Mosaics & Moses

madaba as muse

Treasure house Saker and his  mosaic creations in the Map Bazaar. photos by authors

It had all started in an international travel mart in Delhi. There, we had said that we’d planned to tag Jordan on to a visit to Israel describing Israel, as most Christians do, as the ‘Holy Land’. “But we are the Holy Land” protested Sa’ed S Zawaideh of the Jordan Tourism Board. Possibly, but that depends on your point of view.

For Christians, the ‘Holy Land’ is the area in which Jesus spent the three years of His ministry. His life and teachings and all that grew out of them are covered in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Jesus was a Hebrew, a member of an ancient Semitic people originally centered in West Asia.

For 40 years, from 1280 to 1240 BC, these people had wandered across the wild and often desert areas of this region, following their charismatic leader Moses, seeking a land that they believed had been promised to them by God. Powered by their conviction they had produced a vast body of literature that became the world’s greatest bestseller: The ‘Old Testament’of the Christian Bible. For the Jews, Christians and Muslims, who revere the records generated largely out of their prolonged trek, these areas are known as The Biblical Lands. Much of these lands are in present day Jordan as we began to discover when we visited their ancient city of Madaba.

Like much of Jordan, Madaba is built on undulating terrain. Roads wind and climb and descend, gnarled grey-green olive trees spread their shade on old walls, grape vines hang from trellises, and mosques raise their domes near the spires of historic old churches.

When laying the floor of a church in the late 19th century, Madaba’s greatest artistic treasure was discovered. In the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, there is a mosaic map of the ‘Holy Land’. It was made in the sixth century, measures 88 sq meters, and once contained 2.3 million tessarae or shaped chips of coloured stone. When it was discovered, it was thought to be the oldest map in the world but apart from its age it also shows, with detailed artistry, what this land must have looked like 1,500 years ago. There is a fish in the Jordan River swimming away from the Dead Sea, horrified at its salinity. Green palms sway over oases. Lions hunt gazelle. Clearly, the land was not as arid then, as it is now. This could explain how the Hebrew migrants survived for 40 years in the wilderness. It was, probably, an even greener and much more hospitable land in those distant days after their exodus from slavery in Egypt.

Happily, mosaics last for much longer than paintings, and are far more graphic, because of their colours, than sculptures and carvings. Mosaics were also the preferred surface for floors in those distant days. Stones of many colours were easily available, they were wear resistant and cool in a hot, dry land, they could be cleaned effortlessly, and there was no limit to what they could depict. In fact, they were almost as versatile as paintings. And since Madaba was a prosperous town, it soon came to be known as the town of mosaics. We visited many other examples of this art form that originated in the sixth millennium BC.

In the Archaeological Museum at the end of a small lane, they had conserved a traditional house of Madaba. It seemed to be the dwelling of an ordinary middle class citizen but, even so, it had a mosaic design on its floor. In other rooms there were assorted exhibits of costumes and jewellery many of them bearing a striking resemblance to the dress and ornaments worn by some of the colourful tribes of Gujarat and Rajasthan. There was also an open-air display of sculptures.

The most curious mosaic, however, was in a building that did not look like a church but was identified as Apostles Church Madaba. An excavation in 1902 uncovered the name of the church which was constructed in 568 AD. The medallion in the centre of a woman is a personification of the Church. There are scenes of youth and animals on three sides of the acanthus scrolls and in the western and eastern surmounts of the nave.

The medallion that dominates the mosaic floor of this structure does not seem to depict the Church, as the descriptive board claims. It shows a strange woman rising out of the sea with aquatic animals swirling around her. We were reminded of the fact that the original Hebrew name, Medeba, ‘water of quiet’, could have referred to an association with a pre-Biblical deity.

Thriving business

We were in Madaba on a Friday in Ramzan, or as the festival is called in West Asia, Ramadan. When we heard a muezzin give the call for prayer, we asked our driver and guide if they wanted to go to a nearby mosque while we walked into the, so-called, Archaeological Park.

It’s in a number of old buildings with mosaic floors. But it also has excellent mosaics from other parts of Jordan. In fact, there’s a thriving business in Madaba and other places in making mosaics as souvenirs, a profession that has lured Jordanians back from other lands.

When Saker of The Map Bazar learnt that we were from India he asked us if we were from Chennai or Kerala. He had worked in Dubai where he had come across people from those places. He had now returned home to make mosaics for tourists.

We were having lunch in the tree-shaded court of  Haret Jdoudna, the house of our grandfather... restaurant, when a tow-headed American child started annoying his elders with an articulated wooden snake. “Stop that, Mose,” his mother corrected. “Why?” he asked. “My name is Moses. And Moses had a snake. It’s there on the cross on Mount Nebo...” and he carried on hissing and slithering his toy.

We were still mulling over what the little boy had said when we drove out and parked at the base of Mount Nebo. A road wound up, past a turkey and some cocks and hens foraging in the shade of trees lining the route. Further up, in the middle of the road, was a monument to Pope John Paul II and, in a clearing in the trees, was a mounted tablet which said: ‘MOUNT  NEBO, Sanctuary of Moses’. There were some excellent mosaics preserved under a roof, and an informative Interpretation Centre.

We trudged along, past a church being restored, up iron stairs and on to a long viewing area. Here stood the famed Braided Cross with a sculpture of a snake coiled around it. The cross represented Christ as well as Moses with his arms outstretched, the snake recalled the serpent that Moses had once carried. From here, Moses had been allowed to see the land that he had been forbidden to enter. We looked out from this 800 meter high peak to the distant horizon where Israel’s Jerusalem and Jerico could be faintly discerned.

On May 15, 1948, the United Nations carved out Israel. Some believe that the promise to Moses had been fulfilled. And the world, and the Holy Land, changed.

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