The amiable market town of Madaba is best known for a collection of Byzantine-era mosaics. The most famous of these is the map on the floor of St George’s Church, but there are many others in different parts of the town, several of them even more complete and vibrantly colourful.
The trip south from Amman along the 5000-year-old Kings’ Highway is one of the most memorable journeys in the Holy Land, passing through a string of ancient sites. The first city you come upon is Madaba, “The City of Mosaics”.
Madaba’s chief attraction – in the contemporary Greek Orthodox church of St. George – is a wonderfully vivid, 6th-century Byzantine mosaic map showing the entire region from Jordan and Palestine in the north, to Egypt in the south.
This map includes a fascinating plan of Jerusalem: on the left is the north gate from which two colonnaded streets run south. On the straight street through the heart of the city stands the domed Holy Sepulcher. Clearly inscribed above the north and east gates is the legend “Holy City of Jerusalem”.
Other mosaic masterpieces found in the church of the Virgin and the Apostles and the Archaeological Museum, depict a rampant profusion of flowers and plants, birds and fish, animals and exotic beasts, as well as scenes from mythology and everyday pursuits of hunting, fishing and farming. Literally, hundreds of other mosaics from the 5th through the 7th centuries are scattered throughout Madaba’s churches and homes.
Madaba has a long history, dating back further than 1300 BC. It was first mentioned in the Bible as Medeba at the time of the Exodus (Numbers: 21,30; Joshua 13:9), it was then an Amorite town close to the Moab border, and it changed hands frequently. It was named in the famous Mesha Stele, or Moabite Stone (exhibited in Jordan Archaeological Museum), which recorded the achievements of Mesha, King of Moab in the mid-9th century BC – one of which was to regain Madaba from the Israelites.
The Nabataeans governed the city during the 1st century AD. And in the Hellenistic period, under the Romans, it was a flourishing provincial town with temples and colonnaded streets and surrounded by a strong wall. Under the Byzantines, Madaba became the seat of a bishopric, and in 451 AD, its bishop attended the Council of Chalcedon. During this period, and particularly in the 6th century, mosaics were lavished on churches and public and private buildings.
Madaba was sacked by the Persians in 614, and its ruin was completed by the earthquake of 747. It stood abandoned for over 1000 years until, around 1880, a group of about 2000 Christians from Al-Karak settled here. It was they, in the process of rebuilding, who found the mosaics buried under the rubble.
Madaba museum has many mosaics that were originally on the site. Also, mosaics from other locations have been housed in the museum to ensure their preservation. A collection of Byzantine churches as well as ancient Roman remnants and mosaics, make up this spectacular museum which is located near the Mosaics School.