rule, Princeton, NJ, 1995, pp.472–4.
Ghazi Bisheh "Church of St Stephen" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2020. 2020. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;jo;Mon01;32;en
Prepared by: Ghazi BishehGhazi Bisheh
Ghazi Bisheh is an archaeologist and former Director General of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan. He studied archaeology at the University of Jordan, and history of Islamic art and architecture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, from where he holds his Ph.D. He was affiliated to the Department of Antiquities of Jordan for most of the period between 1980 and 1999, and was its Director General twice (1988–91 and 1995–9). He was also an associate professor of archaeology at Yarmouk University during the early 1990s. He is the author of numerous publications, including The Umayyads: The Rise of Islamic Art (Brussels: Museum With No Frontiers, 2000), of which he is a co-author. He has carried out excavation work both inside and outside Jordan in sites such as Qasr al-Hallabat, Madaba, Carthage and Bahrain. He is a member of the German Archaeological Institute and is the Deputy Director of the International Council of Museums for the Arab countries.
Copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: JO 32
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