Sunday, September 26, 2010



I covered a lot of Jordan on those two visits, always by car and usually accompanied by a never ending repertoire of foot tapping Arab music.  The locals seemed determined to show me every last inch of their country and I was only too happy to tag along.

The Roman ruins of Jerash, the Golan Heights in the far north and the Qasr Amra hunting lodge in the desert some 60 kilometres west of Amman just off the road to Iraq all came very close to ousting Petra in my popularity stakes. It seemed every tiny corner of Jordan held tantalizing treasures just waiting for the avid traveller to find.


On the 5000 year old Kings Highway from Jordan’s capital Amman to Wadi Musa and beyond to Aqaba on the gulf, is the town of Madaba, the ‘City of Mosaics’.

At first glimpse Madaba appears no different to any other East Bank town, but underneath almost every house lays an amazing Byzantine mosaic.   Many have been excavated and placed in museums, some can still be found in courtyards and private homes, and more have yet to be uncovered. 

But amazing as the householders floors are, you will find the town’s chief attraction inside the contemporary 19th century Greek Orthodox Church of St George.  When I first visited Madaba I had no idea of its history; I was there to look at Bedouin carpets.  The dealer was a friend of my driver and it was he who told me I should visit the church just a few doors from his shop. 

 Churches and temples aren’t high on my must see list but he insisted I go.   So off I trotted.  A curator was about to close the doors, a tour bus had just departed, but he asked me in and showed me around.

Inside the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George
Inside was a typical Greek church, ornate and colourful and surprising to find in a Jordanian town. The main attraction though was not the religious icon covered walls depicting Jesus and Mary, nor the ornate lights hanging from the ceiling amidst the heavy aroma of Christian incense. 

In the past you and I would have walked right across and over its most precious asset,  a masterpiece of design; today it is roped off to the visiting public.  This greatest treasure lay clearly visible on the floor of the church; a 6th century mosaic map, rich in colour and crammed with minute detail representing the world as the people of that time knew it.
Plan of Jerusalem in the Mosaic Map of Madaba
The mosaic map was designed around 570 AD to decorate the floor of a Byzantine church in Madaba.  In 1896 the present Church of St. George was built over the remains of the original church.

Only part of the map has survived; originally it measured a staggering 25 x 5 meters and comprised more than 2 million pieces of coloured stone tesserae.  The map showed the entire region from Jordan to Palestine in the north and to Egypt in the south.  In picture form it included plains, hills, valleys, villages, towns and cities with city walls and even partially built houses, palm trees and fish swimming through the Nile River. 

Jerusalem was placed at the centre of the map showing the domed Holy Sepulchre; and clearly inscribed above the north and east gate 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 private homes and in the nearby revered Mount Nebo where a church had been built over Moses believed burial site.

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; it changed hands frequently. It was named in the famous Mesha Stele, or Moabite Stone 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 Kerak settled there. It was they, in the process of rebuilding, who found the mosaics buried under the rubble.


I returned to Madaba the next day to collect my carpets and enjoy a chat with the shops proprietor. I told him he had taught me a lesson and never again would I pass by a church. His daughter was to be married the next day and I was invited to attend.  My itinerary though could not be changed.

As I was leaving he brought out a beautiful hand embroidered woollen jacket.  The price was right but I couldn’t imagine myself wearing it in hot steamy Brisbane and so I let it pass.  Something I would regret in the years to come.

Before I left though the shop owner took some photos on both my camera and on his, of me modelling the jacket; the resulting snaps were for a change very flattering.

You can understand how surprised I was when on returning to Jordan the next year my driver made a point of taking me back to the carpet sellers shop.  Apparently my image enlarged from that small snap had been sitting in pride of place in his shop window all that time advertising the coat of many colours.