All the inscriptions are within mosaic medallions set in the floor of the 'South Church', framed by circles of vine-sprouts made of red and yellow tesserae. Black letters on a white background. Dimensions not specified. Inscriptions 2 and 4 are in the first row of circles, in front of the chancel. They flank an almost completely erased inscribed medallion. Inscription 1 is in the first medallion from the left in the second row. Inscription 3 is in the middle of the carpet mosaic of the nave, to the right of the large central medallion with a geometric pattern. Inscription 5 is framed by a rectangle. It is set at the west end of the north wall of the church, between the second and third pillar from the west. The inscriptions are in Greek but the patronyms contain the transcribed Arabic definite article.
Ἀμμώνις καὶ τὰ
τέκνα αὐτοῦ ψεφο-
θέτης ὅτι ἔκα-
μον εἰς τὸν
'O God of Saint Sergios, help Ammonis and his children, the mosaicist who has laboured for the place (topos)!'
Text and translation: Piccirillo 2001, 281, no. 1, slightly modified.
θη τὸ ἅγιο[ν]
'Under the most pious Saola was built and completed this holy place (hagios topos).'
Text and translation: Piccirillo 2001, 281, no. 2, modified.
'O Saint Sergios, accept the offering of Petros, son of Doros, and of Ioannes the adiutor!'
Text and translation: Piccirillo 2001, 282, no. 3, slightly modified.
λ[αβα α]λ Αυ-
4-5. Αυ|δ(ηλου) Piccirillo 2001, Αυ|δ[ηλ]̣ο̣υ SEG: questioned by Feissel who reads ΛΑΥ|Δ̣Α[.]Ο̣Υ, ΛΑΥ|Δ[.....] Gatier, Θααλα(βα) λαυδ̣ά[βιλ(ις)] φύλαρχος Piccirilo 2004-2005
'As a vow for the salvation of the most illustrious Tha'alaba the phylarch, son of Audelas (?)'
Text and translation: Piccirillo 2001, 282, no. 4 with altered readings from SEG and BE.
Ωερεθα υἱὸς αλ Αρεθου̣
Ωερεθα SEG Feissel, ὦ Ερεθα Piccirillo 2001 and 2004-2005 || Αλαρεθου Gatier
'Arethas, son of Arethas.' Or: 'Oh Eretha son of Al-Arethas.'
Text: Piccirillo 2001, 282, no. 5 with altered readings from SEG and BE. For the second translation, see Bevan and others 2015, 333.
Saint NameSergios, martyr in Syria, ob. 303-311 : S00023
Martyrs of Najran : S01243
Saint Name in SourceΣέργις, Σέργιος
Image Caption 1Inscription 1. From: Piccirillo 2001, Col. Pl. II/IV.
Image Caption 2Inscription 2. From: Piccirillo 2001, Col. Pl. II/II.
Image Caption 3Inscription 3. From: Piccirillo 2001, Col. Pl. II/V.
Image Caption 4Inscription 4. From: Piccirillo 2001, Col. Pl. II/III.
Image Caption 5Inscription 5. From: Piccirillo 2001, Col. Pl. II/VII.
Image Caption 6Location of Inscription 5 (in the upper left corner). From: Piccirillo 2001, Col. Pl. II/VII.
Image Caption 7Plan of the complex. From: Piccirillo 2001.
Image Caption 8Photograph of the church. From: Piccirillo 2001, Col. Pl. I.
Image Caption 9Photograph of the church. From: Piccirillo 2004-2005, Fig. 11.
Type of EvidenceArchaeological and architectural - Cult buildings (churches, mausolea)
Archaeological and architectural - Extant reliquaries and related fixtures
Inscriptions - Formal inscriptions (stone, mosaic, etc.)
Evidence not before500
Evidence not after600
Activity not before500
Activity not after600
Place of Evidence - RegionArabia
Place of Evidence - City, village, etcNitl
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Nitl
Sakkaia / Maximianopolis
Sakkaia / Maximianopolis
Cult activities - PlacesCult building - independent (church)
Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and CustomsPrayer/supplication/invocation
Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and NarrativesEcclesiastics - lesser clergy
Merchants and artisans
Cult Activities - RelicsReliquary – privately owned
SourceThe inscriptions were found in the south church at Nitl/Nitil, a village situated on a hill in the steppe to the south-east of Madaba. The site has been known to archaeologists since the last decade of the 19th c., when it was described for the first time by Heber-Percy, and was later revisited by a number of travellers. In 1984 excavations by the Franciscan Biblical Institute in Jerusalem began with permission of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan; they were, however, interrupted and resumed only in 1996-1999. The excavations revealed the existence of a significant ecclesiastical complex, consisting of two one-aisled churches (tagged: North Church and South Church) with a common inner wall. An apsed chapel was added to the south-west corner of the complex, accessible through a common narthex. In the floor of the nave of the South Church, at the level of the second pair of pilasters, there was a door with iron hooks giving access to a crypt with a double tomb.
The chapel was fitted with a reliquary on a plastered platform at its west wall, probably installed there after a refurbishment of the building. The platform had two small cavities, presumably for a chancel screen. Piccirillo calls the reliquary 'a small concave basin-reliquary well plastered on the inside and covered with a reused stone base sealed with the white plaster.' It was unfortunately discovered by illegal excavation after the completion of the 1996 campaign. The locals assured Piccirillo that it was empty when opened. Irfan Shahîd guessed that the chapel housed relics of the 6th c. *Martyrs of Najran (S01243), possibly relatives of the founders. Their relics became ubiquitous in 6th c. Christian Arab communities and the protagonist of this group bore the name al-Ḥârith (Greek: Arethas), just as one of the people mentioned in the mosaic panels. This theory is, however, implausible.
Both churches were decorated with floor-mosaics that were damaged in a period of iconoclasm. Sadly, further damage was done by the illegal excavations that occurred in between the excavation campaigns. The chancel of the South Church was paved with a mosaic showing two lambs, a shrub and geometric patterns. The carpet mosaic of the nave was framed by a border of acanthus and showed scenes of daily life, baskets, birds, and floral motifs inside circles of vinesprouts growing out of four vases shown in the corners.
All the inscriptions presented were found in the South Church.
DiscussionThe discovery of the church complex contributed significantly to our knowledge of federate Arab tribes inhabiting the south-east frontier of the Roman Empire. The excavators say that: 'It is the first indubitably Ghassanid/Jafnid Arab monument to be discovered in the south of Oriens, (Biläd al-Shäm), while others, such as Qastal, have been only inferentially declared Ghassanid, since they are anepigraphic, unlike this one, the inscriptions of which have survived and establish its Ghassanid identity beyond doubt. It is also the first Ghassanid/Jafnid church to be discovered.' But although it is believed that the shrine was designed to house a family burial hypogaeum of the phylarch Tha'laba, his connections with the Ghassanid/Jafnid 'dynasty' have been questioned.
The two panels which are nearest to the chancel explain the circumstances of the foundation. Inscription 2 is the actual building inscription for the church (named hagios topos). It contains no era year but mentions a presbyter who supervised the project, a certain Saola (or Saolas). Inscription 4 adds that the church was constructed as a vow for the salvation of the most illustrious phylarch Tha'laba. Piccirillo restored his partially lost patronym as 'son of Audelos' (= Abdelos?), but Denis Feissel notes that the remnants of the second letter in line 5 do not look like Η and so this restoration is doubtful. Although the church served as a burial sanctuary, we can safely assume that Tha'laba was still alive when the work was completed, as suggested by the votive formula ὑπὲρ σωτηρίας, applicable to vows on behalf of the living people. Sadly, the central panel in the first row is lost. It certainly gave further information on this project. The invocations of Sergios in Inscriptions 1 and 3 show that this church was dedicated to him.
Inscription 1, which is the only inscribed panel in the second row of medallions, invokes the God of Saint Sergios on behalf one Ammonis/Ammonios and his family, the mosaicist who was commissioned with paving the church.
Inscription 3 records an offering of a certain Petros, son of Doros, and Ioannes the adiutor. The latter term denotes a function in the office of the duces of the East. Feissel suggests that our Ioannes was probably a subordinate of the dux of Arabia. The two donors make the offering directly to Sergios (and not to the God of Sergios). The devotion of Ghassanid/Jafnid Arabs to Saint Sergios has been a well established fact, which is discussed at length in a number of works by Irfan Shahîd as an important factor shaping their group identity. As for Petros, son of Doros, Feissel argues that he could be a son of Flavios Doros who held the post of governor of the province of Arabia in 517 (see also Bulletin épigraphique (2012), 481 and IGLS 13/2, no. 9498 for an inscription from Bostra, mentioning that governor).
Inscription 5 is positioned beside the other texts and its phrasing is also different. It contains just a poorly spelt name: Arethas (or Eretha), son of Arethas (which is a Greek counterpart of Arabic: al-Ḥârith). Feissel notes that this younger Arethas is unlikely to be the Arab king Arethas (al-Ḥârith V, father of al-Mundhir III) who ruled under the emperor Justinian (PLRE 3, 111-113), as he was a son of Jabalah. But it is still possible that Arethas the father is identical with that figure (a possibility considered also by Fergus Millar, George Bevan, and other scholars). On the other hand, some authors were sceptical about that identification. Shahîd placed the mosaic in the early 7th c., saying that the donors must have been otherwise unknown prominent members of the Ghassanid/Jafnid lineage. Christian Robin was even more critical and denied that any of them could be confidently identified as members of the House of Jafna. However, in a recent paper (2015) Pierre-Louis Gatier refutes their objections and accepts Feissel/Millar's hypothesis as the most reasonable. Also Bevan, Fisher, and Genequand (2015, 63) tag Tha'laba a 'possible Jafnid' but consider the inscription undatable.
Dating: the mosaics of the church were stylistically dated by Piccirillo to the first half of the 6th c., while Basema Hamarneh, also based on stylistic grounds, argues for the early second half of the 6th c. (probably c. 560). Shahîd opts for the early 7th c. but this is rather implausible (see above and Genequand 2006, 79).
Piccirillo, M., "La chiesa di San Sergio di Nitl: un centro degli Arabi Cristiani nella steppa alle porte di Madaba", Rendiconti della Pontifica Accademia Romana di Archeologia 77 (2004/2005), 309-349.
Piccirillo, M., "The Church of Saint Sergius at Nitl. A centre of the Christian Arabs in the steppe at the gates of Madaba", Liber Annuus 51 (2001), 267-284.
Avner, U., Nehemé, L., Robin, Chr.J., "A rock inscription mentioning Tha'laba, an Arab king from Ghassān", Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy (2013), 247, note 29.
Bevan, G., Fisher, G., Genequand, D., "The late antique church at Tall al-'Umayrī East: New evidence for the Jafnid family and the cult of St. Sergius in northern Jordan", Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 373 (2015), 61, 63.
Bevan, G., Fisher, G., and others, "Arabs and Christianity", in: G. Fisher an others, Arabs and Empires before Islam (Oxford: OUP, 2015), 332-333, 335-347.
Gatier, P.-L., "Les Jafnides dans l'épigraphie grecque au VIe siècle", in: D. Genequand, Ch., Robin (eds.), Les Jafnides : des rois arabes au service de Byzance : VIe siècle de l'ère chrétienne : actes du colloque de Paris, 24-25 novembre 2008 (Paris: Éditions De Boccard, 2015), 212-215.
Genequand, D., "Some thoughts on Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, its dam, its monastery and the Ghassanids", Levant 36 (2006), 79.
Hamarneh, B., "Mosaici pavimentali delle chiese rurali di Nitl della provincia Arabia", Musiva & Sectilia 1 (2004), 199-215.
Michel, A., Les églises d'époque byzantine et umayyade de Jordanie (provinces d'Arabie et de Palestine), Ve-VIIIe siècle: typologie architecturale et aménagements liturgiques (avec catalogue des monuments; préface de Noël Duval; premessa di Michele Piccirillo) (Bibliothèque de l'Antiquité tardive 2, Turnhout: Brepols, 2001), 365-367, no. 135.
Millar, F., "Rome's 'Arab' allies in Late Antiquity. Conceptions and representations from within the frontiers of the Empire", in: H. Börm, J. Wiesehöfer (eds.), Commutatio et Contentio: Studies in the Late Roman Sasanian and Early Islamic Near East in Memory of Zeev Rubin (Düsseldorf: Wellem, 2010), 215.
Piccirillo, M., L’Arabie chrétienne (Paris: , 2002), 198-202.
Piccirillo, M., "II mosaico pavimentale in Giordania come fonte storica di un’epoca - V (1997-2001)", in: Morlier, H., Bailly, Ch., Janneteau, D., Tahri, M. (eds.), La mosaïque gréco-romaine IX: Colloque international pour l'étude de la mosaïque antique (9th: 2001: Rome, Italy) (Rome: Ecole française de Rome, 2005), 463-469.
Shahîd, I., "The sixth-century church complex at Nitl, Jordan. The Ghassanid dimension", Liber Annuus 51 (2001), 285-292.
Bulletin épigraphique (2003), 606; (2005), 552; (2012), 481.
Chroniques d'épigraphie byzantine, 916.
Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, 51, 2068-2072; 53, 1901; 54, 1704; 55, 1755.