Imagine living in a town where your backyard is now part of an Archaeological Park, a museum of mosaics unearthed from an early Byzantine church buried underneath rubbles, rocks and sand? Pretty cool, huh? The town is called Madaba – a laid-back town of 60,000 people – and is best known for its Byzantine mosaics preserved in churches and museums.
Many tourists come to Madaba for a fleeting visit to see the mosaic map of the Holy Land but I wanted to experience something more from this town. I wanted to walk along the narrow streets and wander around the old quarter, and perhaps to stumble across fine mosaics in old stone houses. Hence, rather than visiting Madaba on a day trip from Amman, I chose to stay here for 2 nights.
Right across the road from my accommodation is the 19th century Greek Orthodox Basilica of St George, and inside the church is a 6th century treasure of early Christianity – a mosaic map of the Holy Land. Previously containing 2 million pieces of coloured stones, the mosaic map represents all the major biblical sites from Egypt to Palestine in Greek. The map is no longer complete – only fragments of the map left – but large enough to give us a depiction of ancient Palestine and many historical sites in the region including Jerusalem, Karak, Gaza and Nablus.
To have a better understanding of the map, it’s best to go to the visitor centre first before entering the church. The visitor centre-cum-gift-shop is situated on the right side of the Basilica and has a full replica of the mosaic map.
And to avoid the tourists arriving in busloads, the best time to visit the church is in the afternoon. There were only two tourists and I admiring the mosaic map in the cramped corner of the church – it was so quiet and peaceful – that I had the opportunity to sit down at the pew to say my prayers.
Hundreds of striking mosaics are scattered all over Madaba town. One just has to walk in the heart of the old town, for instance, on Hussein bin Ali Street where there is the Madaba Art Gallery displaying works by local artists (unfortunately it was closed when I was there) and further down the side street, in between shops, is the ruins of the Burnt Palace.
The Burnt Palace is a 6th century mansion which was destroyed by fire but archaeologists found large floor mosaics. In the same vicinity, fine floor mosaics are also discovered under the rubbles of the ruined Martyrs’ Church.
At the Burnt Palace, I realised just behind the old stone walls of the mansion are rows of old houses and shops which are now residences of the Madaba population. That was when I thought, it must be amazing to be living in a town so rich and alive in history and heritage (literally their backyard!) and as I’m writing this, archaeologists are still discovering and unearthing more floor mosaics previously buried under layers of construction over hundreds and thousands of years!
The mosaics of Madaba have specific styles for various sites. The mosaic motifs for places of worship are obviously different for private mansions or palaces or public baths. As a result, there are countless types of mosaics discovered in this town ranging from patterns of swirls, knots and twists, to flora and fauna, and scenes from mythology and everyday pursuits such as hunting, fishing and farming.
Some of Jordan’s impressive mosaics, for instance, from the 1st century BC of Herod’s palace in Mukawir or pieces of mosaics from the 8th century AD when Christian mosaics were still at work under Muslim rule, are currently housed in the Archaeological Park.
The fascinating floor mosaics to view in the Archaeological Park is from a 6th century Byzantine villa and the 7th century ruins of the Church of the Virgin which were buried underneath the floor of a private mansion’s house built in the 19th century. How incredible is that?!
The exploration of mosaics in Madaba can be easily done in a few hours, thus I can understand why majority of tourists prefer not to stay a night or two in this town. Most of them move on to excursions outside of town to visit the biblical sites of Mount Nebo and Bethany, and to experience the Dead Sea, after which they move on to Petra or travel back to Amman.
However, it’s indeed worthwhile to stay a little longer in Madaba, to take delight in meandering through the old quarter, shopping for mosaic replicas and souvenirs, people-watching, having a local brew at a café or chatting with a kebab shop owner. The atmosphere is easy going so much so that I have met travellers who stayed as long as 5 days just to explore the town and its surrounding areas. They said they couldn’t get enough of Madaba’s charm and its amiable people.
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