The ancient and the modern, Madaba

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, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

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.

Mosque, Madaba, Jordan

Mosque, Madaba, Jordan

Market in Madaba, Jordan

Market in Madaba, Jordan

Market in Madaba, Jordan

Market in Madaba, Jordan

Market in Madaba, Jordan

Market in Madaba, Jordan

Market in Madaba, Jordan

Market in Madaba, Jordan

Bed shop next to the wedding shop? Madaba, Jordan

Bed shop next to the wedding shop? Madaba, 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.

Market in Madaba, Jordan

Market in Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

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.

Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

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.

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaics, Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Virgin Mary, Madaba, Jordan

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.

Madaba, City of Mosaics

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.

St. George's Church, Madaba, Jordan

St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan

St. George's Church, Madaba, Jordan

St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaic Map, St. George's Church, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaic Map, St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan

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.

St. George's Church, Madaba, Jordan

St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan

St. George's Church, Madaba, Jordan

St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan

St. George's Church, Madaba, Jordan

St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan

St. George's Church, Madaba, Jordan

St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan

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.

Mosaic Map, St. George's Church, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaic Map, St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaic Map, St. George's Church, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaic Map, St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaic Map, St. George's Church, Madaba, Jordan

Mosaic Map, St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan

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.

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, JordanMadaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

Madaba, Jordan

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.

Church of the Holy Martyrs, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Holy Martyrs, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Holy Martyrs, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Holy Martyrs, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Holy Martyrs, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Holy Martyrs, Madaba, Jordan

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.

Church of the Holy Martyrs, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Holy Martyrs, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Holy Martyrs, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Holy Martyrs, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Holy Martyrs, Madaba, Jordan

Church of the Holy Martyrs, Madaba, Jordan

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.