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Italian expert trains locals to preserve ancient mosaics in Jordan

By Saeb Rawashdeh - Jun 11,2017 - Last updated at Jun 11,2017

The Mount Nebo mosaic restoration work can serve as an example of how to preserve a heritage site, according to Italian mosaicist Franco Sciorilli (Photo by Amjad Ghsoun)

AMMAN — Mount Nebo holds a special place in the heart of mosaicist Franco Sciorilli, being as it was the base of operations for the late Father Michele Piccirillo, who formed a team of experts in mosaic restoration there.

“I arrived to Jordan at the end of July 1994 for the summer restoration courses at Madaba Mosaic School,” Sciorilli, who studied at Sapienza University of Rome, said.

“Piccirillo was one of the most important archaeologists in the region,” Sciorilli, director of the Franciscan Archaeological Institute of Mount Nebo, noted, adding that they worked with local communities in Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Egypt.

They worked on Hisham’s Palace in Jericho, Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, Hunting mosaic in Alexandria, as well as on mosaics in Syria, while in Jordan their team restored mosaics in Petra, Mount Nebo and Madaba.

“Over the years, we have trained more than 50 youngsters for the preservation of the mosaics, establishing the first two schools — one in Madaba in 1992 and the second in Jericho in 1999,” Sciorilli explained, noting that on Mount Nebo they founded a yard school where boys from the nearby village of Faysaliyyah could learn about mosaic restoration.

In 1992, Piccirillo, architect Claudio Cimino, the Italian foreign ministry and USAID opened the Madaba School of Mosaics with the dual objective of recreating the ancient art of the mosaic in Madaba and allowing local boys to practise mosiac conservation and restoration, he added.

“For Father Michele and for us, collaborators, the training of local operators for the preservation of mosaics has always been a primary goal, because of Jordan’s very rich cultural heritage,” the scholar stated.

After the school in Madaba, they opened another in Jericho with architect Osama Hamdan, while the third would have been opened in Syria if the civil war did not hinder those plans, Sciorilli noted.

“Since 2008, our team has restored all the mosaics and architectural structures of Memorial of Moses [on Mount Nebo],” he said.

In October 2008, Piccirillo died of a serious illness and the team was left without its trainer, guide, mentor and “maestro”, Sciorilli recalled.

“I continue my research and work in the restoration, trying to carry on the work of Father Michele, but I must say, it is very difficult,” he said.

The church on Mount Nebo was built in the second half of the 4th century by the early Christians who resided in the area, as a memorial church to Prophet Moses, Sciorilli said, explaining that the first testimonies come from the pilgrim Egeria and Bishop Peter Iberian.

Among the oldest mosaics is one with a black cross on a white background, at the east end of the southern nave, the mosaicist pointed out.

“In 1976, the most representative mosaic of Memorial of Moses was discovered — the mosaic of the Diaconicon Baptistery from 531 AD, which also contains the names of the three mosaicists — Soelos, Kaiomos and Elia,” Sciorilli highlighted.

In the 1930s, the mosaic of the new baptistery was unearthed, decorated with animals, trees and two inscriptions dating from 597/98 AD, he said.

In addition, Memorial of Moses restoration began in the summer of 2007, “with the first geological surveys, and in January next year the work of removing the old shelter started, lasting until 2016”, Sciorilli noted.

This project incorporated workers and students of the mosaic school from Faysaliyyah village, who attended the programme and were paid a monthly salary, he explained.

“In October 2016 the church was inaugurated and around 20 local workers were involved during eight years of the project; by the end only six remained,” Sciorilli said.


Mount Nebo’s restoration work can serve as an example of how to preserve a heritage site, he underscored, because the future lies with tourism and it can be boosted only with a genuine culture and preservation of historical heritage, Sciorilli concluded.  

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