The Sacred Loft

Driving from Madaba towards the east you gradually see a change in color of the soil. As the terrain gets more wrinkled, the soil starts loosing its dark-red tint and gradually turns from shades of terracotta to pale ochre. This transition is basically signaling the crossing of the green-line that separates the wheatland of the Madaba plains from the more arid and rugged landscape of the semi-desert. The same shift, in color, topography and vegetation on land, is also reflected in the sky.

Here, the clouds get thinner and less wet, having dropped their rain-loads on the more fertile escarpment to the west.

The village of Um Al Rasas is small and simple. It has the pleasing atmosphere of a typical Jordanian village where the monuments simply exist without much fuss, celebration or the exploitation of a touristic attraction packaged as a commodity. This state of “pure Jordan” is overwhelming and gives the visitor a feeling of discovery like in the 1950's, a feeling that is getting more rare by the day.

Um Al Rasas is a big site. It has a large walled city that started as a garrison in the Roman period under the name of Kastron Mefaa, and developed during the Byzantine period into an important city with houses and dozens of churches. Inside a metal shelter in one of these churches lies Jordan’s most beautiful mosaic. There are also other structures, some of which were used as a monastery, and others as water reservoirs. Of all these attractions, the tower stands apart, a feature of pure delight.

Built of well-shaped limestone, this tower is a simple square measuring about two by two meters, and 15 meters in height. With a plain shaft and nothing different at the base, the only ornaments are some crosses on the sides and a frame crowning the line where the tower meets the heavenly blue of the sky. Just below these cantilevered corbels is a room with four corner-pillars and four windows, one in each direction. This room makes you look hard for any inner staircase. Many were looking for a mysterious access that might have lead upwards, as is clear from the missing stones at the base. After double-checking the gap created by the missing stones, an eerie fact becomes clear; the tower is solid inside and the room on top must have been reached from outside using ropes or ladders.

About 1500 years ago, most probably a holy man was hoisted by ropes up to the loft, away from the earthly town-life below.  Up in the sky he could concentrate on prayers, living a solitary ascetic life that followed the cultic-trend of the fifth century Christian holy man Simon Stylites, who spent 38 years atop a pillar in the vicinity of Aleppo. Life in the upper room must have been difficult. Although the windows brought in views of endless stretches of the plentiful landscape, the room itself is not big enough to stretch one's legs, unless one's feet stick out of the window. The windows also brought in freezing desert winds, the kind that penetrate to the bone. Among the “furniture” and the earthly commodities that the holy man most likely owned was a basket tied to a rope. As one of the windows would be used to pull in the food-laden basket, the opposite window might have, out of necessity, functioned as a toilet.

Today the tower stands desolate, in the blowing tableland winds. Its corners whistle with a strong breeze high breeze and its stones rattle at the rate of one earthquake per century. This structure is one of the most complete examples of Byzantine architecture in Jordan and probably the region. It has survived at least a dozen earth tremors, half of which were of destructive scale. Now, after 14 centuries, will it survive another new century, a century with new threats, threats the builders of this tower would have never imagined. 

Drive to Madaba. From the traffic light in front of the Church of the Apostles head east leaving the King's Highway to your right. After some 10km, at the village of Nitil, turn right – ask for the road to Um al Rasas if you feel lost. After Nitil drive for another 20km and look around for the vertical monument marking the skyline behind the village houses. Um al Rasas is a half-day destination, and can be combined with other mosaic sites in and around Madaba. The site itself is well worth the drive and within one kilometre of the tower lies one of Jordan’s most beautiful mosaic floors. Suitable for children and does not require a 4x4.