The fertility of Madaba’s plains has made it a strategic location for 3500 years. Fought over by many peoples during different times, it later became a Nabataean town. During the Byzantine era, the city became a bishopric and the mosaics, for which it became famous, were laid. Today, the city is still famous for mosaics, both historical and for its mosaic school, the only one of its kind in the Middle East.
Many biblical civilizations coveted the rich plains surrounding Madaba. In 106 AD, the Romans became the governors, and Madaba gained a colonnaded street and the usual impressive public buildings of a provincial town. Coins minted during this time, found during local excavations, featured grandiose statements about the city. The town failed, however, after the earthquake of 747 AD, and lay abandoned for about 1100 years.
In the 1880s, local fighting in Karak drove 2000 Christians to settle in Madaba. As they began to dig foundations for their houses, they began to uncover mosaics. From then on, Madaba has been a heaven for archeologists and a nightmare for construction workers.
In or around 562 AD, many exquisite mosaic floors were laid in Madaba, including the Chapel of St. Theodore, now part of the Madaba Cathedral. In the Church of the Apostles, a mosaicist named Salamanios completed a masterwork. The Personification of the Sea, a medallion, portrays the Sea as a woman rising from the water, with various sea creatures swimming around her. Land animals and vegetation border the fabulous floor. The inscription reads, “0 Lord God who has made the heavens and the earth, give life to Anastasius, to Thomas, to Theodore and Salamanios the mosaicist.” Unfortunately, due to the iconoclasm of the Christian church during the 7th and 8th centuries, many figures in various Madaba mosaics were defaced with blank tesserae.
The oldest and most famous floor, the Mosaic Map, was discovered in 1884 in the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. It was originally laid in 560 AD. Centering on Jerusalem, the map portrays the region with accuracy and humor. Archeologists have been able to positively identify most of the 150 named sites due to the accurate portrayals of natural features such as the River Jordan or the Dead Sea, as well as the labels, which used color and font size to indicate the importance of the sites. The geographical accuracy gives credence to the idea that the wildlife shown on the map, such as lions and gazelles, actually lived in the
area. Amusing features, such as a horrified fish rushing away from the Dead Sea, not only indicate much about the region but also show the humanity of the mosaicists Only one-third of the map has survived.
The Archeological Park is located on the foundation 01 the Church of the Virgin Mary, and its floor is part of the collection. A mosaic found at Herod’s castle in Mukawir i~ said to be the oldest mosaic found in Jordan, dating from the 1 st century Be. The charming Hall of Seasons wa~ found under a Madaba house. Across the preserved Romar road, complete with wheel ruts, are the foundations of the Church of the Prophet Elias, constructed in 608 AD.
Other tourist opportunities abound. The Burnt Palace is a 6th-century luxury palace destroyed about 749 AC by fire and earth tremors, but which still boasts mosaic floors, mostly depicting animals and hunts. The Madaba Museum contains jewelry and ethnic costumes, as well as more mosaics. The unique Madaba Mosaic School seeks to preserve the craft and to teach conservation techniques. Although it is open to the public, the classrooms are closed to facilitate learning. Most of its texts are in Italian.
A number of historical sites surround Madaba. Mt. Nebo is owned by the Franciscan fathers and has been part of the traditional Christian pilgrimage path for centuries. The traditional path included Jerusalem, Mt. Nebo, and a bath at Hammamat Ma’in, where Herod is said to have bathed. The new hotel and spa here make this pilgrimage end in comfort and luxury. The striking ruins of Herod’s castle at Mukawir, also known as Machaerus, give a view of the Dead Sea that is different from any other. The castle sits 700 meters above the Dead Sea on top of a promontory with steep valleys on three sides. Um ar-Rasas, with its jumble of ruined churches and houses, is overshadowed by the mystery surrounding its tower with no door at the bottom but several windows at the top. One theory, based on the discovery of a 6th-century church near the foot of the tower, is that it was the home of a Stylite, a monk who walled himself into the tower to spend his life in prayer and contemplation.
Madaba is an unusual place. Once a Roman town, it is hard to find evidence of that now, but the Byzantine influence defines the tourism aspect of the area. The mosaics that were laid here long ago, and the ones being created now, set Madaba apart.