By Nigel Thorpe
Chief of the English Copy Desk
Albawaba.com - Amman
Amongst the twenty-five churches discovered at a site in the town of Rihab Bani Hassan in northern Jordan, is a Roman church which Dr. Abd Alqader Hussan, the director of the project, believes to be “the oldest church in the world.” The church, which was built in 230 AD, is now nearly two thousand years old. With the assistance of the Department of Antiquities and the Ministry of Tourism, the archaeological site is being developed as one of Jordan’s new tourist attractions.
To date, only the sanctuary of the church and its side rooms, which are 20 meters long and 13 meters wide, have been excavated. The sanctuary had two entrances; a main entrance on the western side, and a northern entrance opening into its adjoining rooms. The floor of a room on the north west of the sanctuary was decorated with beautiful mosaics with floral and triangular motifs.
A second mosaic on the sanctuary floor includes a meter long inscription in Greek whose five lines record that “this is a sacred place in which offerings have been made by ‘seventy lovers of God’. The inscription adds that “the altar has been completed in the name of the martyr St. George in the month of April in the year 124.” The inscription’s letters range from two to five centimeters in height and add 106 to the number 124 implying that the church dates from 230 AD. This date coincides with the reign of the Emperor Severous Alexander.
A cemetry lies to the west of the church which obtained its supply of drinking water from a well on the northwest side of the site.
The recent discoveries, together with historical evidence, confirm that the city of Rihab was one of the ten cities of the Decapolis. The Decapolis (Greek for
ten cities), founded after the Roman conquest of Palestine in 63 BC, consisted of a league of key Greco-Roman cities in the lands of northern Jordan, Syria and historic Palestine. The ten powerful cities joined to form the Decapolis as ,in the words of Britannica.com Inc. “a means of mutual protection and security against their Semitic neighbors.” The league was administered by the Roman governor of Syria although his authority over eastern Palestine was rather tenuous. The league survived until the second century AD.
Besides its importance as a member of the Decapolis, the ancient city of Rihab played a vital role in historic Palestine because of its strategic location on the trade route between Bostra and Jerash.
The quality of the site’s mosaics, and its unique historical importance as the site of the first known Christian church are certain to put the Rihab site firmly on the tourist map in 2001.