Jordan: the Mosaics of Madaba

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Heading south-west out of the Jordanian capital Amman, a short, hilly drive took me beside green fields towards a church tower, rising amid a cluster of roofs on the horizon.

mosaic-postcard-c-beckI was aiming for Madaba, a cheerful, easygoing market town named in the Old Testament which, within its historic central core, retains a Christian majority.

The tower visible from afar looms above the Roman Catholic cathedral of St John – packed with worshippers on the Sunday morning I visited: Madaba wears its heritage proudly on its sleeve.

It was during clearance work for a new Greek Orthodox church in the 1880s that Madaba’s Christians stumbled upon one of Jordan’s finest historical treasures – a detailed mosaic map of the Holy Land, created by Byzantine artists in the late 6th century.

map-cc-mounirThe map is still visitable today in the same location, on the floor of Madaba’s Greek Orthodox church of St George in the town centre.

It is centred on a striking depiction of Jerusalem – complete with colonnaded streets and red-roofed churches – but also encompasses swathes of territory from the Mediterranean coast south to the Nile and north into modern-day Lebanon.

Designed as an atlas for pilgrims, as well as to glorify God’s work in a house of worship, the map displays amazing precision: biblical towns such as Bethlehem and Jericho stand in their correct locations, neatly labelled in Greek characters, while gazelle are shown roaming the countryside and fish even swim in the waters of the River Jordan.

mosaic-w-notes-c-beck-350Yet this is just the start of Madaba’s Byzantine mosaic wonders. Down the road, Madaba’s Archaeological Park showcases dozens more examples, from hunting and pastoral scenes to images of people and animals with their faces obscured by blank stones, a hasty artistic addition following the edict of 726 AD which banned the depiction of living creatures.

Beside a diagonal-paved section of Roman road within the park, the Hippolytus Hall houses a giant mosaic showing scenes from Greek mythology – a bare-breasted Aphrodite alongside the love-sick Phaedra – flanked by images of lions, bears and sea monsters.

All round Madaba I found more examples of superb, little-known Byzantine mosaics. The Church of the Apostles, overlooking the ancient King’s Highway road, shelters a huge mosaic, laid in 568 AD, showing a spectacular portrait of a regal sea-queen emerging from the waves, surrounded by jumping fish, sharks and even an octopus.

church-interior-cc-moogdroogThe Madaba Museum has a mosaic of a Bacchic procession, as well as a charming image of a lamb nibbling at a tree.

Even more mosaics survive just outside Madaba. The World Heritage Site of Umm Ar-Rasas hosts another dazzling atlas-like sequence of towns portrayed on the floor of an 8th-century church.

But the best are to be found atop Mount Nebo, a peak mentioned in Deuteronomy as the spot from where Moses gazed over the Holy Land.

From the mountain-top I took in an incredible panorama out over the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley and Jericho, even extending to the towers on the outskirts of Jerusalem, far in the hazy distance.

2467819638_a4f0fc2935_oAttached to a Franciscan monastery on the summit, the Moses Memorial Church – currently under renovation – shelters a stunning array of exquisite mosaics, from a simple Greek cross to a dazzling mosaic pavement, dated to AD531. It features a menagerie of animals, including a leopard, hunters with dogs, a shepherd sitting under a tree watching his fat-tailed sheep, even a zebra and a giraffe.

As I made my way back down to everyday life in the souks of Madaba, it struck me as a truly unsung historical adventure, piecing together Jordan’s mosaic heritage in the lands of the Bible.


Author: Matthew Teller | Source: The Telegraph [January 11, 2011]