Madaba and Mount Nebo
The amiable market town of Madaba is best known for a collection of Byzantine-era mosaics. The most famous of these is the map on the floor of St George’s Church, but there are many others in different parts of the town, several of them even more complete and vibrantly colorful.
Madaba and the Mosaic Map
On a fertile plain about 30 km south of Amman stands Madaba, whose earliest settlements are on the low hill in the center of the town. In the Iron Age, it was a Moabite town whose inhabitants recurrently had to defend it from attacks by Ammonites, Amorites or Israelites. The Mesha Stele recounts its capture by the Israelites in the 9h century BC, and its recapture and rebuilding by King Mesha.
Later, Madaba became part of the Hasmonaean kingdom before passing into Nabataean then Roman and Byzantine control. By the 6th century AD it was a flourishing town with a bishop, and the center of an important mosaics school. In early Islamic times, Christian worship continued unimpeded, new churches were built, or existing ones lavishly redecorated-but decline began later, and the town was abandoned in the Mamluk period Western visitors in the early 19th century AD found Madaba in ruins. But in the early 1880s, about 2,000 Christians from Karak settled among the ruins and built houses and churches over the mosaic floors they found. In the late 1880s, while clearing an ancient church, a mosaic a map of the Levant was discovered over which the Greek Orthodox Church of St George was built. Dated to the mid 6h century AD and the reign of Justinian (527-565), it is the oldest original map of the region. It is a unique historical source giving the 6h century AD names and locations of sites of biblical significance.
Mount Nebo, known locally as Siyagha, is believed to be the place from which Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land, which God had prohibited him from entering. It is also said to be the place where he died and was buried.
From the earliest days of Christian pilgrimage, Mount Nebo was included in most pilgrims’ itineraries. In 384, a woman known as Egeria wrote of her pilgrimage here on donkey back from Jerusalem, and of the monks who told her that this was indeed the place where Holy Moses was buried. She mentioned a small church-and within the mainly 6th and 7th century buildings are remains of a 4’h century chapel. There are also some earlier graves inside the church-though not from the time of Moses. The site appears to have been abandoned in the 9th century.
The first modern westerner to see these ruins was the French, Duc de Luynes, in 1864, and his book, suggesting the association with Moses, generated huge interest. In 1932, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land purchased the site and began to excavate and restore the church and monastery-work that has continued intermittently to this day.
At Khirbet Mukhayyat, the site of the ancient village of Nebo, just off the road between Madaba and Mount Nebo, are the remains of two Byzantine churches, both of which had exceptionally beautiful mosaic floors.
The more distant of the two, and more difficult of access, is the Church of St George, standing in splendid isolation on a small hill, with magnificent views over the mountains. The inscription on its mosaic floor-now in Mount Nebo for safe-keeping-is dated 536 AD.
Closer than this is the Church of SS Lot and Procopius (two Christians martyred in the persecutions of Diocletian), with a simple stone-built shelter protecting it. The main images are of the trees of paradise, the vine harvest and hunting with other scenes around the edges depicting mythical creatures, fishermen, a house and ducks on a lotus pond.
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