Um ar-Risas is Jordan’s newest World Heritage site, joining UNESCO’s list of Cultural Heritage treasures in 2004.
As is true of many archaeological sites in this history-rich country, most of the extensive ruins on the site have not yet been excavated. The visible remains of an extensive Roman garrison are the ruins of the settlement of Mefa’a, one of the important Roman frontier camps along the Limes Arabicus, the fortification line guarding the trade routes from approaches across the eastern desert.
From the Byzantine era, there are four large churches and a scattering of smaller churches around the site. The most noteworthy is the impressive St. Stephen Church on the site’s northeast corner, containing as it does one of Jordan’s most stunning mosaic floors. The black basalt used for the background of this floor strikes a dramatic note, and the medallions along each border contain “town plan” representations of the major Christian cities of Palestine and Jordan, along the pilgrimage trail from Constantinople. A distinctive section of the mosaic contains the representations of major Christian sites in Egypt during the late Byzantine era.
The most remarkable feature of Um ar-Risas is the Stylite tower which reaches some 13m. above the ground. It is the survivor of two Stylite towers which once occupied the site, and the only known tower in the region to survive essentially intact. Typically without a stairway but with a large living platform circling the top of the tower, the tower would have been inhabited by an ascetic hermit who shut himself off atop a column to perform his meditations and prayers more closely to God and at a remove from the wordly world.
As was the case with the original Stylite tower of St. Simeon in northern Syria, the hermits of the Um ar-Risas towers no doubt attracted a steady stream of foreign pilgrims and more regional Christian visitors. Inhabitants of these towers were famous for providing religious instruction, resolving personal disputes and refereeing lively doctrinal debates.
It is anticipated that further excavation on the site will confirm much earlier occupation. Discovered artifacts from the Iron Age II as well as re-used dressed stones containing Thamudic and Nabatean inscriptions make it likely that the history of this site along the trade corridors is a very long and romantic one.