Off the Tourist's Beaten Path: Jordan's Um er-Rasas

Whether it's the name, the lack of signage -- or simply that people prefer the grander Petra -- Jordan's Um er-Rasas UNESCO World Heritage site appears to be underappreciated by travelers.

Madaba and Um er-Rasas are about an hour car ride east from the Dead Sea. They can also be visited on the way from Amman to or from Petra. The former has a collection of Byzantine mosaics. The latter contains artifacts from three earlier civilizations, the Roman, Byzantine and Muslim.

Madaba illustrated and labeled in a 785 AD mosaic on the floor of St. Stephen Church in Um er-Rasas.  Um er-Rasas was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. What is surprising about this walled city, now in ruins, is that very few visitors go there. The day we visited, there were at most four or five other people in an archeological area that covered miles. Not much traffic was expected either, as the ticket seller and taker was also the shop and bathroom attendant.  

Um er-Rasas lies mostly in ruins.Whether it’s the name, Um er-Rasas (awkward for Westerners) or the lack of signage on the site, or simply that people prefer the grander Petra, this UNESCO World Heritage site seems to be underappreciated. This is a shame, as it is easy to get to and seeing a confluence of civilizations in one place is indeed special.  

One of many stone arches reconstructed in Um er-Rasas.  

Madaba is much more visited. It’s most famous mosaic is a map on the floor of St. George’s church built in the 19th century, but the mosaic is much earlier, about 560 AD. It illustrates contemporary biblical sites of the Middle East from Egypt to Palestine. There are 157 accompanying Greek captions.

A mosaic tile from the interior of St. George in Madaba, a Greek Orthodox Church.

The city of Madaba itself is composed of about 70,000 inhabitants. Two-thirds are Muslim and one-third are Christian. Since 98 percent of Jordan is Muslim, this city has the distinction of having its largest Christian population.

Madaba also has a museum, archeological park and a mosaic factory. In spite of these tourists’ attractions, not all of the inhabitants are comfortable with travelers.

In part, to see what a Muslim man would do, I flashed a warm smile at one such older gentleman in a restaurant in Madaba. He looked away and flushed, clearly not used to Western woman giving him any kind of attention. His response embarrassed me, too, as I wondered if I had broken some code of etiquette. Later, in Amman, I may have partially gleaned the answer. There I learned that women shouldn’t offer their hand to a Muslim man when they are introduced. This is because handshaking is acceptable between Muslim men when they meet, but not when one sex is introduced to the other.

I could only think, “Is smiling at a member of the opposite sex a similar social faux pas in the Muslim faith too? Or was it because I’m Western?”

The interior of St. George Church in Madaba.

Shirley M. Mueller is a physician turned financial consultant who writes for Physician's Money Digest each week on her blog, "My Money MD."