Published on December 14th, 2012 | by Charu Suri3
An Encounter with the Oldest Christian Map in the World: Jordan’s Madaba, the “City of Mosaics”
“This is the site of the oldest map of the Holy Land,” our guide notes.
As part of a group of writers visiting Jordan, I did not need to hear any more but was prepared to dash inside the church and see the thing, face to face. I had already been impressed with Jerash, and had seen a smattering of Amman’s gorgeous limestone studded streets. But Madaba would be the place where we’d get the mosaic perspective and an insight into the length and breadth of the Christian world, and part of me wanted to know what the art buzz was about.
With a population of 60,000 (about half the size of Charleston, SC), Madaba by no means is large, especially compared to sprawling Amman (which has around 2.8 million people in the Greater Amman area, and expected to grow). Yes, it’s is one of those sleepy little towns you’re likely to pass by.
But like many sleepy little towns (Salem in Massachusetts comes to mind), it has a beautiful secret, and in the form of a mosaic map of Byzantine-era Holy Land. This is the oldest Christian Map in the world is well-worn but still preserved, despite the hundreds of shuffling feet that pay homage to it daily. Known worldwide for its Byzantine and Umayyud dynasty mosaics, Madaba is one of those towns I’d eventually resist visiting but fall in love with, with a well of history buried deep with its cobblestone streets and tiny Greek Orthodox church.
The tiny but cozy St. George’s Greek Orthodox church as we know it, was rebuilt over the map following its discovery, and features several paintings of Saint George slaying the dragon. The original floor was around 6 by 20 meters: what remains of the map is but a sliver. “Cities, towns, castles and Biblical sites are on the map,” says Amer Nizami, our guide. The map highlights some of the salient Christian areas in the Moabite Kingdom, including Bethenny Beyond the Jordan (Jesus’ baptism site) as well as Virgin Mary’s church, Elijah’s church, Mount Nebo and the route of the Exodus (Moses left through Sinai to get to the promised land, Canaan, across the River Jordan).
Since it is not built to scale, the Christian Kingdom looks tinier than what you’d expect. The Map of Madaba was discovered purely by chance, in 1896, and soon thereafter the town became known as the “City of Mosaics” in Jordan. It is rich in its information and color coded with nearly two million pieces of colored stones. You’ll see the earliest known map of Jerusalem, which is called the “Holy City” on this map, including clear details of the key city landmarks including the central colonnaded street or “Cardo” and the Holy Sepulchre.
Located so close to Amman (around 30 km, or a half hour drive on the 5,000 Kings’ Highway), Madaba has religious significance: it is twice cited in the Bible (Numbers 21:30, which mentions it as Medeba at the time of Exodus or around 1400 BC, and Joshua 13:9). Both Madaba and Mount Nebo were part of the territory of Moab, and the map as we see it was completed only in 542 AD. Not built to scale, the map omits a few key Jordanian landmarks, including the Red Sea, Mt. Sinai and Petra.
The mosaics, despite their age, were vivid and jam packed with information and figures of creatures. The expanse of the Holy Land, which is showcased as an index of the conquests as of 542 AD in this map, took my breath away. I was expecting a tattered map with a few compass points, and instead I was met with a rich visual of how far the Christian Kingdom extended.
Scenes from inside St. George Greek Orthodox Church
A man sells woven tapestries in the town
A wall of mosaics inside the church
The St. George church itself is something of a small gem, with gold chandeliers, a small but intricate altar, and tons of mosaics on all walls filled with Biblical scenes.
In the early 1990s, after careful restoration and excavation of mosaics, the Archaeological Park was created to house some of the mosaics from the Madaba area. It features the mosaics of other Byzantine churches, including those from the Church of the Virgin (the first to be discovered in Madaba) and Hippolytus Hall.
One part Museum, one part small town with charm, Madaba is well worth the stop from Amman, if only to appreciate the blend of art and religion. Almost every house boasts of a fine Byzantine mosaic beneath, and some are just waiting to be discovered. Side note: the town is also a great place to purchase inexpensive rugs.
In this sense it’s a bit like paying a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or opening your Art History book. After all, how many homes can boast of mosaics buried below the ground?