Umm as-Surab

Umm as-Surab is located 80 km north of Amman, in the Mafraq Governorate, and it lies 13 km from the city Mafraq and 12 km from Umm el Jimal, the most important archaeological site of the region. The village is situated in the so-called area of southern Hawrān; an homogeneous geologically zone characterized by the presence of the basalt stone, and nowadays divided by Jordan and Syria.

Although the southern Hawrān was explored at the beginning of the nineteenth century[1], initial notices and reports about Umm as-Surab were produced only after the second half of the same century[2].

The first systematic study of the village was carried out by Howard Crosby Butler between 1904 and 1905 when, as scientific director of the Princeton Expedition to Syria, he visited and recorded the entire southern Hawrān, including Umm as-Surab. On that occasion an architectural survey of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus was performed, and it was accompanied by a precious photograph of the interior of the architectural complex[3].

Church of Ss. Sergius and Bacchus, interior looking east, Butler 1909, ill. 79












Drawings were enriched by architectural and decorative details (cornices, capitals, and bases) at a scale of 1:20[4], and during the survey various Nabataean and Greek inscriptions were identified and cataloged[5]. Butler noted that the site was “inhabited until comparatively recent times but the settlers who were last to make use of the ruin, made few changes in it, contenting themselves with making a few repairs on the ancient houses[6]. Judging from the architectural remains and inscriptions found there, he asserted that “the site is a very ancient one”, assuming the presence of a temple or other public building dating back to the Roman period due to the discovery of a large number of columns[7] and architectural fragments of the classical tradition, to which he dedicated a specific paragraph. Butler concluded the section on Umm as-Surab with a detailed architectural description of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, a description of the northern complex, and a short paragraph on the domestic architecture.


Church of Ss. Sergius and Bacchus, plan and sections, Butler 1909, ill. 78

Umm as-Surab was visited again in the 1930s, by the Italian scholar Renato Bartoccini[8]. In the mid-1960s other scholars performed new research at the site[9], while a new interest in the village, and in particular in its ecclesiastical architecture, arose only after the early 1980s. At that time G.R.D. King carried out a complete survey of the site, along with the study of the nearby village of Samā, between July 4 and August 30, 1980. These activities were part of a broader project on the southern Hawrān between Byzantine and Islamic times[10]. In 2002, an Italian mission from the “La Sapienza” University of Rome performed a new archaeological and topographical survey of Umm as-Surab, focusing especially on the residential buildings of the western area[11].

The mission from the University of Siena made a preliminary visit to the site in 2008, when a limited photographic and photogrammetric survey was performed on the façade of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. During the 2009 season, with the launch of the Building Archaeology in Jordan Project from the University of Siena (Italy), Umm as-Surab was the object of an organized scientific program including a surface survey, a topographic survey with total data station, a three-dimensional photogrammetric survey of two architectural complexes (Topographic Units / TU 24 and 28)[12], and an initial analysis of the material structure, paying particular attention to the reading of the building techniques. During the following research seasons (2011-2012), the surveys of the TU24 and 28 were completed and the studies of the construction techniques were enlarged[13].

The new archaeological mission at Umm as-Surab (JHAS), started in the last month of October and led by Piero Gilento and Pierre-Marie Blanc, intends to continue the work carried out by the Italian archaeological mission directed by Roberto Parenti (of which Gilento was a member) and to extend the analysis both in the village and in the surroundings through a cross-examination of the data from the architectural analysis and from the pottery collected during field survey and future archaeological excavations.

[1] The German scholar Ulrich Jasper Seetzen visited the northwest and north of the region in 1805 (SEETZEN 1854). He was followed by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1810-1812), the German scholar Otto Friedrich von Richter (1815), and the British explorers James Silk Buckingham (BUCKINGHAM 1821 and 1825) and William John Bankes, 1816-1818 (SARTRE-FAURIAT 2004). The latter certainly visited Umm al-Jimal in 1818 but did not pass through Umm as-Surab. The site was cited by Cyril Graham in a report of his travel in the region in 1857 and was also visited in 1894 by Gottlieb Schumacher and in 1901 by René Dussaud and Frédéric Macler.

[2] GRAHAM 1858; SCHUMACHER 1893-1895; DUSSAUD and MACLER 1901.

[3] BUTLER 1909: II,A.2, ill.79.

[4] BUTLER, 1909: II.A.2, ill.78.

[5] BUTLER 1909, II.A.2, p. 94-99; LITTMANN 1910, III.A.2, p. 57-59.

[6] BUTLER 1909, II.A.2, p. 95.

[7] Butler records the presence at the site of an extraordinary number of columns exceeded, according to him, only by those identified in the nearby village of Umm al-Jimal (BUTLER 1909, II.A.2, p. 95).

[8] BARTOCCINI 1941, pl. XI.

[9] MITTMANN 1966; HARDING (unpublished and undated correspondence preserved in the Department of Antiquities, Amman, cited in BADER 2009, p. 61).

[10] KING 1983a; KING 1983b, p. 111.

[11] BUCARELLI 2007.

[12] TU 24 corresponds to a building located in the extreme eastern sector of Umm as-Surab, while TU 28 is the complex in the central area of the site with the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.

[13] For the initial results of the University of Siena project, see also PARENTI and GILENTO 2011, 2012.

Piero Gilento

Marie Skłodowska Curie Postdoctoral research fellow at Paris 1 - Panthéon Sorbonne

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