UNESCO World Heritage site, Jordan’s Um er-Rasas seeks recognition

Sunday 02/10/2016
The ruins of Um er-Rasas (Photo courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org by Jean Housen)

Madaba, Jordan - Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, Um er-Rasas is treasured by archaeologists for its valuable remains from the Roman, Byzantine and Early Muslim periods and appreciated by tourists for its well-preserved mo­saics.

Now, the mystical archaeologi­cal site, 60km south of Amman and traditionally overshadowed by other attractions such as Petra and Jerash, yearns for recognition as a tourist destination.

Although Um er-Rasas experi­enced a severe drop in the num­ber of visitors in 2015, many see a promising future for the less famed archaeological site that had once been transformed from a Roman military camp to a bustling town.

“It’s a very interesting archaeo­logical site as the place has a bit of everything and from important periods of time such as Byzantine, Roman and early Muslim,” said Issa Sayarni, director of Um er-Rasas ar­chaeological site.

At Um er-Rasas, there are 16 churches, two square towers, water channels and reservoirs and a Ro­man military camp. Although ex­cavation started in 1986, there are many parts that remain to be dis­covered, Sayarni said.

“There are many attractions that make this site special and impor­tant,” he said.

That includes the beautiful and well-preserved Byzantine mo­saic floors that were uncovered in churches dating from the sixth and eighth centuries and the exception­al towers used by monks who spent time in isolation there, Sayarni ex­plained.

According to UNESCO, the towers are uniquely complete examples of the accommodation of ascetic sty­lite monks who spent long periods living in isolation on top of towers or columns.

Historically the town was called Kastron Mefaa; however, the term Rassas in Arabic refers to Rass, which means placing something firmly on top of something else in perfect position, pointing to the area’s excellent structure.

With many artefacts still under rubble, tourists are able to enjoy four Byzantine churches inside the walls and 11 outside, in addition to a winery and two oil presses.

“The churches play a big role in understanding the history of this site,” Sayarni said. “The perfect preservation of the mosaic floor of the Church of Saint Stephen with its representation of towns in the region is truly magnificent.”

Sayarni pointed out that the site “depicts the eighth century’s 15 major cities with those on the north side in Palestine while those on the left are in Jordan”.

The Church of Saint Stephen por­trays towns and cities but other churches such as the Church of the Lions includes two lions and the Churches of Bishop Sergius, the Rivers and the Palm Tree point to fishermen, hunters and animals.

“The uniqueness of the art be­hind the mosaic shows the brain­power of those who worked on them especially the mosaic found at the Church of Saint Stephen in 785AD, which also gives an impor­tant insight that the church was founded 150 years after Muslim rule was established in Transjor­dan, which means Christianity was tolerated by Islam,” he noted.

The Jordanian Ministry of Tour­ism and Antiquities lists the num­ber of visitors to Um er-Rasas at 8,352 in 2015, a 47.6% drop from 2014.

The number of foreign visitors in 2015 reached 7,568, while in 2014, 17,915 foreigners visited the site.

“There is a lack of awareness or interest in the Um er-Rasas site, which could be contributed to many reasons, such as the lack of marketing efforts by officials and travel agents in addition to the fo­cus on the main tourists’ attraction in Jordan and ignoring other sites,” said Ziad Hourani, 45, a business owner in Madaba.

“We need a solid plan and strate­gy to lure tourists and Jordanians to some of the less-known places. We have many places that have the po­tential to become another Petra or another Dead Sea so why not focus a bit more on them and this way we can contribute more to the econo­my and the sector and at the same time promote other sites,” he said.

Hourani questioned whether there is a poster or a photo that de­picts Um er-Rasas only and not just Petra.

“To my knowledge I have never seen a photo of Um er-Rasas deco­rating a brochure or a poster that can tell people about this magnifi­cent site,” he said.

The town’s present population of 4,200 is working towards a better future with plans for simple facto­ries for local traditional costumes and hand-made jewellery that should help increase the number of tourists.

Hourani stressed the need for more investment in the area, es­pecially by providing job opportu­nities and promoting the site as a tourist attraction.

“Schools and universities have a role to play in promoting the site locally and that is why more action from officials and media is needed. We need to have an international appeal and this comes with many parties joining hands,” he said.