Madaba gave me a fresh view of both the history of this region and how, even in the current climate of instability and war, it’s possible to build a Middle Eastern society that is tolerant, where people of different faiths can live side-by-side. It’s in part a thoroughly modern city and in part a throwback to an era when the Byzantine Empire dominated this region.
Madaba brings Jordan’s peculiar problems into focus – a quiet country in a noisy neighbourhood, peaceful coexistence undermined by events elsewhere. At least that’s how it felt when I was walking the streets. Stand still for too long and someone will come along to find out how they can help you. Jordan’s that sort of country, Madaba’s that sort of town.
There’s an alternate story of course: per capita more Jordanians are fighting for ISIS than any other nation on the planet. There have been pro-ISIS rallies in towns such as Ma’an, a stones throw away from Petra. This bodes ill for the future should the region becomes more unstable. My experience in Madaba tells me we must do everything we can to stop that happening, including by tourists continuing to visit Jordan.
Thankfully Madaba is itself one of the best reasons for going to Jordan. I enjoyed my time here so much I stayed an extra night. It wasn’t a difficult decision, the town has one of the best restaurants in Jordan with a menu that would take a month to do justice to. I sampled as much as I could in two days, including some decent Jordanian wines.
When I wasn’t stuffing my face I was pounding the streets trying to work off the calories and visiting the many sights, historic and otherwise. There are so many ancient Byzantine houses and churches that only a few have been excavated, even then it’s enough to keep you busy. Given how many other attractions there are in the surrounding area Madaba could easily be a base for several days of sightseeing.
The Church of the Virgin Mary was high on my list of things to see, its mosaics famous across the world, and for the fact that it incorporates the old Roman temple, giving it a unique circular shape. It’s also remarkable for having the original Roman road running alongside the church – it was on ancient Madaba’s main thoroughfare.
The mosaics are spectacular examples of both Byzantine and Ummayad craftsmanship. They include three cities – Rome, Gregoria and Madaba – represented as the goddess Tyche. Other mosaics show people, biblical characters, angels, animals, plants and geometric shapes. Yet again, I had the place to myself.
The central, circular mosaic in the nave contains a greek inscription: “If you want to look at Mary, virgin Mother of God, and to Christ whom she gave birth to, Universal King, only Son of the only God, purify your mind, flesh and works. May you purify with your prayer the people of God.” Quite an undertaking.
On my way to my next Byzantine delight, the Church of the Apostles, I wandered through the market area of Madaba, which was busy with shoppers and full of colour and noise. The Church of the Apostles was only discovered in 1902, less interesting than the Church of the Virgin Mary it has some exquisite mosaics. The informative curator took my camera and photographed them for me.
I found my way to the Church of the Beheading of John the Baptist, notable for two things: 360º views over the city from the bell tower; and the most pleasant curator I’ve ever met. Since I was his first visitor of the day he talked me through the historic photos of Madaba when it was rediscovered in the late 19th Century. He even took me to the Byzantine era well and demonstrated it by pulling a fresh bucket of water.
This was the spirit of Madaba in a nutshell. People going out of their way to help.