Madaba is one of Jordan’s most important Christian sites and the home of the “Geographical Madaba Mosaic Map on Syria, Palestine and Egypt.”
The Map, made from thousands of carved tessarea (small mosaic squares), is better known simply as the Madaba Map and is one of Jordan’s most exquisite Christian treasures representing a period of Byzantine influence in the region. According to writer and member of the 1965 Madaba Map restoration team, Herbert Donner, it was created in the sixth century, most probably during the reign of Emperor Justinian (527-565 C.E.). The late Israeli archaeologist, Professor Michael Avi Yonah was more precise, dating it to (565-560 C.E.).
Madaba has a long history dating to the Early Bronze Age (c 3100 B.C.E.) and is mentioned a number of times in the Old Testament where it was known as Medeba. For example a passage in Numbers 21:30, which discusses the Israelite conquest of Amorite cities, ends with these poetic lines:
“But now their descendants are destroyed,
All the way from Heshbon to Dibon,
From Nashim to Nophah, near Medeba.”
Roman Province of Arabia
In 106 C.E. Madaba became part of the growing Roman province of Arabia and developed much like other small provincial towns in the region. Over the following century, Christianity became an important part of many people’s lives in Madaba, however the subsequent well-documented persecution of Christians by Roman emperor Diocletian (284-305 C.E.) forced many to flee.
By the early fourth century the Roman Empire had split in two with the eastern provinces becoming the Byzantine Empire. During the Byzantine period, Madaba was one of four cities: Heshbon, Philadelphia (modern Amman) and Jerash, which became part of the province of Palaestina.
The Madaba Map, which lay unseen for many years, was ‘re-discovered’ in 1880 although it was some years later that its significance was understood. What now remains of the Map covers the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, which was built in 1896 over a much earlier Byzantine church. The Map originally depicted an area extending from the Egyptian delta in the south to the Levantine coast (modern Lebanon) to the north. It included the Jordan River and its course to the Dead Sea. Sadly because the architect failed to appreciate the value of the Map, much of it was destroyed during the construction of the new church.
Herbert Donner argues that the Madaba Map is not just a collection of pretty pictures with inscriptions to illustrate the Holy Bible; it is in fact a real geographical and topographical map. He says it is, “Cartographically correct to a considerable degree and is not only the oldest but also the most exact map of Palestine before modern cartography…”
The fact that the map has Jerusalem at its centre, a point picked up by historian Aharon Yaffe, has fueled considerable debate among scholars. Yaffe said, “When Christianity was adopted as the religion of the Byzantine Empire, the ecclesiastical division of the government was adapted to suit its administrative division.” In essence this meant that each division had its own bishop and archbishop who in turn had allegiance to either the Patriarch of Jerusalem or the Patriarch of Antioch (modern Turkey).
The authorities in Antioch therefore dominated Madaba’s affairs and for their mosaic map to show Jerusalem at the centre was surprising. Yaffe said it was “amazing that the church maintained such a close relationship with Eretz Israel and Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem’s importance to the mapmakers has allowed modern historians a greater understanding of the layout of the city in the sixth century, for it clearly depicts its walls, towers, gates, streets and major public buildings.
- Donner H, The Mosaic Map of Madaba: an introductory guide, Pharos Publishing House (Palaestina antiqua), 1992 (Google Books)
- Yaffe, A, The Map of Madaba, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 7 January 1999
- Good News Bible, Numbers 21:30