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 Mabada, 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.
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.
Thanks to the folded landscape of canyons, gorges, valleys and hills around Madaba, Mukawir and the Ma’in hot springs, there are some great opportunities for adventure trips and excursions. Although many of the Jordanian specialist tour operators will be able to help, check first with Terhaal and Tropical Desert, excellent, professional adventure activity firms with intimate knowledge of Madaba’s mountains and countryside. As an added enticement, some of Terhaal’s day trips include a meal hosted by a local family – a unique opportunity to sample rural village life and authentic home cooking.
Among the wide range of trips are relatively short, easy gorge-walking excursions down Wadi Wala or Wadi Karak, as well as long, difficult canyoning adventures in Wadi Manshala, Wadi Mukheiris and others. One popular route leads down Wadi Zarqa Ma’in, from the Six Senses hotel to the Dead Sea shore at ancient Callirhoë, while you may be lucky and find a guide for the hard-to-access routes into the stunning rainbow canyon of Wadi Qseib.
Most of these are full-day trips, involving anything from six to twelve hours of walking, canyoning, swimming through deep pools and, sometimes, abseiling down waterfalls. Expect to pay JD60–85 per person for the more straightforward trips; two or three times that for the tougher adventures. Bear in mind that the terrain is often difficult: within the sweltering, breezeless gorges temperatures can soar and dehydration can strike even the most experienced of walkers. You need to be at least moderately fit and carry lots of water.
The Evason Ma’in/Six Senses hotel also leads shorter hikes, up onto the cliffs around the hot springs valley; contact them for details. Another option is to talk to the Wild Jordan team at the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature about trekking from the hotel over the hills into the neighbouring Mujib Biosphere Reserve for a day of sightseeing, hiking, swimming and birdwatching.
These walks and others are described in more detail in Jordan: Walks, Treks, Caves, Climbs & Canyons by Tony Howard, and at w walkingjordan.com.
The hills around Madaba are also perfect for cycling and mountain-biking. Terhaal offers several trips – both on- and off-road – including routes from Madaba to Mount Nebo or Mukawir, as well as easy rides down to the Dead Sea and a half-day exploring dolmen fields. These run as scheduled trips (see website for dates; JD25–50/person) and also on request.
St George’s Church is the focus of Madaba’s Greek Orthodox community, and services are held here every week, with carpets laid over the precious mosaic to protect it. One Sunday morning in 1976, worshippers passed in front of one of the church’s many icons as normal, praying and touching it. Later in the service, someone chanced to look at the icon again – a picture of the Virgin and Child, which had been in full public view for years – and noticed that it had suddenly “grown” a third, blue hand, unseen by the full congregation an hour or so before. No one had an explanation, and it was declared to be a miracle, the Virgin showing Madaba a helping hand. The celebrated icon, still with its blue hand, is now on public display behind glass in the crypt.
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, where students learn how to restore ancient mosaics as well as create their own designs. Call ahead for a tour of their workshops.