The Mosaics of the Madaba Plateau of
The beautiful "Swan" Mosaic in the Mosaic Museum in Madaba
Most of the mosaics of Transjordan date from between the 1st century and the eighth century AD. Mosaics were used in many buildings to decorate walls, floors or ceilings, employing motifs mostly from everyday life : harvesting, hunting, fishing or just pastoral or mythological themes. Church mosaics often depicted stories from the Bible.
Sadly, with the decree of the Emperor Leo in AD726, forbidding the use of people and animals in "images" ("God is the only creator") most of these mosaics were badly defaced. Those which survive today more or less intact, are almost always the mosaics which had been hidden by a later mosaic built above them. Otherwise all too often we see a mosaic with pastoral scenes or vignettes, but with the people hammered out. This is just as frustrating as you might imagine: a beautiful scene, and a big hole in the middle!
This decree applied chiefly to churches, and the majority of the mosaics we can see today were found in Byzantine churches. Archaeologists digging in the ruins of churches in Jordan are accustomed to finding thousands of multicoloured glass tiles, which shows the extent of the mosaic decorations of the period. Ceilings and floors covered in brightly coloured pictures - they must have been beautiful!
In Madaba the best known mosaic is the map of the Holy Land to be seen in the Church of St George. The great majority of visitors stop here for half an hour or so and nowhere else in Madaba, which is a pity. The central part of the map focuses on the City of Jerusalem.
The mosaic Map of Madaba was discovered in 1896 and was immediately recognised as an outstanding discovery. It was published a year later. This discovery drew upon the city the attention of scholars worldwide. It also positively influenced the inhabitants who shared the contagious passion of Brother Giuseppe Manfredi to whose efforts we owe the discovery of most of the mosaics in the city.
What you see there today is just a remnant of the original mosaic which measured over 16m long by 6m wide and which depicted most of the present day Near East from Lebanon to the Nile Delta and from the Mediterranean to the eastern desert of Jordan. It dates from the sixth century and besides decorating the church was probably intended to help pilgrims making their way from one holy site to another. St George's Church is, of course, a modern church, and the original Byzantine building was much larger. This mosaic must have taken years to make.
It is most interesting that following the depiction on this map of the "Baptism Site of Christ" excavations were undertaken and the site of Bethany was uncovered, exactly on the site shown on the map!
Here you can see a detail of the River Jordan, with what is possibly a bridge or at least a crossing point between the two banks. A detail often remarked on is the fish, which arriving close to the Dead Sea turn and swim back again - no fish are shown swimming in the Dead Sea which at that time was just as salty and unsuitable for fish as it is today.
Notice too that just north of the bridge, the (presumably) hunters have been erased by the iconoclasts. No attempt has been made to restore them, since we have no idea what they actually looked like. A mixture of mosaic tiles has been put in place.
There is a most interesting website about the mosaic map, largely based on the work of Father Michele Piccirillo of the Franciscan Institute at Mount Nebo. You can find it at http://184.108.40.206/www1/ofm/mad/ and it gives a full list of the places shown in the map, with their modern and ancient names and their locations - some of which are not entirely confirmed. Anybody interested in this map should certainly study the website. Father Piccirillo is the recognised authority on mosaics in Jordan and in the Middle East.
Madaba is one of the oldest towns still existing that was mentioned in the Bible (Joshua 13 v9) as being part of the territory parcelled out by Moses to the Reubenites and the Gadites : "From Aroer, that is upon the bank of the river Arnon, and the city that is in the midst of the river and all the plain of Medeba unto Dibon". The land was taken from the Moabites, as is said in Numbers 21 v30 : "Heshbon is perished, even unto Dibon and we have laid them waste even unto Nopha, which reacheth unto Medeba". This is indeed going a very long way back.
Dibon, incidentally, also still exists. Under the name of Dhiban it is the last town before Wadi Mujib (Nahal Arnon in Hebrew) when you go south on the Kings' Highway. There are numerous ruins and an important tell; it is here that the Mesha Stele was found in 1868. The stele recounts the rule of the "King Mesha" around 850BC and is now in the Louvre, but copies of it are displayed in museums all over Jordan, and you will find many references to it in histories of Jordan. See the webpage "The Mesha stele".
Madaba was an important town at the beginning of the Christian era, and had its own bishop. Imposing churches were built there, including the Cathedral, the Church of the Apostles, the Church of the Virgin and the Church of St Elianos as well as St George's (the famous "Church of the Map"). All of these churches were copiously decorated with mosaics, the finest dating from the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Because of the iconoclasts, few remain and many of those in poor condition. However, a number of mosaics have been moved to Madaba to the Museum there from other sites on the Madaba Plateau : the mosaic from the baths of Herod's citadel at Mukawir dates from the 1st century AD.
The Church of the Apostles in Madaba is a little bit away from the Old Town and the Mosaic Museum (or Archaeological Park). A special shelter has been built to protect the floor which has a gorgeous mosaic in the centre, showing a collection of "dancing pigeons" which I find very attractive. I didn't see one couple of pigeons identical to another.
Here are two details of the work here : the beautiful medallion in the centre of the floor shows a personification of the Sea. Notice the rudder held in the left hand. I am voluntarily showing copies made at the Mosaics School rather than the original which is both very difficult to take in photo and very very dusty as you can see from the photo of the floor above. The colours show here much better and it is easier to appreciate the beauty of the work.
Mosaics, incidentally, could be useful as well as ornamental. In the Archaeological Park you can see the mosaic shown below at the entrance to one of the houses. It indicated that shoes should be removed! Note the outline of a sandal above the round bit, which you can see better on the larger scaled photo .
Shortly after the establishment of the Caliphate, Madaba was abandoned and its ruins were untouched for centuries. At the end of the nineteenth century, some Christian families in Kerak decided to move away from there, following trouble with their Moslem neighbours. They settled in Madaba, took over the lands and began to cultivate them and to construct their own houses and places of worship. The Islamic authorities allowed them to do so, but on condition that the Christian churches should only be built on the sites previously occupied by the Byzantine churches. This led to a general exploration of the town ruins, and the clearance of many buried churches. You will find many "modern" buildings on the ancient sites - in Madaba do not judge the age of a house or any building by its exterior!
Incidentally, Charl al Twal of the Mariam Hotel is a descendant of one of the first of these Christian families to move to Madaba and is happy to describe some of the experiences of these early settlers.
The clearance and rebuilding are still going on : new finds are regularly made in the town.
Hippolytus Hall was a rich Byzantine mansion, and the mosaic found there in 1982 beneath the present day Church of the Virgin is one of the treasures of Madaba.
|The important mosaic at
"Hippolytus Hall", a private villa dating from
The left and right hand photos show details, while the central photo shows the complete mosaic,
The mosaic depicts the legend of Phaedra and Hippolytus as dramatized by Euripides. On the right Aphrodite is seated beside Adonis, and is threatening with her slipper one of the Cupids presented to her by the Three Graces. On the left, a servant is carrying a basket of fruit and a dead partridge. One of the Cupids has his head in a beehive, a reference to a love poem by Theocrites.
Mount Nebo usually means the Moses Memorial Church and the viewpoint from outside it (see "Photos of Jordan - Mount Nebo"). The church is a simple one nowadays, but in the sixth century it was the church for a important monastery with all that this implies. In particular, the floor was covered with mosaics of different periods.
The mosaic shown above dates from 597AD when the church was rebuilt and greatly enlarged. Again the left and right hand photos are details of the central one. Today it is displayed on the wall.
The mosaic on the left was discovered when the 597AD was removed for cleaning. A perfectly beautiful mosaic, dating from 531AD it shows four panels of scenes of hunting and husbandry.
The animals are beautifully depicted, and notice (in the enlargement) the peasant sitting under a tree while his charges graze.
The animal at the bottom is a bit weird, something of a mixture of a zebra and perhaps a giraffe? Presumably the artist had seen neither.
(See also the page in the Sites of Jordan section)
This village just off the road from Madaba to Mount Nebo is mostly neglected by tourists, but it contains one of the most beautiful mosaics discovered in Jordan, almost perfectly preserved. A shelter has been built to protect it in the ruins of the church of St Lot and St Procopius. It is pity that no public transport goes to Khirbet al Mukhayyat.
Again I show two details of the complete mosaic and with them you can better appreciate how impressive the mosaic is.
mosaics have been found there but are not on general display - see the page on
the Madaba Plateau.
Um Al Rasas
The ruins of Um Al Rasas lie 30 km south-east of Madaba on the edge of the steppe and the town halfway between Dhiban on the Kings' Highway and the Desert Road. The ruins consist of a walled area forming a fortified camp and an open quarter of roughly the same size to the north. the remains of a tower can be seen to the north of the fort, beside ruins of some edifices, stone quarries and water cisterns hewn in the rock.
Um Al Rasas (pronounced "Um Ar Rasas and often spelt this way) has been identified as the site of a Roman garrison town called Kastron Mefaa, which subsequently became a prosperous city during the Byzantine/Omayed period. A very important mosaic was discovered in the Church of St Stephen there, which dates to 785AD or well after the Moslem religion was established in the Middle East. The mosaic depicts beautiful scenes of hunting, agricultural and pastoral life surrounded by a geographical border showing cities of Jordan, Palestine and of Egypt. Sadly much of the centre of the mosaic was destroyed during the iconoclastic period, but the cities remain. A building in the ruins of the church shelters this mosaic which is still in its original place.
The famous mosaic and its place in the church before the shelter that you can see above was built. On the right you can see the mosaic that is reproduced in the panel below.
The major interest of the mosaic floor in the church of Saint Stephen lies in the frame depicting cities of Palestine, of Jordan and of Egypt. In the north row can be identified : Jerusalem, Neapolis (Nablus) showing the church of the Theotokos on Mount Garizim, Sebastis (Sebastia), Caesarea on the sea, Diospolis (Lidda), Eleutheropolis (Beit Gibrin), Askalon and Gaza. In the south row a series of seven Jordanian cities is shown starting with the double plan of Kastron Mefaa-Umm er-Rasas, followed by Philadelphia (Amman), Madaba, Esbounta (Hesban), Belemounta (Ma'in), Areopolis (Rabba) and CharachMouba (el-Kerak). Two additional Jordanian cities, Limbon and Diblaton are portrayed, one at the head of each aisle, associated with portraits of benefactors and inscriptions. There is a mention of the monastery of Mount Nebo which gave an offering for the church. The inner frame, which depicts a river with fish, birds, and water flowers, as well as boats and boys fishing or hunting, also portrays a series of ten cities in the Nile Delta : Alexandria, Kasin, Thenesos, Tamiathis, Panau, Pilousin, Antinau, Eraklion, Kynopolis and Pseudostomon.
The names of the "sponsors" of this mosaic are given, and seem to be semitic, probably local.
Um al Rasas is not easy to reach by public transport. There are a few buses from Madaba, the ruins of the church and the mosaic are a little way from the village. A dirt track leads there, it is fairly easy to find.
The Rough Guide to Jordan, which with the second edition is becoming something of an encyclopedia on Jordan, gives a very good description of the mosaics of the Madaba Plateau and "guides you" through a visit to the main mosaics in the town. The writer obviously researched this thoroughly, and I have taken advantage of some of his knowledge in writing this page.
Madaba : Cultural Heritage. Published by the American Centre of Oriental Research in Amman this highly detailed book offers a survey and a history of all the principal buildings, with first hand accounts of the life there in the 1920's 1930's and 1940's.
Michele Piccirillo : the Mosaics of Jordan. A description of every mosaic to have been uncovered in Jordan with detailed photos. This is also published by the ACOR, but is a very expensive book as you would imagine. Father Piccirillo of the Franciscan Archaeological Institute of Mount Nebo is the reigning authority on mosaics in Jordan.
Some websites dealing with the subject (this is absolutely not an exhaustive list!)
The Franciscan Archaeological Institute at Mount Nebo (P.O.Box 2 Faysaliyah - 17196 Madaba - JORDAN email email@example.com) was responsible for the excavations at Um Al Rasas in 1986 and most of the excavations in Madaba. Their website is at http://220.127.116.11/www1/ofm/fai/FAIrasas.html (www.christusrex.org/www1/ofm/fai/FAI.htm seems to have gone off line).
http://www.traveladventures.org/continents/asia/archaeologicalpark.shtml has some very good photos of the mosaics in Madaba and at the Archaeological Park there.
There is also a site devoted to mosaics at http://mosaik.wordpress.com which is a general site on mosaics world wide.
Sites of Jordan - Madaba, Mount Nebo and the Madaba Plateau - Photo Gallery - Madaba Plateau
Madaba Mosaic School - home
Return to the History page