Main image: Snow on the West Church

Experiences at a Socio-Religious Crossroads

While religion is often treated in isolation from other cultural aspects or as incidental to social and political dimensions of culture the Umm el-Jimal Project treats religion as a central—possibly the central—component of the socio-political construction of security in ancient societies. In politics local people may find themselves propelled by force at the point of a spear, but in religion people see themselves and their community acting as participants in a cosmic order that gives meaning even in the face of the most chaotic adversity. At Umm el-Jimal such socio-religious experience could be especially rich because its location in the Hauran puts it at a religious-cultural intersection, between Syria to the north and Arabia to the south, and between the Levantine coast to the west and the desert to the east.


From the first to fourth centuries AD Umm el-Jimal’s religion was polytheistic of the eclectic sort typical of the post-Alexander era. Because much of the architecture of this period was destroyed and later replaced with Byzantine structures, specifics have to be pieced together from fragments which give us only traces.

One source is a set of simple altars of the pillar type, three of which have inscriptions on the die, which are representative of the different streams intersecting at Umm el-Jimal. One, dedicated to Doushara Arra’a represents the Nabataean influence, because this deity blends the main god of Petra melded with the city deity of Bostra. This altar therefore gives a clue to the civic religion of Umm el-Jimal as a satellite village of the capital. A second, dedicated to Holy Zeus Epikoos (”Who Listens”) represents the Hellenized religiosity of Syria, specifically the region of Lebanon where this particular Zeus is known. A third, dedicated to the god Solmos, ties worshippers of Umm el-Jimal more directly to its nomadic desert heritage. While these deities themselves are the rulers of civic or cosmic realms, each of the altars was dedicated by a local individual. Thus the altars express the direct access by individuals in the community to the guarantors of civic/cosmic order.

Inscription closeup

A Wealth of Inscriptions

Umm el-Jimal is home to a wide variety of Inscriptions, many of which provide clues toward interpreting the religious and social fabric of ancient Umm el-Jimal.

Another source for the identity of the gods familiar in Umm el-Jimal’s society are the numerous theophoric names on tombstones, such as ‘Abd-Doushara, “Servant of Dushara,” and Wahb-Allahi, “Gift of God.” The following deities occur in theophoric names at Umm el-Jimal:

Nabataean: Doushara, Obodat

Nabataean/Egyptian: Isis (tentative)

Arabic: Allah, Allat, ‘El

Safaitic: Yitha’, Gadd

These names indicate at least societal, even if not personal, relationship to these deities. It does not appear that Umm el-Jimal had its own sacred center and boundaries; rather, its residents would have associated with places like Bostra and Si’a (on the Jebel Druze) for more public religious celebrations.

A common tomb-stone epitaph formula, “Be of good cheer, for no one on earth is immortal,” is indicative of the ancient Near Eastern view that death is the lot of all mankind. In this, the Nabataean-Roman era society of Umm el-Jimal shared the old cosmo-theistic world view which in Late Antiquity was being replaced by views of transcendent deity, including that of Christianity and Islam.

A last vestige of polytheistic religious practices is the remains of a small temple, which the Princeton Survey had labeled Nabataean, but which was dated stratigraphically to the late Roma period (4th century). Perhaps this little temple was constructed to serve the soldiers of the early castellum.


Early Byzantine Christianity

The next military structure, the Barracks (later castellum) was commissioned by a Christian Duke, Pelagius, in AD 411/12, who flanked its dedicatory inscription with symbols of the cross. By the end of the sixth century Umm el-Jimal counted fifteen churches and chapels spread through a domestic landscape of about 150 houses. Two of these are located in open, public spaces, two may have served monastic purposes and two or three others can be associated with cemeteries. However, half, seven or eight, are built into densely constructed neighborhoods, where they appear to have been the private domain of the contiguous residents. As represented by this vastly increased role of sacred architecture, the shift from polytheism to monotheism included an intensification of local, privately managed religious practice.

Mosaic closeup

Umm el-Jimal's Mosaics

Several of Umm el-Jimal's churches are home to mosaics depicting animals, plants, and geometric patterns. These ancient mosaics are most likely influenced by the school at Madaba, which in antiquity was a famous center for mosaic art and production. Often incredibly fragile, Umm el-Jimal's remaining mosaics are a prime concern for the site's long-term conservation efforts.

As is typical of the region, most churches were built in the late fifth or early sixth centuries, and then remodeled in the late sixth or seventh centuries with the additions of narthexes, altar screens and synthronons (ecclesiastical seating in the apses) to reflect the effects of the growth of ecclesiastical hierarchy on the liturgy. Some churches had simple plaster floors, others were mosaicked in Madaba-School patterns, and one had simpler mosaics more typical of Umayyad-era flooring.

The entire community used Christian symbols like Byzantine crosses, especially to decorate lintels over entrances to houses and churches. A number of churches mention their endowers. For example, the Numerianos Church was called that by H. C. Butler because three inscriptions on its entry lintels announce that it was built as a vow by Numerianos, Maria, Ioannes (John) and their children.

Especially well decorated is the southeast corner tower of the Barracks, constructed as part of its conversion from castellum to monastery. Inscriptions include the names of God’s four guardian angles on the upper window covers—Gabriel, Michael, Raphael and Rouel—and numerous psalm-like prayers asking God to protect the community from its enemies. One, “This sign conquers and aids,” reflects a link between this monastery and the imperial center, while another, “Victory to the Blues!” goes farther in cheering the chariot racing faction that supported Justinian and orthodoxy versus monophysitism on the streets of Constantinople.

Early Medieval Islam

The Islamic conquest drew Umm el-Jimal into the political sphere of Islam in the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, but on the domestic side there was apparent cultural continuity and gradual rather than abrupt change. Evidence for Islam is less prevalent in the material remains than that for Christianity. As was typical for the region, converts to Islam lived in harmony with the majority who most likely remained Christian. There has been scholarly speculation that apse blockage of two churches indicates their conversion to mosques. It seems more certain that two of the Byzantine houses were converted to mosques in the Umayyad period. However, both of these possibilities are still under careful consideration in the publication program of the Umm el-Jimal Project. An Umayyad graffito on a column drum of the Praetorium proclaims: “Seven times seventy bismi-Allahs!”

Druze and Modern Islam

The temporary Druze settlers (1910-1932) did plenty of remodeling in the Byzantine-Umayyad ruins, but no distinctly religious aspects can be identified. Today there is only one Druze family in the Municipality. The subsequent reuse of the ruins by the Sunni Muslim Msa’eid tribe is evident only in tent sites and stables. Even in the modern municipality, the construction of mosques lagged for some decades, but began in the 1980s with the large mosque just outside the southwest corner of the ruins. Today this Muslim community is well served by three mosques.