The Archaeological Campaign on Mount Nebo

Author: Michele Piccirillo, O.F.M.

The Archaeological Campaign on Mount Nebo

Michele Piccirillo, O.F.M.

Restoring for humanity the origins of Christianity

Last year we were to have celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Franciscan presence on Mount Nebo to commemorate the first campaign (13 July 1933) to excavate the Memorial of Moses. Continuing tensions in the Middle East, the aftermath of the war in Iraq and the endemic Israeli-Palestinian crisis made it advisable to postpone the celebrations to quieter times.

Fourth training course

The 2003 summer campaign aimed mainly at organizing the fourth training course for the restoration of the ancient mosaic in the best possible way. The campaign was directed by the Franciscan Archaeological Institute in collaboration with the Jericho Workshop for Mosaic Restoration and the Madaba School for Mosaic Restoration.

Jordanian, Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese students participated as they had in the past; but Iraqi guests also participated, warmly welcomed to the course by all for two groups held mainly on Mount Nebo. The groups also worked on the mosaics at Umm al-Rasas and Madaba.

Work on the restoration of the mosaic floor of St George's Church in Khirbat al-Mukhayyat/Nebo City, one of the first mosaics discovered by the Franciscan mission in Jordan, is progressing well. This mosaic, originally laid by the mosaic artists Naum, Kiriakos and Toma, was completed in 536 at the time of Bishop John of Madaba. Its rich iconographic motifs make it one of the most representative examples of sixth-century classical Justinian Renaissance.

The best news was the permission the Syrian Authorities granted to the entire group to travel to Shahba-Philippopolis in the Hawran to continue work as planned on the splendid mosaics in the city, birthplace of Emperor Philip the Arabian. The work was financed by the Custody of the Holy Land and by the General Administration for Cooperation and Culture of, the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

Work is also under way on Mount Nebo to restore and preserve the panels of the pulpit discovered in the Church of the Lions at Umm al-Rasas-Kastron Mefaa. The fragile panels of bituminous limestone, finely engraved with geometrical motifs, crosses and figurative designs which were later erased during the iconoclastic crisis, are the best preserved parts of an ambo yet to be discovered in any of the churches in Jordan.

We gladly gave our colleagues a hand when they asked us for help, just as we worked with our friends from the Danish Institute in Damascus on the restoration of the mosaic of the Concert at Mariamin, a third-fourth century masterpiece on display at the new Archaeological Museum of Hama.

We also collaborated last year with the American Research Center of Cairo to restore three splendid mosaics preserved in the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria: the Stag Hunt from Shatbi-Alessandria (third century B.C.), the Berenice from Thmuis (third century B.C.) and the fragment of the legend of Alpheius and Arethusa from Thmuis, which dates back to the third century A. D.

In Jarash, Jordan, among the olives planted on the slopes of the mountain that descend on the western side towards the ruins of the city, the Department of Antiquities has unearthed a small monastery chapel with floor mosaics laid in the time of Bishop Paul, who governed between 526 and 543.

Also in Jarash, in the area of Wadi ed-Dayr that separates the Northern Gate of the town from the spring of al-Birkatein, an excavation of the foundations has uncovered a burial complex. In one of the five excavated tombs, a lead sarcophagus was found, decorated with a classical mythological scene and crosses, almost a novelty for the antiquities of Jordan.

Making the most of a cordial invitation, we even climbed once again to the summit of Jabal-an-Nabi Harun in Petra, to be updated on the excavations under taken by the Finnish expedition at the Monastery of St Aaron.

We continue to be involved in the project of Baptism Park, opened at the wish of the late King Hussein on the eastern bank of the River Jordan, in accordance with the information provided by the Franciscan archaeologists of Mount Nebo. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch has already constructed a church by the river, in front of the chapel built on the west bank by the Custody of the Holy Land. At the request of Bishop Salim Sayegh, Latin-rite Auxiliary of Jerusalem and Jordan, we are working with the architect Vito Sonzogni from Bergamo on plans for a Shrine of the Baptism to be built and administered by the Catholics of the region.

Apart from the celebrations that had to be postponed, in the area of scholarship we celebrated the 70th anniversary with the publication of the book Arabia Cristiana in Italian, French and German. We presented a copy to H.B. Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. At the end of the campaign, he chose to celebrate with us and the Christian communities of Madaba and Ma'in his 70th birthday as well as the liturgical feast of Moses the Prophet and Man of God, to which the basilica on the summit of Siyagha is dedicated.

Furthermore, a book containing the projects submitted by groups of architects who responded to our appeal to reroof the Memorial of Moses is ready for publication.

To mark the Pope's Visit to pray at the Shrine of Pompei on Mount Nebo, a copy was made in mosaic of the inscription of the Church of Our Lady at Madaba, built in 767 A.D. At the height of the Islamic period, the community of the small southern town of the Arabian Province expressed its faith in concise and theologically correct terms: "If you want to look at Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, and the Son she conceived, the Only Son of the One God, purify your mind, your body and your soul, so that with pure prayers you may purify the People of God".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 August 2004, page 4

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