Madaba's mosaics

Last Updated 26 November 2011, 13:19 IST

A Catholic nun, five Buddhists from Thailand, a Protestant couple, a bunch of Muslims and Hindus, besides a few Jews — it was a motley group of visitors that was waiting outside the Greek Orthodox Church of St George in Madaba, Jordan, to enter its portals. With its world famous mosaic map, this church attracts a large number of visitors across all religious denominations, from countries around the world. Madaba’s map is reckoned as the oldest-known geographical floor mosaic in art history. It is also one of Jordan’s finest historical treasures.

This is the earliest religious map of the Holy Land in any form to survive from antiquity, we were told. It was created by Byzantine artists in the late sixth century, though who the exact artistes were is still unknown. Buildings in this region created after the sixth century are absent from this map, which further help to date it.

This map was designed as a kind of atlas for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Madaba itself finds mention in most religious narratives of this period in history –– Moses and the Exodus––including the Old Testament, of course. The map was discovered in the 1880s during clearance work that was being done for setting up a new Greek Orthodox Church.

Along the years, some portions of the map were damaged due to fire, the effects of moisture and some activities within the church. What we see today is the result of a painstaking restoration and conservation, a job that was undertaken sometime around the 1960s. Today, the Jordan Government is making active efforts to preserve this outstanding map as well as the entire mosaic heritage of this region.

After a brief introduction to the history of the church and its unique map, we were led inside. But then, we almost missed the map. First, because of the beautiful art all around us, on the walls –– with Biblical themes and many pictures of the apostles and Mother Mary. And second, because we expected to see the map on a wall but it was actually right below our feet –– a floor map. We quickly stepped back and bent down to peer at the details on this outstanding work of art.

First impressions

This sixth-century mosaic map of Jerusalem (this ancient city forms the central part) and the Holy Land was originally made with over two million pieces of coloured stone. As we observed the map carefully, we noted a highly detailed depiction of hills and valleys with animals in some places, towns and villages which had red-roofed churches and colonnaded streets, and the River Jordan with fish swimming in them.

There is an amazing precision and authenticity about this map. It depicts Biblical places with their correct locations. In fact, even the distances shown on the map are very close approximations of the actual ones. The map extends up to the Nile Delta, but there are also sections which depict modern day Lebanon and areas in the Mediterranean coast. Every place is neatly and clearly labelled in Greek characters.

This church, with its spectacular map, is not the only place where you can get to see great mosaic art. The city of Madaba is famed for its myriad fabulous mosaics, created in homes and churches, hence its moniker, City of Mosaics. In this region, mosaics were frequently used to decorate windows, floors and ceilings in olden days.

Second glance

If you have the time to explore the city, there are many more wonderfully crafted, lesser-known Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics. You will come across thousands of beautiful specimens of this art in the churches and mansions of this city and also some fabulous examples at the Archaeological Park and Museum. The ones from Hippolytus Hall and The Church of the Apostles are stunning.

The Jordan Government also runs a Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration, which is the only institute of its kind in the Middle East. It trains artisans in the art of making, repairing and restoring mosaics. There is also a large workshop in the city outskirts where you can see demos and purchase mosaic art.

Madaba, in fact, abounds in modern stores selling richly colourful and superbly crafted mosaic panels and single tiles of all sizes and shapes. For visitors, they make for perfect, though somewhat heavy and fragile, souvenirs to carry home. The Tree of Life is a popular motif in most of these products. You can also find animals including exotic beasts, fish, plants, flowers and landscapes in the mosaic products.

The St George Church, however, took up most of our time, so we had little left for exploring the art in the rest of Madaba. But, we were not the only ones to linger here. Most visitors do. “My Sunday school lessons are all coming alive here in Jordan for me,” exclaimed one Christian lady from Australia who got down on her knees to examine the map more closely. She spent a good half-hour poring over the minute details from different angles and was still bent over it when we left the church after our rather brief visit.

(Published 26 November 2011, 13:19 IST)

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