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The mosaic map depicting the biblical lands was discovered in a byzantine church in Madaba in 1896. The city lies in central-southern Jordan 30km south of Amman. The city built on a natural elevation of the transjordanian plateau commands the surrounding fertile countryside that extends to the north, south and east.

Encircled in red is the Church of the Map
Under the blue arch part of the Archaeological park

During the roman-byzantine period (II-VII Century AD.), the city formed part of the Provincia Arabia set-up by the roman emperor Trajan to replace the Nabathean kingdom of Petra. During the Islamic epoch under the Omayyad dynasty, it was part of the southern Jund of Palestine.

The first witness of a christian community in the city, with its own bishop, is found in the Acts of the Council of Calcedonia in 451 AD, wherein Constantine, Metropolitan Archbishop of Bostra, the provincial capital, signs also on behalf of Gaiano bishop of the Medabeni.

The re-occupation of the city ruins by 90 christian families from Kerak, in the south, led by two Italian priests from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 1880, saw the start of archaeological research. This in turn supplemented substantially the scanty documentation available.

The first mosaics were discovered, purely by chance, during the building of the new permanent dwellings using squared-up stones from the old monuments. The new inhabitants of Madaba, made conscious of the importance of the mosaics by their priests, made sure that they took care of and preserved all the mosaics that came to light.

The mosaic Map of Madaba was discovered in 1896 and published a year later. This discovery drew upon the city the attention of scholars worldwide. It also positively influenced the inhabitants who shared the contagious passion of F. Giuseppe Manfredi to whose efforts we owe the discovery of most of the mosaics in the city. Madaba became the 'City of Mosaics' in Jordan.

The northern part of the city turned out to be the area containing the greatest concentration of mosaic monuments. During the byzantine-omayyad period, this northern area, crossed by a colonnaded roman road, saw the building of the Church of the Map, the Hippolytus Mansion, the Church of the Virgin Mary, the Church of Prophet Elijah with its crypt, the Church of the Holy Martyrs (Al-Khadir), the Burnt Palace and the Church of the Sunna' family.

The "Town of Madaba" as depicted in the mosaic
of the Hippolytus Hall discovered in the town

To date the mosaic monuments that have been discovered in the southern part of the city include: the Cathedral which also incorporates a Baptistery Chapel and another Chapel dedicated to the Martyr Theodore, the Church of the Apostles with its two side-chapels, the Mansions of the Seasons, Achilles' Mansion, the Mansion of the Bacchic Procession, the Paradise Mansion and the Chapel of the Twal family in the Archaeological Museum.

Mount Nebo, to the west formed part of the Madaba Diocese. Here the mosaics discovered at the Moses Memorial together with those in the churches in the village of Nebo, in the 'Uyun Musa valley and at 'Ayn al-Kanisah carry inscriptions which date them to the times of the Bishops of Madaba from the late V century to the middle of the VIII century AD.. Umm al-Rasas - Kastron Mefaa, on the southeastern steppes, also formed part of the diocese, laying as it is close to the Wadi Mujib-Arnon, a natural boundary of the Province. Here were brought to light the splendid mosaics of the Saint Stephen Complex together with the Church of the Lions (VI-VIII century AD.), which complement the VIII century mosaic discovered in the village of Ma'in.

Excavating the Hippolytus Hall

Spurred by the wave of enthusiasm caused by the discovery, in 1982, of the Hippolytus Hall beneath the Church of the Virgin Mary by the Archaeologists of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, based at Mount Nebo, we embarked on the process of defining an ambitious project which envisaged the creation of an Archaeological Park, where the Roman road crosses the northern part of the old city; a Museum Complex for the protection of the Church of the Virgin Mary and the Hippolytus Hall as well as a School for the restoration of old mosaics, located in existing buildings in the vicinity. The school is a must if we are to safeguard the wealth of art and civilisation which could so easily go lost.

This is a project that was thought of on Mount Nebo and which involves today four countries committed to its realisation: The Jordanian government, who is slowly expropriating the non-built areas; the US. government who funds the construction of the Museum and the restoration works being carried out through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), with the collaboration of the Canadian Government; the Italian government who is providing the technical assistance required for the setting up of the Madaba School of Restoration, which School started regular courses in the autumn of 1992.

Madaba today counts over 55,000 inhabitants and has once again taken up its role as the administrative centre for the Jordanian territory south of Amman (the Land of Madaba as referred to in the Biblical and Moabite texts). The inauguration of the Archaeological Park and the Madaba School of Restoration, one hundred years after the discovery of the Mosaic Geographical Chart of the Biblical lands augurs for Madaba a central role also in the cultural development of the country.

© Michele Piccirillo
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum,
Mount Nebo - Jordan


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