Our second day out of Amman started with more than a little confusion. First, by the light of day, Murder Falls looked downright charming. Second, where the fuck was Machaerus???
But let me back up. The day before, in Madaba, we had gone to the Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist. The church was incredible, home to both the highest point in Madaba, as well as an incredible Acropolis below.
When we had begun planning this trip, we grabbed an old Lonely Planet from our school library and one of the stared attractions was Machaerus, also known as the castle of Herod the Great. If you sat through even a handful of children’s church lessons, you probably picked up on the fact that Herod Antipas (successor of Herod the Great) beheaded John the Baptist. It seemed like interesting symmetry to visit both sites, back-to-back.
Google Maps clearly marks the site, so we began our drive. The countryside was lovely. At first, incredible views of the Dead Sea, then mountains, then…nothing. Lonely Planet claims that the castle is 2km past Mukawir village (not helpful) and supposedly easy to spot (lies). We were driving down previously paved (i.e. no longer paved) roads and we had begun quite a descent before Chandler said we’d have to turn back – there was no way our Mitsubishi Lancer would be able to make it back up.
Google Maps claimed the castle should be within view, but all we could see was a shepherd’s tent. We decided to get out and walk around. Just past the tent, we noticed a walkway. Unmarked and a bit shabby, it seemed to be going up, so we gave it a try. About five minutes later, we noticed that the mountain we were walking toward had one or two pillars on top – that felt like a good sign. We probably walked another five minutes or so when we began to see what were definitely remnants of the castle’s walls.
We finally reached the summit and found…nothing. Or nearly nothing. A handful of rubble, a few pillars, and a hole. We walked closer. Herod the Great’s castle wasn’t built on top of the mountain, it is the mountain. Unexcavated, you see its depths, but I can only imagine what you would find if you could venture below.
Despite the effort it took to find the place (bonus – we didn’t have to pay the 1.5 JD entrance fee because literally no one was there), one thing I can say about Herod is that the man had good taste in views. Overcast like always, you could still see across the Dead Sea through the mist, not to mention the rolling mountains in all of the other directions.
We didn’t spend too much time at Machaerus before venturing to our big site of the day: Umm Ar-Rasas. The site of Umm Ar-Rasas dates back to the end of the 3rd century. It originated as a camp during the Roman period to protect trade caravans. During the Byzantine and early Islamic period, numerous churches, chapels, and houses were built.
In 2004, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, however, only a small portion of the location has actually been excavated. A majority of the site looks like the photo below – rocks upon rocks upon rocks:
One of the first things you notice when you arrive on the grounds is a singularly modern structure. We struck out for that first, unsure what we’d find. Turns out we’d start with a bang. The structure protects what’s left of St. Stephen’s Church, home to one of the biggest (and most beautiful) mosaics in Jordan. Discovered in 1986, the mosaic documents ancient cities of religious significance in the 8th century.
Unfortunately, many of the figures were destroyed and were later filled in with random modern tesserae. Still, the carpet is impressive in design, as well as size – it covers the entire floor of the main chamber.
Another excavated church was St. Paul’s Church. Discovered in 1995, the name was found carved into one of the roof tiles. You can find arches buried throughout the rubble of Umm Ar-Rasas, but nowhere are they more impressive than at St. Paul’s Church. You can see these ruins from inside St. Stephen’s Church.
We wandered farther into the ruins, looking for Lion’s Church. Supposedly known for its colorful mosaics, when we finally found it, it was open to the elements and covered in sand. We thought we had found the wrong place and then I smudged my foot. The mosaics were underneath!
We probably spent more time at Lion’s Church than any of the other structures in Umm Ar-Rasas because we quickly found ourselves playing Indiana Jones. We tried to uncover as much of the mosaics as we could (first image below).
It wasn’t long before we skipped ahead and made our way to the semi-circular pulpit at the front of the church. I tried to scrape away the sand with no luck – I could only find carpeting. We went to the edge and continued pushing sand away. This time we got lucky – we found the edge of a ratty old blanket. Unable to leave it be, we gently pulled up the edges (second image below) and were greeted with an exquisite mosaic below.
It’s hard to believe but this incredible UNESCO site long ago ran out of money to continue its excavations, which is why there is only one protective structure. Covering priceless mosaics with blankets is the best they can do to protect some of the other valuable mosaics on the site. We carefully lowered the blanket and replaced the sand.
Our continued wanderings brought us to Tabula Church. No other information was available, but this nearly perfect mosaic was uncovered and can be seen both below and in my featured image.
We had such a great time exploring Umm Ar-Rasas – we love UNESCO sites, but after the let-down of Herod’s Castle, we weren’t really sure what we’d find. Beyond the numerous partially-excavated churches, great walls can be seen tumbling down and poking through the ground. I can’t even imagine what you’d find if Jordan had the money to continue to unearth these secrets.
After all that, it was nearly lunchtime (you read that right, this all happened in ONE MORNING). We made the hour and a half drive back to Amman and picked up lunch – being way too lazy to make it ourselves : )
Our mini-road trip was finished and we were back in Amman for the rest of Winter Break. For travelers like ourselves, it wasn’t nearly long enough, but Covid can adjust anyone’s habits. For now, it will suffice until we can safely get back on the road again.