site located 30 km (18 mi.) southeast of Madaba in Jordan (31°30′ N, 35°55′ E; map reference 2374 × 1010). The extensive and well-preserved ruins consist of a rectangular fortified camp, or castrum (158 × 139 m). An open quarter of about the same size was found outside the castrum to the north.

The ancient names of Umm er-Rasas were Mephaath/Mefaa/Kastron Meffaa/Mayfa῾a, as attested three times in the inscriptions in the mosaic floors of the site's excavated churches. Mephaath is listed as one of the places on the Moab plateau (Jos. 13:18, 21:37; 1 Chr. 6:79, and Jer. 48:21). It was one of the Levitical towns that belonged to the tribe of Reuben. Eusebius, in his Onomasticon (128.21), and the Notitia Dignitatum list a Roman military camp in Mefaa. The biographies of the prophet Muhammad also record Mayfa῾a as the village whose inhabitants killed Zayd ibn ῾Amr, a pre-Islamic monotheist, on his way to Mecca to convert to Islam.

Umm er-Rasas

UMM ER-RASAS. Figure 1. Plan of the St. Stephen complex. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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A team from the Franciscan Archaeological Institute in Jerusalem, led by Michele Piccirillo, has been conducting annual excavation seasons at the site since 1986, in collaboration with the Jordan Department of Antiquities. Their work has focused on a cluster of churches, rooms, and courtyards in an enclosed area in the northeast part of the site north of the castrum. They have named the cluster the St. Stephen complex, after the main church of the group (see figure 1).

The Church of St. Stephen, identified as such by its mosaic dedicatory inscription, is of exceptional importance. Its lovely nave mosaic depicts a number of cities in Transjordan and Palestine: Kastron Mefaa itself (including an enigmatic image of an isolated standing column), Amman, Madaba, Ḥesban, Ma῾in, Rabba and Kerak in Transjordan; and Jerusalem, Nablus, Samaria/Sebaste, Caesarea, Lod, Beth-Guvrin, Ashkelon, and Gaza in Palestine. Representations of ten cities in the Egyptian Delta are also included as part of a Nilotic motif. The dedicatory inscription in the nave mosaic was damaged and repaired in antiquity; thus, the date as it now reads, 787 CE, is questionable and may be restorable as 718 CE. The apse mosaic has an intricate geometric design with a dedicatory inscription dated to 756 CE. These floors are among just a very few church mosaics in Jordan datable after the Muslim conquest. The many images of people and animals in the nave mosaic suffered deliberate damage that was carefully repaired. Limited probes below the eighth-century mosaics have revealed evidence of an earlier phase of the church.

Adjoining the Church of St. Stephen on the north is the Church of Bishop Sergius, which has a mosaic floor dedicated in 587 CE. The images in this mosaic floor suffered deliberate damage as well. To the west are a baptistery and funerary chapel. To the west of the Church of St. Stephen is a courtyard that was later converted into a chapel. To its west is the so-called Church of the Aedicula, with a flagstone pavement, the oldest church in the complex (sixth century CE). A series of rooms is to its south. Also part of the complex are rooms surrounding a courtyard to the east of the Church of St. Stephen and a courtyard serving as an atrium, along with another chapel to the south. Many burials have also been found throughout the complex.

The second area that has been under excavation by the Franciscans since 1989 is the Church of the Lions in the southeast part of the site, north of the castrum. It is a large church surrounded by a series of rooms, forming a large ecclesiastical complex. Its mosaic is only partially preserved and does not have a surviving dedicatory inscription. The images in the mosaic floor were deliberately damaged. The mosaic also includes a second depiction of Kastron Mefaa with an isolated standing column. The church has an exceptionally well-preserved ambo (pulpit).

The church of the priest Wa῾il, excavated in 1990 by Taysir Attiyat for the Department of Antiquities, is a small, single-apsed church in the northwest part of the site. It's mosaic floor is somewhat damaged. The inscription in the nave mosaic mentioning the priest Wa῾il provides a dedication date of 586 CE for the church. The images were deliberately damaged.

Another prominent monument at the site is a well-preserved tower located about 1.3 km to the north of the castrum. It is 15 m high with a small, single-apsed basilica on its east side. This church, excavated by the Franciscans in 1987, and datable to the sixth century CE, has a plaster floor. Immediately to the north of the tower are large buildings, partially restored by the Department of Antiquities in the 1970s, near some covered water reservoirs.

Since 1988, the Mission Archéologique Suisse (Fondation Max van Berchem) under the direction of Jacques Bujard has been excavating inside the castrum in a complex of two side-by-side churches in the southeast corner. The construction of the two churches postdates the construction of the castrum wall. The north church is the earlier of the two. It is a single-apsed basilica with a heavily damaged mosaic floor belonging to a second phase. The images were deliberately damaged. An inscription provides a dedication date of either 578–579 or 593–594 for the mosaic. The south church is also a single-apsed basilica. Its mosaic floor is very badly damaged, and no dedicatory inscription is preserved. The Swiss team has also cleared portions of the large courtyard to the south of the two churches and a portion of the exterior face of the east castrum wall.

The town as a whole appears to have been largely abandoned by the late eighth or early ninth century. Because excavation has focused on the churches from the Byzantine and early Islamic periods, the nature of any Iron Age or Nabatean settlement remains unexplored. Iron Age sherds were found in one deep sounding in the St. Stephen complex, however.

[See also Churches; Mosaics.]


  • Bujard, Jacques, et al. “Les églises Geminees d'Umm er-Rasas.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 36 (1992): 291–306.
    The most substantial report to date of the work of the Mission Archéologique Suisse
  • Piccirillo, Michele, and Taysir Attiyat. “The Complex of Saint Stephen at Umm er-Rasas–Kastron Mefaa: First Campaign, August 1986.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 30 (1986): 341–351.
    The most substantial English-language treatment to date
  • Piccirillo, Michele. “The Mosaics at Um er-Rasas in Jordan.” Biblical Archaeologist 51.4 (December 1988): 208–231, 227–231.
    Brief overview with color photographs
  • Piccirillo, Michele, and Eugenio Alliata. “Ceramica e piccoli oggetti dallo scavo della Chiesa dei Leoni a Umm al-Rasas.” Liber Annuus 42 (1992): 227–250.
    Along with Piccirillo (1992), the two basic reports published to date on the excavation of the Church of the Lions
  • Piccirillo, Michele. “La Chiesa dei Leoni a Umm al-Rasas–Kastron Mefaa.” Liber Annuus 42 (1992): 199–225.
  • Piccirillo, Michele. “La chiesa del Prete Wa'il a Umm al-Rasas–Kastron Mefaa in Giordania.” In Early Christianity in Context: Monuments and Documents, edited by Frédéric Manns and Eugenio Alliata, pp. 313–334. Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Collectio Maior, 38. Jerusalem, 1993.
    The basic report on the excavation of the church of Priest Wa'il
  • Piccirillo, Michele. The Mosaics of Jordan. Amman, 1993.
    Includes good color photographs of the mosaics
  • Piccirillo, Michele, and Eugenio Alliata. Umm al-Rasas Mayfa῾ah I: Gli scavi del complesso di Santo Stefano. Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Collectio Maior, 28. Jerusalem, 1994.
    Final report of the excavations of the complex around the Church of Saint Stephen

Brief notices of the Franciscan excavations have been prepared each year since 1986 by Michele Piccirillo and published in Liber Annuus. Several lengthier articles in Italian have appeared in the same journal. Those about the Church of Saint Stephen have been superseded by the final report (Piccirillo and Alliata, 1994), but for the other excavation areas, they remain fundamental.

Robert Schick