Madaba, City of Mosaics

Madaba is located 30 km south of Amman the capital city of Jordan. a big city and one of 12 governorates in Jordan with a population close to 150,000 people including villages and towns.
It is known as the city of mosaics for the large number of churches built in the Byzantine era, and the number of mosaic fragments in most of the churches that date back to the 5th and 6th century AD.
The modern Greek Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church on top of the highest hills of Madaba were built by the local Christian communities in the 19th century AD (during the Ottoman times) on the same foundations of the former Byzantine churches.
Madaba was inhabited as early as the bronze age and continued in existance through the iron age, Persian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine empires, and into Islamic times.
The bible mentions Madaba in the book of numbers 21:30 as a main and large city in the land of Moab, Madaba in the Aramic language means water and fruits; ME means water and DEBA means fruits or vine, this part of Moab was a lush land with lots of crops and vines.

in Joshua 13;8-10, the bible mentions Madaba and other cities and canyons where the other half tribe of Reubenities and Gadities received their inheritance that Moses had given them, which were lands beyond the Jordan river eastward, from Aroer which is on the bank of the river Arnon and the town that is in the midst of the ravine, and all the plains of Madaba as far as Dibon.

when prophet Moses came close to the land of Moab, he asked to eat and drink from this land, and it’s believed that he died around mount Nebo 8 km to the west of Madaba, According to the Book of Deuteronomy, it was from Mount Nebo that prophet Moses first saw the Promised Land.

Madaba’s map is the masterpiece unrivalled in Jordan, but there are literally dozens of other mosaics from the 5th through the 7th centuries, scattered throughout Madaba’s churches and homes.

The Significance of Madaba’s Map

The map has contributed significantly to archaeological excavations in Palestine and Jordan, particularly in verifying the location of certain buildings, sites and even cities.
For example,
the map played a major role in revealing the location of the Nea Church and Cardo Maximus within Jerusalem.

It also shed light on the historic city of Askalon.
During the early years of the 20th century the map was copied by amateur painters and some of these painting of the map or portions of it are now in various museums and libraries around the world, including the Benaki Museum in Athens, the library of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Alexandria, the hall of the ecclesiastical court of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Palestine Exploration Fund in London.

Byzantine Cartography

The Madaba mosaic map is probably the best known example of Byzantine cartography. It depicts features and landscapes with a high level of accuracy, which is impressive considering that the art of accurate scale map-making was not yet invented in the sixth century AD.
It is possible that the Madaba mosaic map was based on several historic cartographic sources, one of which is the Tabula Peutingeriana, a map of the road system of the entire Roman Empire dating to the 2nd or 3rd century AD.

Another potential source is the Onomasticon of Eusebius, a directory of Holy Land place names, based on the Bible, written around 314 AD by Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine.


In the late 19th century Madaba was resettled by local Christian families that migrated from Karak.
They began to build a new church on the foundations of a Byzantine Basilica that was constructed in the second half of the 6th century AD.

As the church floor was being paved, a beautiful work of mosaic was unearthed. The importance of the mosaic was immediately recognized, and a request was made to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem to send the architect of the Patriarchate to examine the mosaic.

As a result, an order was given to protect the archaeological remains under the roof of the new church and the mosaic was documented by the Patriarchate.
Construction of the new church, the church of Saint George, was then completed by August 1896, with the precious mosaic map housed within it.

The Discovery Went Public

The discovery of the map was made public and news spread rapidly, to Constantinople and
abroad, thus securing the town’s international reputation.
A newspaper in Constantinople (7 February 1897 issue) wrote that this pictorial map was much better than modern ones at the time.

The Madaba mosaic map is a source for biblical and historical geography and place names. All place names are written in Greek capital letters. There were 147 toponyms and inscriptions in the original map, though only 15 (approximately 10%) remain today.
However, well over 2,000 characters are preserved in the whole or in part within the map, and this represents one of the largest concentrations of mosaic writing from the Byzantine world that survives today.

Keepers of The Church & Its Map

Throughout history the Greek Orthodox Church and community have traditionally been the
keepers of the church and its unique map.
Since its discovery the mosaic map has been protected by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which also invited scholars to study and document it.

Making The Map

Based on what remains of the map, scholars have calculated that about 2.3 million mosaic
cubes were used to make the entire map, which originally measured approximately 15.6 by 6m, which is 94 square meters. It would have taken one person at least two years to complete it.

The mosaicist used a varied color scheme to represent the different cities, landscapes and the natural features. The general shapes of mountain ranges, rivers and seas, deserts, plains, and valleys were expressed with accurate geographic positioning and relative proportions.

The pictorial representation of the larger cities, where everything is shown as if seen from the side or from a height, is selective but exact. This effect is enhanced by the use of trees, fish in the river, figures in a boat, and by using a local color palette.

Unfortunately, only 25 square meters of the original map are still intact, and yet still remains a cultural treasure of universal value. To date, no other mosaic found has paralleled the art seen in the Madaba mosaic map.

Documenting The Holy Land

The Madaba mosaic map is a valuable source of Byzantine history; as it documents cities within the Holy Land, mainly during the 6th and 7th centuries.
Originally, it illustrated the geography and topography of the area that extends north-south from Tyre (southern Lebanon) to the Nile Delta, and the east-west from the city of Karak to the Palestinian coast.

Unfortunately, the destroyed sections include Philadelphia (Amman) and virtually all of the area north of Wadi alMujib, including Madaba.
Some cities, like Jerusalem and Gaza, are depicted so precisely that we can orient ourselves by their representations. Other representations show old city centers such as Neapolis (Nablus) and al-Karak.

Local Religious Iconography

Christians of Madaba today continue the tradition of contributing Christian icons to adorn the walls of their church.
The present church, where a miracle has taken place, hosts an icon of the Virgin Mary ( Panagia Tricherousa ). The pride of the Orthodox people of Madaba.

150 towns and villages are represented in the remaining part of the map. The simplest shape of two towers and one gate illustrates smaller town, while larger cities are represented through elaborate vignettes, showing building and spatial features, using oblique pictorial

The missing part of the map would have included vignettes for Madaba in addition the other cities in Jordan.
The map encompasses a large area east or Jordan River, including Madaba, which reflects the perspective of the community of Madaba and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem,
who considered Jordan an integral part of the Holy Land.

Unfortunately, most of the eastern part of the map was destroyed.
The map also reflects the Christian view that Jerusalem lay at the center of the world, as it is placed in the center of the Holy Land. A number of significant structures in the old city of Jerusalem, some of which are identifiable today, are clearly seen, such as the city walls and gates and buildings around the main columned street including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Purpose of The Map

The map served a particular function during the liturgy in the 6th century. It lay between the priest and congregation who stood, as was normal in those days, all around it.
Thus the map enhanced the religious experience of the worshipers by adding a visual dimension to the auditory one.

Madaba offers several other attractions, both within the city center and beyond.
Some of these are:

  • In Madaba City: Archaeological Park, institute of Mosaic Art and Restorations.
  • Around Madaba: Umm ar-Rasas, Mukawir, Main hot springs.