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The Ancient World of Madaba
Duration: 2 Days
Expenditure 90000

The capital city of the Madaba Governorate in Jordan is home to some of the most beautiful Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics especially a large Byzantine-era mosaic map of Palestine and the Nile delta. Madaba is located 30 miles south-west of the capital Amman.

Photos of Madaba, Madaba Governorate, Jordan 1/1 by Maithili Madhusudanan

Bethany Beyond Jordan

This was where Jesus Christ was baptized by John the Baptist and the new era of Christianity began. The Jordan River is the artery that, since time immemorial, has softened this harsh and rugged landscape and sustained fertility and life. We can only guess that when human habitation embedded here before recorded time, those people lived close to nature and the life-giving river. Within sight of the revered Jordan River some of the greatest moments in the life of Christ unfolded. Here at Bethany, close to where a bridge linked the ancient pilgrimage route to Jerusalem on a site fed by the waters of the Jordan River and a nearby spring (the Spring of John the Baptist), John established his base, baptizing early pilgrims. Here on a fateful day that changed the course of human history, Jesus and John met and proclaimed a new beginning and the very founding of Christianity.

Photos of  1/1 by Maithili Madhusudanan

From this humble source Christian beliefs have radiated to all parts of the globe and have shaped the religious, ethical and moral beliefs of billions of people. The archaeological excavations at Bethany have now pushed back the millennia to reveal this area as it was at the time of Christ, and today pilgrims can kneel here in prayerful reflection inspired by the baptism of Christ at the very spot where it occurred.

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Today the ancient baptism pools and the sites of early churches have been unearthed and can be seen as they were when John and Jesus met. The authenticity of the Baptism Site is based on irrefutable evidence in archaeological finds, and the biblical references of (John 1:28 and 10:40), as well as in Byzantine and early texts. Bethany Beyond the Jordan is a half-hour drive from Mount Nebo and the Dead Sea.

Photos of  1/2 by Maithili Madhusudanan
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Um er Rasas

Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa'a) is located south-east of Madaba on the edge of the semi-arid steppe. Um er-Rasas was nominated as a World Heritage Site in 2004. This archaeological site, which started as a Roman military camp and grew to become a town from the 5th century, is largely unexcavated.

Photos of  1/1 by Maithili Madhusudanan

It comprises remains from the Roman, Byzantine and Early Muslim periods (end of 3rd to 9th centuries AD) including a fortified Roman military camp and sixteen churches, some with well-preserved mosaic floors. Particularly noteworthy is the mosaic floor of the Church of St Stephen with its representation of towns in the region. A tall square tower and associated buildings are probably the only remains of the practice, well known in this part of the world, of the stylites (ascetic monks who spent time in isolation atop a column or tower). Um er-Rasas is surrounded by, and dotted, with remains of ancient agricultural cultivation, including terracing, water channels and cisterns.

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The Outstanding Universal Value of the site resides in the extensive settlement of the Byzantine/Umayyad period. These remains occupy the interior of the former Roman fort and also extend outside its walls to the north. They include the churches whose mosaic floors are of great artistic value. Further to the north, in a separate group of ruins associated with quarries and cisterns, is the uniquely complete tower accommodation of the stylite monks.

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The picture maps in the mosaic floor of St Stephen's Church of several Palestinian and Egyptian towns in the former Byzantine Empire are identified by their place names in Greek script. These are of particular significance both artistically and as a geographical record. Other mosaic church floors including at the Church of the Lions, the Church of Bishop Sergius, the Church of the Rivers, the Church of the Palm Tree, the Church of Bishop Paul and the Church of the Priest Wa'il depict birds and animals, fishermen and hunters incorporated into extensive geometric mosaic carpets.

Shobak Castle

Shobak Castle is an early 12th-century Crusader castle in barren surroundings. It is perched on the side of a rocky, conical mountain at 1,300m (4,265ft) above sea level, looking out over fruit trees below. Although not so well-preserved or visited as Kerak Castle, its isolation from the nearest town makes it more atmospheric.

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Shobak was originally called Krak de Montreal or Mons Regalis. Built in 1115, it was the first of many fortifications built beyond the Jordan by King Baldwin I of Jerusalem to guard the road from Egypt to Damascus. It successfully resisted a number of sieges until it fell to Saladin's troops in 1189.

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Much of what remains of Shobak Castle today are reconstructions and additions from the Mamluk period, but there are numerous original Crusader features as well. The northeast corner of the castle has a keep with Quaranic inscriptions in Kufic script, possibly dating to the time of Saladin. There are two churches in Shobak Castle. The first one, near the entrance, and has an apse, two smaller niches, and a baptistery off the west side. The second church is near the southeast corner of the castle (next to a Mamluk watchtower with more Kufic script), with a Crusader cross carved in the east wall. Beneath the church are catacombs, which contain Islamic tablets, Christian carvings, big round rocks used in catapults, and what is claimed to be Saladin's throne.

Karak Castle

South of Madaba on the old King's Highway is Kerak, which was the capital of the biblical kingdom of Moab. Perched atop a steep hill, Kerak is a predominantly Christian town dominated by the largest and best preserved of the Crusader castles in the region.

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Photos of  2/2 by Maithili Madhusudanan

Once an important city of the Biblical kingdom of Moab, Kerak was also home to the Nabateans, Romans (from 105 AD), and the Byzantines, before the Crusaders built a castle here. In the Byzantine period Kerak was a bishopric and it remained mostly a Christian town even under Arab rule.

Photos of  1/2 by Maithili Madhusudanan
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In 1126, Payen le Bouteiller (Paganus the Butler) received Kerak from King Baldwin II of Jerusalem as part of the lordship of Oultrejourdain (Transjordan). In 1142, he built Kerak Castle over the existing foundations on the site.

Kerak Castle replaced Shobak as the center of the Transjordan and became the most important in a series of fortresses between Jerusalem and Aqaba. The Crusaders set up an impressive system of security: all the fortifications were a day's journey apart and each one lit a beacon at night to inform Jerusalem it was safe.

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Kerak Castle resisted attacks by Saladin's troops in 1183 and 1184, but finally fell after a siege in 1189. The Mamluk ruler Baybars added a tower on the northwest corner in 1263. It was later owned by local families until 1840, when Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt captured the castle and destroyed much of it in the process.

After World War I, Kerak was administered by the British until the Emirate of Transjordan was established in 1921. Kerak is still a predominantly Christian town, with many of today's inhabitants tracing their roots back to the Byzantines.

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Kerak Castle is a typical example of Crusader architecture, with Romanesque-style stone vaults, numerous corridors, and strong doorways. The Crusader parts of the ruins are mostly on the upper level and can be identified by their dark volcanic tufa; later Arab additions are in white limestone.

Through a massive door (ask at the ticket office), steps lead down to vast, dimly-lit, vaulted rooms and corridors underground.

The upper courtyard includes the remains of a Crusader chapel and provides excellent views over the Jordanian landscape to the Dead Sea.

The west wing of the complex is home to the small Kerak Archaeological Museum, which displays artefacts excavated at the site.

Wadi Rum

Virtually all the people living in and around Wadi Rum are of Bedouin origin and, until recently, led nomadic lives, relying on their goat herds. They belong to seven tribal groups, of which the three largest are the Zalabia tribe who make up the majority of people living in Rum Village (see Rum map); as Rum village is the only village inside the protected area; the Zalabia tribe is largely responsible for tourism services and operate many of the jeep and camel tours. These services are organized through the Rum Tourism Cooperative, a locally run society that shares the tourism business between the villagers.

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The other prominent tribal group is the Zweideh tribe, based in the villages of Disi on the northern edge of the protected area. They also run tourism services, including campsites and vehicle tours. Zweideh are not entirely dependent on tourism for their livelihood, having access to a large underground water source that enables them to practice profitable agriculture

Other tribes are Sweilhieen, Omran, Godman and Dbour tribes. They live in different villages depending mainly on livestocks raising and partially on tourism.

Even though most local Bedouin have become villagers, they still maintain goat herds for milk, meat and ‘jameed’, a type of yoghurt. For parts of the year, some families or family members return to a wandering existence with their flocks. Few, however, are able to continue a truly nomadic existence today and the traditional Bedouin lifestyle is fast disappearing.

Mt. Nebo

Mount Nebo is a 1,000m (3,300ft) high mountain located 10km/6 mi NW of Madaba in Jordan, opposite the northern end of the Dead Sea. According to ancient tradition, this is the mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land before he died.

Because of its connection to Moses, Mt. Nebo has long been an important place of Christian pilgrimage. Excavations led by the Franciscans, who own the site, have uncovered significant remains of the early church and its magnificent Byzantine mosaics. A simple modern shelter dedicated to Moses has been built over them.

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In the Bible: "Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land.... Then the Lord said to him, "This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, 'I will give it to your descendents.' I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it."

And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day on one knows where his grave is. --Deuteronomy 34:1-6

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In the 4th century AD a sanctuary, mentioned by the pilgrim nun Egeria, was built on Mount Nebo (Fasaliyyeh in Arabic) to honor Moses, possibly on the site of an even older structure. The church was finished by 394 AD and had three east apses flanked by funerary chapels on the north and south sides.

In the 6th century, the church was enlarged and transformed into a basilica with a sacristy and new baptistery (whose surviving floor mosaics date from c.530 AD). Soon the church was the heart of a large monastery and pilgrimage center that would thrive for nearly six centuries.

The site was abandoned by 1564 and remained mostly neglected for several centuries more. Finally, in 1993, the site was purchased by the Franciscans, who excavated and restored the area. On March 19, 2000, Pope John Paul II visited the site during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, planting an olive tree next to the Byzantine chapel for peace.

Today, Mount Nebo is an active Franciscan monastery, the headquarters of the Franciscan Archaeological Institute, and a popular stop for pilgrims and tourists alike.

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Rising over 700m above the Jordan Valley, Mount Nebo offers spectacular views of the Promised Land as seen by Moses. On the platform at the summit is a modern sculpture by an Italian artist representing Moses' staff and Jesus' words in John 3: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up."

Elements of a triple-apse Byzantine basilica were uncovered by archaeologists in the 1930s, and have been incorporated into the structure of the modern church building, known as the Memorial Church of Moses. The modern additions to the church are very simple, consisting of little more than a shelter over the fascinating excavations and ancient mosaic floors.

Just inside the entrance to the left is the excavated Old Baptistery, which has one of the most interesting ancient mosaics in Jordan. The baptistery and the mosaic can be precisely dated to August 531 thanks to a Greek inscription, which also names the three workers who created it and the bishop at the time (Elias).

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The Old Baptistery mosaic is in remarkably pristine condition because another one was laid over it just a few decades later in 597. The underlying mosaic remained hidden for nearly 1,400 years until it was discovered in 1976 when the one on top was removed for restoration (it now hangs on a wall).

The mosaic of 531 is a large square divided into four strips of scenes of men and animals, surrounded by a chain-style border. The top two sections depict fierce hunting scenes: a shepherd fighting a lion, a soldier fighting a lioness, and two horseback hunters defeating a bear and wild boar.

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The lower scenes are pastoral but with a touch of the exotic: a shepherd watching his goat and sheep graze in the shade of trees; an ostrich on a leash held by a dark-skinned man; and a boy holding the leashes of a zebra and a spotted animal that looks very much like a camel but might be intended to represent a giraffe.

There are more mosaics in the nave and side aisles of the church, including some fragments of the 597 mosaic pavement. The oldest mosaic in the church is a braided cross displayed on the south wall.

Also hanging here are mosaics of animals from the Church of George in Mukhayyat. One of these is from 536 and has an inscription that some believe is the earliest example of Arabic script in Jordan (others argue it is old Aramaic).

In the far right-hand corner of the church is the New Baptistery (597 AD), which was previously a funerary chapel. It includes a small mosaic originally from the threshold bearing the greeting, "Peace to all."

Next to the New Baptistry, a lovely mosaic cross from the original 4th-century church stands on a modern altar in its original location. A photograph of the Pope praying at the same altar is proudly displayed.

Next to the exit door is the Theotokos Chapel, added in the 7th century where three rooms of the monastery previously stood. Its apse has a mosaic of a square object that may be a ciborium (vessel for the Eucharist) or altar canopy, accompanied by bulls and gazelles. The floor of the chapel is paved with mosaics of plants and flowers. Foundations of the ancient monastery are visible outside.

St. George's Greek Orthodox Church

Scholars have differing opinions on why such an expensive piece of religious art should have been commissioned by Church authorities on the floor of a Christian building in a provincial town of the Roman Empire. Some of the possibilities debated are:

• To aid pilgrims in making their way from one holy place to another. But pilgrims could not take this map with them, and portable maps and local guides were available at the time.

• To represent Moses’ vision of the Promised Land. Moses glimpsed the Promised Land from the top of nearby Mount Nebo, and Madaba was the episcopal see of the bishopric to which Mount Nebo belonged.

• To enhance the spiritual experience of worshippers during liturgy. The mosaic was originally on the floor of a large church, stretching across between the priest at the altar and the congregation.

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The contents of the map indicate that it was intended as a work of biblical geography, probably based on the Onomasticon of Eusebius, a gazatteer of place names, as well as on pilgrims’ journals and the artist’s own knowledge of the land. The importance given to Christian holy places, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, rather than Old Testament locations, suggests that the map is a Christian exposition of the message of salvation in a geographic context.

Madaba was an important town in the early centuries of the Christian era. It was on the King’s Highway trade route, it had its own bishop and it had about 10 other churches with impressive mosaics. The remains of two of these churches are in the city’s archaeological park. A conservative estimate is that the mosaic map would have originally contained about 1,116,000 pieces of stone and glass. A team of three workmen, working 10-hour days and directed by a superior artist, would have needed about 186 days to assemble it.

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In 746, about 200 years after the mosaic map was constructed, Madaba was largely destroyed by an earthquake and subsequently abandoned. The town was still in ruins and uninhabited in the early 1880s when a group of Christians from Karak, 140km south of Amman, decided to move there to escape conflict with Muslims in their home town.

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The new settlers were removing debris from an old church in 1884, so they could build a new one on the site, when they discovered the remains of the map. They incorporated the surviving fragments into the new St George’s Church. The map’s extraordinary value was not recognized until the librarian of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Jerusalem, Fr Kleopas Koikylides, visited in 1896. A report he published the following year brought international attention to the dusty village of Madaba.

By the middle of the 19th century the mosaic was in poor condition. Restoration and conservation was carried out by archaeologists Herbert Donner and Heinz Cüppers in 1965. Madaba is now the fifth most populous city in Jordan and the administrative centre for the territory south of Amman. St George’s Church is northwest of the city centre.

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