If you like mosaics I dare say you’ll enjoy this blog. Madaba is a town of mosaics, the most famous of which is the startling map on the floor of St. George’s Church. The town has numerous Byzantine-era churches dating from the 5th or 6th Centuries, that have slowly been unearthed by excavations to reveal something of their former glory.
Madaba’s mosaic map is world renowned, and with good reason. The map dates from the 6th Century and is the oldest surviving map of the Holy Land. In total it depicts 157 of the most important Biblical sites from Egypt to Lebanon, including the Nea Church and Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The mosaic once contained over two million separate pieces of tile, although I don’t know who counted.
The mosaic map was only discovered in 1896, when a new Greek Orthodox Church was being constructed on the ruins of the earlier Byzantine Church. This hides an extraordinary fact: Madaba, a once great city, had been abandoned for over a thousand years after a devastating earthquake in 746AD; its ancient buildings – Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic – buried under rubble until being rediscovered in the late 1800s.
It was only when ninety Arab Christian families arrived in the late 19th Century following a wave of anti-Christian protests in Karak, that Madaba’s glorious past resurfaced. More mosaics and ancient buildings were uncovered as the new settlers cleared the rubble and dug foundations for their houses.
Within a year, news of the discovery reached Europe causing something akin to a frenzy of academic and public interest, and prompting a wave of early tourism. Madaba had gone from a pile of rubble to an international sensation almost overnight, its place in history cemented for eternity – or until the next earthquake.
It’s remarkable that this wealth of history was lost for so long, but this seems quite common in Jordan. In the church that houses the Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist – well worth a visit – there is a small room filled with photos of Madaba from around that time. A few houses nestle amidst ruins that sit inauspiciously on a small hill in a vast landscape. Unrecognisable today.
Madaba doesn’t conform to our stereotyped image of the Middle East. A third of its population is Christian, tolerance is a watchword of the city, and alcohol can be bought in shops. It’s a busy market town but pretty laid back – unless you happen to be driving through it at rush hour – and has a restaurant, the Haret Jdoudna, to rival any in the country.
I was only going to spend a half day looking around the Byzantine churches and their famous floors, but the atmosphere of the town was so enjoyable I decided to spend a couple of nights. It also meant I could explore the town more leisurely on foot, and spend a bit more time visiting the many Byzantine sights.
Leaving St. George’s Church behind, I walked around the streets trying to find the enigmatically named Burnt Palace. A luxurious Byzantine residence that must have been owned by someone of great wealth, the Burnt Palace has its own mosaic floor. Sadly there is little but foundations left of the rest of the building.
The Burnt Palace gets its name from the fact that when the mosaic was discovered it was covered in black ash from a fire. It sits next to the Church of the Holy Martyrs which has a wonderful mosaic floor covered in a profusion of people, deities, plants and wildlife, including camels and wild beasts. The mosaics feel a bit unloved and could do with some cleaning and maintenance, but at least there’s good information on them.