Marian Chapel Found on Mount Nebo

Author: Michele Piccirillo

MARIAN CHAPEL FOUND ON MOUNT NEBO Excavations in Jordan reveal flourishing monastic presence in Eighth-Century Arabian Province

By: Michele Piccirillo

[Reprinted with permission from L'Osservatore Romano, Edition of 1 March 1995]. ___

The archaeologists of the STUDIUM BIBLICUM FRANCISCANUM of Jerusalem have been working for more than 60 years on Mount Nebo in Jordan. Forty years have passed since Father Sylvester Saller and Father Bellarmino Bagatti published the first books on the results of the excavation campaigns devoted to the Memorial of Moses on the summit of Siyagha and the churches in the village of Nebo on the summit of al-Mikhayyat. The resumption of work in the early 1960's in order to restore life to the fourth-century shrine built by Christians in honour of Moses and a place of pilgrimage in the following centuries has also meant that archaeological research on the mountain has been intensified as it has in the surrounding valleys. There have been some new, interesting discoveries which made useful if not actually necessary a book summarizing discoveries to date for the benefit of scholars.

Following a suggestion made by Frs. Saller and Bagatti, who at the beginning of the first book of THE MEMORIAL OF MOSES ON MOUNT NEBO inserted a map and a short description of the mountain, we are also opening this new publication with a complete up-to-date archaeological map of what we hope will become the archaeological park of Nebo, covering an area of 10 km. north-south by 6 km. east-west. The map, which has been prepared over a number of years, utilizes results obtained with the cooperation of a group of Danish archaeologists directed by Peder Mortensen from an annual survey 'in loco', and the electronic processing of data by the teachers of the Photogammetry Faculty of the University of Bari.

With a second group, I decided to start excavating the ruins of a small monastery identified by Frs. Saller and Bagatti during the 1930s on a hill near 'Ayn Kanisah to the south of the mountain. This is what the Bedouins call the second spring or group of springs south of Jebel Nebo between 'Ayn Jadidah to the East at the foot of al-Mukhayyat, and 'Ayn Hery to the West, before reaching the valley of the Jordan where we find the hot springs of Suweimah. Excavations continued throughout the month of August and into the first week of September.

The rooms of the small monastery are situated to the north and south of the small chapel, which is located in the centre with a mosaic courtyard to the west at a lower level. Here there is a cistern for collecting water. The chapel, a single hall, has a sanctuary with a raised apse and a long and narrow service area, situated near the facade. It has three doors, one in the facade and two in the northern wall, which communicate with a raised room by means of three steps near the sanctuary and with the service area near the facade. The only important liturgical furnishings are the brickwork altar on the apsidal span, which replaced an altar on small columns inserted into the mosaic at a later date, of which clear traces remain, and a plastered basin in the northern service area possibly used to store water. This chapel is distinguished by the painted plasterwork of the two steps of the sanctuary where a series of garlands and spirals can be seen.

Of the rooms so far explored, the chapel, the service area and the courtyard are decorated with mosaics. In the chapel, the sanctuary was decorated with a shell-shaped tympanum supported by two small columns surrounded by a large semicircular frieze with flowers, which follows the line of the apsidal sweep. A curtain, knotted in the centre, hung between the two small columns and it was attached by rings to a horizontal bar. Closed flower buds covered the space between the curtain and the shell. The sides of the tympanum were decorated with figures of two sheep near a tree laden with fruit, as can be seen from what remains on the northern side.

In the centre of the second register, the mosaicist had shown a phoenix cut off at the head, surprisingly left intact by the iconoclasts, although the lower part shows signs of restoration.

Historically, the most important elements of the mosaic in the chapel of 'Ayn Kanisah are the inscriptions in the two medallions. The first inscription on the eastern panel of the mosaic flooring forms part of the original composition dated to the second half of the sixth century. it reads: "In the beginning we give glory to God. Amen. With the prayers of the saints reward Lord the most holy Cyrus, (son) of Abraham, the hegumen and archimandrite of the whole desert, and reward Abba Longinus, the stylite beloved of God, and Abba John."

"The inscription provides important historical data for our knowledge of the monastic situation in the territory of the Arabian province by the unequivocal attestation of the titles given to the two benefactors of the chapel. Cyrus, son of Abraham, is called hegumen and archimandrite of the whole desert. From Cyril of Scythopolis we know that while Theodosius had been chosen by the Patriarch of Jerusalem as archimandrite of all the cenobitic life, Sabas was elected archimandrite of all anchoritic life. From the inscription we discover that a similar role also existed to the east of the dead Sea in the territory of the Province of Arabia, unless we want to believe that the archimandrite of the desert of Judah is the benefactor commemorated. This is not an impossibility as there were very close contacts, recorded by the sources, between the monks that lived on both sides of the sea.

Abba Longinus is called the Stylite. First of all we wish to point out that in the inscriptions of the territory of Madaba the title of 'Abba' is new. We usually find it used in the inscriptions of Egypt and Syria to indicate older monks or superiors in monasteries, for whom in the Madaba territory the Greek term of 'Pater' is used. With the term 'stylite' we have the first epigraphic testimony in the region of Madaba of the spectacular type of asceticism introduced in northern Syria by St. Simeon Stylites.

As we have already seen, the second inscription near the door is part of the panel added to the original mosaic. We translate: "By the providence of God, this venerable monastery of the Holy Theotokos was rebuilt at the time of Job, Bishop of the people of Madaba and of George the Recluse. The 15th indiction of the year 6270."

We have the name of the monastery dedicated to the Mother of God, to whom a chapel in the basilica of Moses on top of the mountain and a church in the centre of Madaba were also dedicated Bishop Job is also commemorated, as we had already read, near the altar of the Church of St. Stephen in Umm al-Rasas in the inscription in the upper mosaic dated 756. It adds the title of 'Einklestos,' recluse, with reference to George, to the monastic titles of the previous inscription. The title was used for a monk who, having reached a certain age, made a vow to spend the rest of his life closed in a cell in strict isolation.

In the corners between the square and the circle with the inscription, the mosaicist added four small vases from which flow jets of water (at least this is how we think what seem more like vegetable motifs should be interpreted in context) accompanied by the names of the four rivers of Paradise: Gihon, Pishon, Tigris and Euphrates. We now know that the motif, which is quite commonly used in the Christian world, was also used by the mosaic artists of the school of Madaba. In fact we find the personifications of the four rivers of Paradise in the chapel of St. Theodore, and in the church of the Sunna' in Madaba, and in Umm al-Rasas in the church of St. Sergius inside the 'castrum.'

The excavation of the small monastery of 'Ayn Kanisah forms part of our research over the last 10 years, which has mainly focused on dating the end of the occupation of the territory of Madaba, the episcopal city, the monastery of Nebo in Siyagha and Umm al-Rasas. From the two inscriptions we have greatly enriched the monastic vocabulary of the region. The new, early date given to us by the mosaic of the chapel of the Theotokos at 'Ayn Kanisah represents another precious historical testimony to the vitality of the monastic presence in the valleys and on the summit of the mountain of Nebo after the Ommayyad period.