The town of Madaba, located 30 kilometers southwest of Amman, is most famous for its exquisite 6th-century mosaics. Its history dates back at least 3500 years, however. Madaba, which was known in the Bible as the Moabite town of Medaba, is mentioned in the Old Testament account of Moses and the Exodus (Numbers 21: 30). David also vanquished an Ammonite and Aramean coalition near Madaba (I Chronicles 19: 7). His victory was short-lived, however, as in the mid-ninth century BCE the Moabite King Mesha freed the city from the control of the Israelites (2 Kings 3). Mesha, whose capital was the ancient city of Dibon (now called Dhiban, and located just north of Wadi Mujib), recorded his victories on the famous Mesha Stele, an inscribed stone set up in about 850 BCE. The rich farmlands around Madaba were coveted and fought over by the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Israelites and other local kingdoms.
Mosaic of young boy, Mount Nebo.
The Ammonites had conquered Madaba by 165 BCE, but it was taken from them by Hyrcanus I around 110 BCE. His son Hyrcanus II later gave the city to the Nabateans in exchange for their help in recovering Jerusalem from Aristobulus II. Near the beginning of the second century CE, Trajan ousted the Nabateans from Madaba, and the city gradually became a Roman provincial town with the usual colonnaded streets and impressive public buildings.
The Byzantine era saw Madaba enter its most affluent era. Grand buildings and a reservoir were constructed, while in the sixth century CE bishops were assigned to the city and a number of religious structures were erected. The importance of Madaba as a Byzantine ecclesiastical center is demonstrated by the wealth of elaborate mosaics scattered throughout the town.
After the Persian invasion of 614 CE and a devastating earthquake in the year 747, the town was gradually abandoned. Madaba then lay virtually untouched until it was resettled in the late 19th century by Christians from Karak. The city’s greatest treasures, its mosaics, were uncovered then when these migrants were digging foundations for their houses.
Madaba’s most famous mosaic is located in the Church of St. George in the middle of town. The Mosaic Map of Palestine represents the Holy Land and its surrounding regions. Clearly visible on the map are al-Quds (Jerusalem) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Nablus, al-Khalil (Hebron), Ariha (Jericho), Egypt and the Nile River, Turkey and Lebanon. The mosaic was made around 560 CE, originally composed of over 2.3 million pieces, and measured a staggering 25 by 5 meters.
It is thought that 11,500 man-hours would have been required to lay the entire mosaic. The church is open to the public every day 08:30-18:00, except for Friday and Sunday when it is open 10:30-18:00. A small donation to the poor is requested.
Inside St. George Greek Orthodox Church, Madaba.
Madaba’s museum is located down a small alley a few blocks south of St. George’s Church. Just follow the signs. The museum’s greatest attraction is a collection of mosaic collages, some of which are in excellent condition. It was established on the site of an ancient chapel, so its own mosaics form the hub of the museum’s collection. The museum also exhibits traditional embroidered Jordanian dresses, and jewelry and pottery dating back to various ages. The museum is open Wednesday through Monday 09:00-17:00, holidays 10:00-16:00. Adjacent to the museum is an innovative mosaic school. In an effort to preserve Madaba’s heritage and develop its tourist potential, the Ministry of Tourism established the school to train technicians to repair and restore mosaics. It is the only project of its type in the Middle East.
At the southern entrance to Madaba, near the King’s Highway, is the Church of the Apostles. The ruins of this Byzantine church date to 578 CE, and are currently being restored. One of Madaba’s most beautiful mosaics adorns the floor of this church. The mosaic is known as"Personification of the Sea" and it vividly depicts a woman emerging from the sea, surrounded by mythical aquatic creatures and a hodgepodge of rams, bulls, parrots and exotic vegetation. The mosaic was signed by a mosaicist named Salamanios. In addition to its spectacular collection of mosaics and Byzantine treasures, Madaba is also well known for its hand-woven carpets, saddle bags and tapestries. You can actually see them being crafted on the loom in several shops.
To get to Madaba, take the airport road south from Amman. Turn off at the road to Na’ur and follow the signs to Madaba, which is about 30 kilometers southwest of Amman. The Madaba Visitors Center (tel. 08-543-376) is located in a white building near St. George’s Church and open Saturday through Thursday 08:00-14:00.