Madaba’s Marvelous Mosaics

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Asia, Jordan, West

St George’s Church in Madaba, Jordan

Humans and art are inseparable. Thanks to the discoveries of cave paintings around the globe from France to Indonesia, dating back more than 40,000 years ago, we now have a better understanding that the urge for Homo sapiens to express what their senses perceive through drawings is very much in our DNA. Although we might never know the real reason for our ancestors to paint cavern walls with images of animals, over millennia the arts have evolved and branched out into a wide array of forms, from sculptures to architecture and mosaics. The latter, whose earliest known examples were created during the third millennium BC in Mesopotamia, were what drew me and James to the city of Madaba in Jordan.

Situated 30 kilometers to the southwest of Amman on the way to the Dead Sea, Madaba is a small city that receives a huge number of foreign visitors due to its historic sites, just like Jerash with its Roman ruins. Prior to the trip to Jordan I knew I had to include Madaba in the places I should visit in the country due to its mosaics, but little did I know that they would blow me away. On our third day in Amman, our driver who would take us to Madaba arrived on time – the punctuality of drivers here was one of the things I appreciated the most throughout our stay in Jordan. A few minutes later we were already navigating the busy streets of downtown Amman, taking a right turn near the Jordan Museum before heading onto the highway that connects the capital with the airport and cities in the south.

About half an hour after leaving Amman, we arrived at St George’s Church in the center of Madaba. In 1884, when the local Greek Orthodox population prepared this plot of land for their new church, they unearthed a piece of art that had long been forgotten. It would later be counted among the most important maps of the Holy Land ever produced, as it depicted Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Jericho and other biblical places as they appeared in 560 AD. What people can still see today of the Madaba Map represents only a fraction of its original size.

As James and I entered the church’s leafy grounds, we were met with large groups of tourists, probably on a pilgrimage around places in the Holy Land. The church was rather small, and to see that many people cramped into its nave with some of them talking really loudly was rather unpleasant. We waited, and ten minutes later the crowd had mostly dissipated, returning a sense of peace and tranquility to this place of worship. The Madaba Map sits right at the center of the nave, cordoned off by stanchions and a retractable belt barrier to avoid accidental damage to this ancient piece of art.

While it was fascinating to see an old map of places that are now scattered across countries and occupied territories that are often at odds with each other, another artwork stored in the crypt was equally, if not more, intriguing. A painting of a three-handed Virgin Mary carrying baby Jesus would certainly pique the interest of viewers. It is said that the tradition of this depiction of the Virgin Mary started in the eighth century AD when Emperor Leo III of the Byzantine Empire prohibited the veneration of icons. A writer known as John of Damascus criticized this decision through his writings in several publications, essentially attacking the emperor through words. Leo III then forged documents and sent them to the Damascus-based Umayyad caliph (probably Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik) accusing the writer of plotting an attack on the Muslim ruler. Unfortunately for John, the caliph bought the emperor’s story and ordered the writer’s hand to be cut off. Following this event, he fervently prayed in front of the icon of the Virgin, and miraculously his severed hand was restored. Grateful for this healing, he added a silver hand to this icon, and since then such a depiction of the Virgin Mary has been known as Tricherousa, or ‘Three-handed’.

Inside the Greek Orthodox church dedicated to St George

Biblical mosaics

The mosaic of the Holy Land, the main reason for visitors to come to this church

Depiction of a ship in the Dead Sea

The three-handed Virgin in the church’s crypt

Candles inside the church

We left the church, which by now was much calmer than when we first arrived, and walked a short distance to the Burnt Palace, a late sixth-century/early seventh-century residence of a local priest. When it was rediscovered in 1905, the mosaic tiles that once embellished the floor of the building were completely covered by a thick layer of ash and charcoal, pointing to a fire in the past that had destroyed the structure. Such mosaics were in fact the norm in ancient Madaba, a thriving urban center during the Byzantine period, which gave it the moniker the ‘Mosaic Capital of the Levant’. Only Antioch (near modern-day Antakya in Turkey) rivaled the quality and the quantity of the mosaics being produced here. Not many visitors were at the Burnt Palace when we wandered around the compact archaeological park, giving us plenty of space to contemplate the bucolic scenes portrayed on the tiles in faded colors. Looking up, I caught sight of the imposing minarets and yellow domes of King Hussein Mosque set against a cloudless blue sky.

Just a short walk down the street, lined with all sorts of souvenir shops spilling out onto the sidewalk, we came upon the entrance of the Madaba Archaeological Park (often dubbed Part I, for Part II in fact covers the Burnt Palace and its immediate surroundings). After having our Jordan Pass printouts stamped by an elderly man, off we went to explore this rather deserted place. Opened in 1990, Part I of the archaeological park houses Byzantine mosaics retrieved from churches around Madaba, arranged around a corridor that leads to a large roofed enclosure with metal stairs and a narrow pathway for visitors. I went up, followed the pathway and the most spectacular set of mosaic tiles suddenly appeared before my eyes.

A rectangular mosaic was laid out with the utmost precision beneath my feet. At the center lay a medallion with Greek inscriptions inside an Islamic octagonal star. Around it, a procession of circular, floral and crisscrossing patterns overlapped each other in an almost arabesque manner. At one end, a tabula ansata (a tablet or tablet-like shape with dovetail handles or edges) also bore a Greek inscription. These juxtaposed styles of art are apparently a result of the continuous use of the structure despite the region changing hands from the Byzantine Empire to a series of Islamic dynasties. I was, in fact, standing above what was once the floor of the Church of the Virgin Mary which was restored by the Muslim rulers of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, indicating a harmonious coexistence of followers of the two religions in Madaba at that time. The church was built upon the foundations of a sixth-century mansion, known today as the Hippolytus Hall, which itself was constructed atop a circular Roman temple.

At the end of the pathway, the incredibly well-preserved mosaics of the mansion came into view, depicting a number of animals and the protagonists of the Greek tragedy ‘Hippolytus’ by Euripides. Its titular character, the illegitimate son of the King of Athens, vows to live chastely and therefore revers Artemis instead of Aphrodite. This enrages the latter goddess, and she makes the man’s stepmother fall in love with him, which results in her committing suicide. The king in turn gets angry and curses his son with banishment and death, before Artemis eventually intervenes on the dying Hippolytus’ behalf. At the four corners of the mosaic panel are images of Tyche – the Greek goddess who governed the fortune and prosperity of a city – in different styles personifying the seasons. Meanwhile, at the top left of the panel, three depictions of the same goddess symbolize the three cities of Rome, Gregoria and Madaba. Scholars have different opinions about which Rome it refers to – the one in Italy or Constantinople, the center of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, even more bewildering is Gregoria as no one has been able to identify any city in that period with this name.

Strangely, the impressive mosaics of this archaeological park in Madaba only attracted a handful of visitors – less than a dozen, to be precise, during the 50 minutes we spent here. While the Madaba Map was certainly interesting, it was the mosaics of the Hippolytus Hall and the Church of the Virgin Mary right on top that became the highlight of our visit, something we didn’t expect at all as most references we had read prior to coming only gave these mosaics a brief mention compared to the extensive and elaborate descriptions of the mosaic map of the Holy Land. Astonished and satisfied, we walked back to St George’s Church to find our driver waiting across the street, where we began. Through the car window, I saw other groups of tourists flocking into the church. I was quietly hoping some of them would make their way to the Burnt Palace and the Church of Virgin Mary, for they would certainly be blown away by the magnificence of the mosaics there.

Entering the Burnt Palace complex with the King Hussein Mosque in the background

Vestiges of the Byzantine-era structure

Pastoral scenes in the East Wing of the Burnt Palace

Geometrical patterns in the West Wing

The entrance to the Madaba Archaeological Park (Part I)

The remnants of the eighth-century mosaics of the Church of the Acropolis of Ma’in, west of Madaba

The incredibly ornate mosaics of the Virgin Mary Church

Layers of mosaics at the Hippolytus Hall

A depiction of Euripides’ Hippolytus

Personifications of Rome, Gregoria and Madaba

Birds from the past

A hunting scene, part of the frame of the mosaic panel of the Hippolytus Hall

A personification of Winter, depicted as Tyche

An ancient Roman road within the archaeological complex

The mosaics from the Church at Massuh, north of Madaba

A  calm street of Madaba

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

39 thoughts on “Madaba’s Marvelous Mosaics”

    • They’re certainly among Jordan’s most invaluable cultural treasures. I don’t see that many mosaics in my life, so when I was in Madaba I was astonished.

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    • At least now if you get the chance to return to Madaba you know which parts of the old city to go. Madaba was a pleasant surprise for me as I didn’t really expect much prior to arriving in the city.

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    • That’s very kind of you. I can tolerate a lot of other tourists only when they’re respectful, and so far this only happened a few times, including in Japan, one of the most special places on the planet.

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    • Thank you, John and Susan! I’ve been thinking of that for the longest time. The only thing I’m lacking is time (especially that now I have a lot of house plants to take care of :)). I really should take a break from everything to be able to write a book.

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  1. So fascinating Bama. As far as I remember we did not go to the archaeological park or the burnt palace, though I have a vague memory of looking at other mosaics there so maybe we saw some of it. I’ve enjoyed seeing it through your eyes. And I do wish we’d had a guide to tell us about the map of the holy land as we stood and looked at it. It was only afterwards as I researched for my post about it that I came to understand how remarkable it is.
    Alison

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    • At the time of my visit, there was an explanation of the map just outside the church. It doesn’t provide much information, though, but at least it has the English names of all the places mentioned in the map. The archaeological park really blew my mind away. The highly intricate mosaics there were just incredibly well-preserved.

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  2. The creation of these complex mosaics, with all the tiny pieces, must have been a most painstaking process! I wonder how long it took. Thanks to you and James for searching out these lesser known treasures!

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    • The same goes with those intricate carvings at ancient temples across the world — it must have taken years to complete a single work. It’s amazing how people who lived hundreds, even thousands years ago dedicated their time to craft such beautiful artwork. But then, in the past they didn’t have social media or Netflix to constantly distract them. Thanks Marilyn!

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  3. I’m a (very very lapsed) Catholic, but I’m more than ready to admit that the Christian Orthodox have by far most beautiful churches, holy functions and choirs, closer to that spirit of the early days. Stepping in a Georgian church at Mass was an experience.
    Fabrizio

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    • So far I’ve only been to the Christian Orthodox churches in Istanbul and the Middle East, and I really hope to be able to see the ones in Russia and Ukraine. Speaking of church, my next post will be about this unique Javanese church that I visited in August this year. I’ve never seen a church like that before — you might find it interesting as well.

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  4. I must admit, I have a great fascination for maps of all kinds and I’m sure Mike would have to drag me out of St. George’s Church when (not if) we make it to Jordan. I also love the story of the 3-handed Virgin. The mosaics are fabulous, especially the birds and hunting scenes. Thanks once again Bama for introducing me to these treasures.

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    • Oh you would certainly enjoy Madaba then. Make sure to walk around its quiet streets and visit both archaeological parks to truly appreciate those impressive mosaics. And maybe get a souvenir of the map of the Holy Land as well. Hope you’ll make it to Jordan one day in the future!

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  5. Those mosaics are pretty awesome and deserve to be seen in person, though your photos do a great job of sharing the experience. Jordan and the Middle East are so packed with history and great places to see that spots like Madaba aren’t always on people’s radars.

    Since the airport is nearly halfway between Madaba and Amman, we went straight to Madaba. It was our first Middle Eastern city to visit so reading your post brought back fond memories.

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    • Did you go to Mount Nebo as well? Our taxi driver offered to take us there as well, but we decided to focus on Madaba instead. The small city must be very lively during Orthodox Christian festivities.

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  6. Bama I feel as though I really missed out here in Madaba. We only went to the church and can’t believe so much more was to be seen. I think this is one of the dangers of doing a cycling trip and trying to squeeze in the cultural sites as well. Happy to have read your post and will certainly recommend it to folks heading to Jordan.

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    • Most of us don’t have that much time when we travel to a new place. Some people choose to take guided tours for time efficiency, others prefer to focus on one place, and that’s fine. I guess we will never be able to cover everything, unless we have the time and money, of course. At least for people like us we have our blogs as a platform to share with others.

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