In the Southern gardens of Darat al Funun lie the ruins of a sixth century Byzantine church and an old cave. British explorer Major C. R. Conder, who excavated part of the church, first identified the site in 1881.
Adjoining the church was a cave, which Conder speculated was ‘sacred as a tomb or cave-dwelling of some saint’. In the early 20th century, the Dominican fathers R. Savignac and M. Abel recorded two inscriptions among the ruins, one of which indicated that the church may have been dedicated to St. George. The other inscription raised the possibility that the church was built over or near a Roman temple dedicated to Herakles.
In 1993, Dr. Pierre Bikai, director of the American Center for Oriental Research (ACOR), conducted excavation and restoration work on the site.
The following is taken from Dr. Bikai’s excavation report: ‘An inscription bearing the name of the Roman god Herakles found at the site has led to speculation as to whether an earlier monument, perhaps dedicated to that god, existed at or near this site. Byzantine churches were often built above Roman temples, and at this site there are many Roman elements, including columns and inscriptions. The cave was probably in use before the church was built and probably had some religious significance, since the plan of the church was dictated by the presence of the cave. Perhaps it held, or was thought to hold, the tomb of one of the Amman martyrs or some significant person.
An inscription mentioning St. George was also found at the site. The relationship between Herakles and St. George is relevant to the structure. Known for his strength, Herakles was one of the heroes of classical mythology. St. George is, of course, known for having killed a dragon. F. M. Abel commented: ‘The metamorphosis of Herakles into St. George is easy since the two characters have physical strength as an attribute’.
There is a further association between St. George and Al Khadr, the legendary being of Islam. The common factor that Al Khadr and St. George share is that they both appear as horsemen. There is some evidence that the cave was associated with Al Khadr well into the 20th century. This is a very special site, a place where, it seems, there was continuity in cult spanning millennia – one cult taking the place of another, each embodying some of the features of the earlier one. The Christian church perhaps dedicated to St. George and perhaps on or near the site of a shrine dedicated to Herakles, in turn, became a memorial for Al Khadr.
The church had the form of a rectangular hall laid out in an east/west orientation, with a semi-circular apse to its east and an entrance to its west. The hall was divided into three parts by two rows of three columns each. The eastern part of the church was separated from the rest by a chancel screen, which spanned the entire width of the hall. The central part of the chancel was covered with coloured tiles, while its two sides were covered with mosaics. In the western part of the church was a baptismal font, an oval cut into the floor.
The cave, which lies in the southern part of the site, contains four niches, one of which may hold the remains of a tomb. The cave was incorporated into the church’s structure, as indicated by the walls that were built within its confines. In front of it, a mosaic can be found. There is evidence to suggest that a second cave lies east of the first one. However, this cave remains un-excavated.
Most of the mosaics at the site are made up of large tesserae. Their predominant colour is white. Some red, yellow, and blue is used. Among the mosaics in which the forms are still visible, the chief motif is a floral one.
As part of the church’s restoration, its column drums were reset and the single Corinthian capital still present was placed on the north-eastern column. A second capital, thought to have been taken from the site, was obtained from a private collection and returned to its original location. Remnants of the mosaic floor were also unearthed. The ancient artefacts that were recovered from the site are now on display in a special room in Darat al Funun’s library. These include a Nike relief, an Arab imitation of a Byzantine coin, two complete Abbasid lamps, a nearly complete steatite lamp dating back to the late Abbasid or early Fatamid period, and pottery from various phases of the Islamic era’.
From the publication Darat al Funun: Art, Architecture, Archaeology, 1997.