Hundreds of floor-laid mosaics in stone have survived in Jordan, from a first-century BC example at Herod’s palace at Mukawir (now on display in Madaba) through to pieces from the eighth century AD, when Christian mosaicists were still at work under the Muslim caliphate. Specific styles were used for places of worship and for civilian buildings, whether public baths, private mansions or the palaces and hunting lodges of the Umayyads. During the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, for example, a retro taste for classical motifs was popular: many secular buildings were decorated with scenes taken from Greek and Roman mythology. Churches couldn’t be decorated with the same pagan designs, but in addition to dedicatory inscriptions recording names of bishops and benefactors, and Christian symbols such as the lamb and the fish, Classical-style personifications of the sea, the earth and the seasons appeared on church floors throughout Jordan. These church mosaics served to dazzle and awe visitors to the house of God and, in an age of almost universal illiteracy, to teach the events of the Bible pictorially; the many representations of buildings and great cities may also have served as a rudimentary atlas.

Mosaic artists worked from pattern-books compiled in regional cultural centres, above all Constantinople. One result of this common artistic heritage is the predominance of pastoral scenes – which, in provincial backwaters such as Transjordan, also represented the reality of daily agricultural life for many people. The regularly recurring watery vignettes of ducks, boats and fish were rooted in a classical taste for representations of life on the Nile, and hunting scenes, often featuring lions, leopards and other, extraordinary creatures, grew out of the Roman practice of capturing wild beasts for amphitheatre sports. In addition, Transjordanian mosaicists portrayed in detail an encyclopedia of flora and fauna, drawn from local experience, the tales of travellers (elephants, crocodiles and octopus), and the realms of imagination (sea monsters and phoenixes).

However, the controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries concerning the depiction of people which raged across Byzantium and Transjordan – then already in the control of the Muslim armies – led to many mosaics being disfigured. What was under attack, from iconoclasts both Byzantine and Umayyad, was, at heart, polytheism. For centuries, Christians in the East had been venerating religious images in paint, stone and mosaic in a way that more ascetic elements in the Byzantine hierarchy considered too close for comfort to antique paganism. In 726 Emperor Leo III banned the use of icons in worship. In Transjordan, under Umayyad control, a parallel movement within Islam had just as much practical impact. The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have taught that God is the only creator; interpreting this to imply that human “creation” of images of living creatures was blasphemous, the Umayyad caliph Yazid II (719–24) issued a directive to destroy all depictions of people – and, by extension, animals – throughout the Muslim empire. Transjordan’s mosaicists had no choice but to obliterate with blank stones all images of people and animals in existing mosaics. Sometimes they did this with care, but it seems they were often in a panic: many of Jordan’s mosaics now feature surreal clouds of haze hanging over what were once portraits. Some mosaics survived unscathed by having been buried in earlier years; others, laid after the order was given, avoided the issue by remaining studiously abstract. After 120 years of bitter controversy, the Christian ban was rescinded, but the Muslim injunction remained and still applies today.

Madaba is keeping its mosaic tradition alive: alongside the Archeological Park in the town centre stands the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration, or MIMAR (t 05 324 0723), where students learn how to restore ancient mosaics as well as create their own designs. Call ahead for a tour of their workshops.

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