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
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
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
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
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.