The Madaba Mosaic School was founded in 1992 to preserve and restore the ancient mosaics, found in so many places in Jordan, but especially on the Madaba Plateau. It was financed originally by a joint venture between the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. It is recognised by the High Council of Education in Jordan as a branch of vocational training.
Following the important discoveries made during the 80's, and after a number of disappointments over funding, the Franciscan Archaeological Institute of Mount Nebo and the authorities of Madaba established the following :
The "Archaeological Park" in Madaba. The Mosaic School is at the end of this street
An Archaeological Park that runs along the Roman road that crosses the city, which extends from the Church of the Sunna' Family, to the east of the Church of the Virgin and the Church of the Prophet Elias, up to and including the area to the west of the Burnt Palace and the Church of al-Khadir,
A museum complex that covers and puts on exhibition the mosaics in the Church of the Virgin and the Hippolytus Hall,
The Mosaic School for the restoration of antique mosaics which has been set up in refurbished existing buildings to the east of the area.
The aim of the school is to :
Students come from all backgrounds of Jordanian society both boys and girls, who finished the 10th grade with an average of 75% and above. They sit for a special entrance exam in art and general information and the 15 best students are selected. The course of study lasts for two years. On graduating, students are given a special certificate in the fields of mosaic education and restoration. Some of the graduates work on restoring the many mosaics found in the region, some of them work in tourism and some others concentrate on making original mosaics, either for direct sale or as gallery pieces. This has led to a considerable market in mosaic pieces in sale in Madaba, which are not to be found elsewhere in Jordan.
Since its foundation the school has restored numerous mosaic pavements found in the Archaeological Park, the Apostles Church, Khirbet el Mokhaiyat and the Burnt Palace. in cooperation with the Italian government not to mention its joined efforts with the min of tourism to conserve the newly discovered site of "Al Magdas".
The first year students learn how to make mosaics, and exercise in copying the details of well known ones.
All the mosaics are produced in the same way. It is impossible to do this work other than by hand, so do not be surprised when it is expensive to buy. The tesserae are chipped from a larger piece, and than painstakingly inserted into a pre-prepared drawing as you see on the left.
The basic technique has not changed for centuries. There is no way to do this by machinery, and all mosaics have to be made by hand.
When I visited the school, the first year students were engaged in a project for the Crypt of Elianos in the Archaeological Park premises. A small chapel had originally held a mosaic inscription of the donors but it had been lost over the years. Father Piccirillo of the Franciscan Institute at Madaba (who is the great authority on mosaics on the Middle East) had managed to find a nineteenth century photo on glass and the students had been asked to copy it to be placed in the setting of the original.
The design, or in this case the letters, are sketched out in pencil (you can just make them out on the photo above: if you enlarge it you can see them more clearly). The letters are filled in in black and the white background is added. In the centre photo below you have the cut tesserae waiting to be used, and on the left, a good part of the background is complete.
During the summer, the senior students often work on archaeological sites with experts from abroad. This gives them precious experience in practical work and in the new techniques that are utilised. For much the same reasons, the teachers also work at the "digs", and the summer is generally a very busy period for the school. The rest of the year, besides composing original mosaics, and often copying the old mosaics exhibited in various museums and sites, the students have a large store of lesser mosaics which have been found in various sites across Jordan.
Only the most important and the most precious mosaics are left in place. The others that are deemed worth it, are brought to Madaba to be treated. Several rooms in the Mosaic School have piles of them waiting, like the one above. The plaster that you see has been applied deliberately to protect the mosaic and to keep in place the tesserae that remain.
The condition of many of those brought in is worse than what you see. Tufts of grass and bits of soil cling to them, and the workers on archaeological sites have been told to leave this kind of cleaning to the school.
The mosaic that you see here was found beneath a house in Amman and brought here for restoration. it was first of all broken into several pieces to be worked on more easily. All the pieces that you see stored in the room are from this same mosaic.
The first step, before anything else is done, is to remove the original backing and replace it with a new one. This backing is based on the type of the original one as far as possible, but only when this has been done is it possible to do any meaningful work. Incidentally the glue used is also as far as possible a reconstitution of the original one: it is interesting that at Romans and Byzantine periods different types of glue were used.
When the mosaic is firmly based the work can begin on cleaning it, replacing lost tesserae and polishing the result. A large mosaic will be broken into pieces that can be handled easily and will be re-assembled at the end of the restoration.
Here you can see the different stages : the girls have done the worst of the cleaning, and are replacing the tesserae from the bowl beside them. The mosaic has been separated along the decorative pattern; if you enlarge the photo in the middle you can see better the difference between the part that has been worked on and the part that is still waiting for attention. On the right, the roughly restored mosaic is waiting on the table for more cleaning and polishing. The final touches will be given after this.
The young man is working with a hot stylus, removing particles of dirt and glue that have escaped until now. The stylus also polishes the tesserae.
Although it seems a long job to do, in fact a team of students can finish parts of this mosaic in a month. The heaps of work in waiting are not quite as hopeless as at first they appear to the casual visitor. When the restoration is completed, some of the mosaics are returned to the site where they were found; these are usually the more important ones in the more important sites. In most cases, the sites are not suitable for them; some are added to museums and some are used for the decoration of public buildings etc.
It does not look as if the School will run out of work any time soon. Various organisations carry out excavations every summer and the Jordanian government is slowly expropriating the non-built areas of Madaba : perhaps another Burnt Palace may be found ....
As said above, the Madaba Mosaic School can be found at the Archaeological Park in Madaba in the Hussein bin Ali Street. Please remember that it is a school and not a showroom. Casual visitors are not encouraged to wander about in the precincts.
contact details :
P.O Box 1140, Madaba, Jordan 17110. Telephone: +962.5.3240723
or +962.5.3248632 Fax: +962
As always I owe a debt to Matthew Teller, the writer of the Rough Guide, who went before me on so many of the paths I tread. The Rough Guide has helped me out on many occasions when I have forgotten (or not noted) an address or other vital information.
Thank you too to Catreena Hamarneh, the director of the school who allowed me to wander wherever I wished and who answered my questions with smiling patience.
And of course thank you to the pupils and teachers at the school who welcomed me into their classes and who agreed to be photographed at work.
The Mosaics of the Madaba Plateau
Index to the Handcrafts Section