Much as it did in antiquity, the initial portion of the King’s Highway south of Amman runs through small farming villages interspersed among wide plains of wheat. The edge of the plateau is never far from the road, and countless tracks lead off westwards into the hills teetering over the Dead Sea rift.
The easy-going market town of MADABA, 30km southwest of Amman, is best known for the fine Byzantine mosaics preserved in its churches and museums. An impressive sixth-century mosaic map of the Holy Land takes top billing in package tours, but the town’s narrow streets, dotted with fine old Ottoman stone houses, lead to plenty more examples, notably the splendidly intricate mosaic at the Church of the Apostles. Excursions to the mosaics at Mount Nebo – the peak where Moses looked over the Promised Land – as well as natural and historical attractions galore, make Madaba an ideal base for two or three days of exploration. A clutch of pleasant family-run hotels helps. Add easy access to Amman, the Dead Sea and the Baptism Site of Jesus, and a location just 18km from Queen Alia International Airport, and Madaba becomes a viable, good-value alternative to basing yourself in the capital.
Madaba’s history stretches back further than you might imagine, beyond its Byzantine mosaicists to biblical stories of battles and prophecies.
Madaba is first mentioned in the Old Testament as having been conquered – along with the rest of the land of Moab – by the Israelites, who then parcelled it out to the tribe of Reuben. The city was won back for Moab in the middle of the ninth century BC by King Mesha (as proclaimed in the Mesha Stele), at which point the Israelite prophet Isaiah stepped in, prophesying doom: “Moab shall howl over Nebo and over Medeba: on all their heads shall be baldness and every beard cut off… everyone shall howl, weeping abundantly.” After some further turmoil during the Hellenistic period, with the city passing from Greek hands to Jewish to Nabatean, the Roman Provincia Arabia brought order; by the third century AD, Madaba was minting its own coins.
Christianity spread rapidly and, by 451, Madaba had its own bishop. Mosaicists had been at work in and around the town since well before the 390s, but mosaic art really began to flourish in Madaba during the reign of the Emperor Justinian (527–65). Towards the end of that century, Bishop Sergius oversaw a golden age of artistic accomplishment: surviving mosaics from the Cathedral (576), the Church of the Apostles (578), the Church of Bishop Sergius at Umm ar-Rasas (587), Madaba’s Crypt of St Elianos and Church of the Virgin (both 595) and the Moses Memorial Church on Mount Nebo (597) – as well as, conceivably, the famed mosaic map of the Holy Land – all date from his period in office. When the Persian armies came through in 614, closely followed by the Muslims, Madaba surrendered without a fight and so retained its Christian identity and population; churches were still being built and mosaics laid for another hundred years or more. A mosaic discovered at Umm ar-Rasas mentions a bishop of Madaba as late as 785.
The modern era
Madaba was abandoned during the Mamluke period and its ruins – by then strewn over a huge artificial mound, or tell – lay untouched for centuries. In 1879, conflict between Christian and Muslim tribes in Karak led to ninety Catholic and Orthodox families going into voluntary exile; they arrived at Madaba’s uninhabited tell shortly after, laid claim to the surrounding land and began to farm. The Ottoman authorities in Damascus rubber-stamped the fait accompli but gave the settlers permission to build new churches only on the sites of previously existing ones. It was in 1884, during clearance work for a new church, that Madaba’s remarkable mosaic map of the Holy Land was uncovered, closely followed by many more mosaics which lay in churches and houses all over the town. Scholars and archeologists arrived from around the world, and their investigations still regularly uncover mosaics and remnants of the past beneath the streets of the modern town centre.
These days the social and religious balance of the town is changing, in a process of urbanization that has seen tens of thousands of Muslim families migrating from nearby villages to occupy Madaba’s suburbs and outskirts. Although Christians – Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and other denominations – still comprise the overwhelming majority of inhabitants in the city centre (estimates put the proportion at over 95 percent), Madaba’s total Christian population today is around 14,000 in a greater municipality that has ballooned above 120,000.