Madaba Mosaics. Maldives. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Holy Land Translated into a Mosaic

It was the end of January when my group was travelling north from Petra through the King’s Highway, in Jordan. It was the very moment when the Egyptian revolution of 2011 had started and we learnt about it a few days earlier, while crossing the Israelite-Jordan border (see Mount Sinai Trekking). But we did not stop our study trip and continued to discover Jordan’s archaeological treasure till the time we had to come back to Sinai, in Egypt.

Travelling around Jordan. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Madaba in Jordan

After having stopped at one of large Crusader castles – the Kerak, we headed off to Madaba, the city situated  half an hour south of the capital. “It is a relatively small [urban area] that is nowadays home to around 60,000 people” (Esparza 2017). Throughout history, the site has been populated by “the Moabites, the Nabateans, the Romans, the Byzantine, the Rashidun and the Umayyad” (Ibid.). It “is now home to the biggest Christian community in all of Jordan, proportionally speaking: both Catholics and Greek Orthodox make up around [ten percent] of the total population of Madaba (Ibid.) and their origins reach the times of Jesus Christ (Mack 2018). “Archaeologists affirm Madaba has been inhabited since the Middle Bronze Age” (Esparza 2017). The Bible itself mentions Madaba twice (Numbers 21:30; Joshua 13:9) (Ibid.). “The city then stood in the very borders of the Moabite empire [but] during Roman (and consequently, Byzantine) rule, it belonged to the broader Arabian Province, founded by Trajan to substitute the Nabatean Kingdom. It was during those centuries, from the [second to the seventh], when the Christian community of the city established itself” (Ibid.).

The nineteenth century Greek Orthodox Church, dedicated to Saint George. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

What did the Middle East and, precisely, the Holy Land look like in the early days of Christianity (till around 614 AD)? Today,  those days are brought to life by a legendary, ancient mosaic forming a map on the floor of Saint George’s Church in Madaba, in Jordan (Stakelbeck 2018).

Early Christian mosaic map within a modern church

MOSAIC a design made by cementing small pieces (tesserae) of hard, coloured substances (e.g. marble, glass, ceramic or semi-prcious stones) to a base.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:141)
Dr. Merav Mack showing the patches of the mosaic under the carpet; in the shot from the documentary: “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” Source: Stakelbeck (2018), The Watchman.

Dr. Merav Mack (2018), a research associate from German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Amman, calls the mosaic one of the oldest maps in history of the Holy Land. “Originally, the map measured 21×7 meters, and was made with more than two million ‘tesserae’ (mosaic stones)” (Esparza 2017). Nowadays, its patches cover of the floor space in the apse of the active and rather modest nineteenth century Greek Orthodox church, yet adorned with some of the most beautiful icons in the region (Esparza 2017; Mack 2018; Raezer 2020). The modern church was built on the site of the sixth century Byzantine temple (Rogoff 2013; Mack 2018). There, the mosaic map was originally designed on the floor of the apse. While a service is going on in the church, carpets are rolled down all over to protect the remains of the mosaic, and when the service is over, the carpets are rolled up again for visitors coming inside the church to expose the mosaic map (Mack 2018).

Intriguing characteristics

“Interestingly, the map is not oriented northwards, like modern maps are” (Esparza 2017) but to the East, towards the altar of the church (Esparza 2017; Mack 2018). In its center, there is an elliptical layout of the Holy City – Jerusalem (Sani 2014; Mack 2018). And although the map also features other famous and significant cities of the region, such as Jericho, Ascalon and Gaza (Mack 2018), it especially constitutes a unique guide to the Old City of Jerusalem, represented with all its major characteristics (Rogoff 2013). And irrespective of some minor errors in its layout (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995), the Madaba map remains one of the most important and revealing representation of the sixth century Christian Middle East (Esparza 2017). It is features more than one hundred and fifty cities, towns, and villages (Ibid.), “including some exceptionally intriguing symbols that, according to some archaeologists, represent pilgrimage places” (Ibid.).

One of the boats floating on the Dead Sea. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At the top of the map, there is a representation of the Dead Sea with the blue horizontal stripes symbolising waves, on which two boats are floating (Mack 2018). Inside them, there are sitting human figures (Ibid.). They are now defaced, which is apparently the result of the Muslim rule in the area (Ibid.). In the sixth century, when the map was created, the whole depicted land was under the Eastern Christianized Roman Empire: there were monasteries scattered densely around, especially in the desert, housing around five thousands monks (Rogoff 2013; Mack 2018).

The River Jordan with two fishes facing each other. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The map also shows the part of land where the mosaic is preserved today, which is in the hills, on the eastern side of the River Jordan (Mack 2018). The latter is shown as a ribbon of water with depictions of fishes (Ibid.). Actually, in one section, there are “two fishes facing each other. One of them seems to be swimming back from the Dead Sea, while the other swims towards it, in the Jordan River. But it is well known that fish cannot survive in the Dead Sea […] Therefore, most historians and archaeologists interpret this to symbolize a meeting point for Christians” (Ibid.), for one of their early symbols was fish. Additionally, the River Jordan is important as the site of Jesus’ Baptism (Mack 2018). The city of Madaba, itself should be located somewhere in the hills, at the point where the map is unfortunately cut off and ruined (Ibid.). Generally, “much of the map’s tiles have been chipped away or been destroyed but a large contiguous piece of the map still exists illustrating both locations and names ranging from geographic features to cities” (Liza B 2020).

Η ΑΓΙΑ ΠΟΛΙϹ ΊΈΡΟΥϹΑ[ΛΗΜ] (Greek: The Holy City of Jerusalem)

The Holy City of Jerusalem in the sixth century. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Generally, “the mosaic covers lands from Egypt to Lebanon, including sites such as Bethlehem and Gethsemane, but [as it is underlined above], the gem of the mosaic is the detailed representation of the city of Jerusalem” (Liza B 2020). The picture of Jerusalem is additionally highly ideological (Mack 2018). The city “was considered the navel of the earth, [as the place] of God’s salvation history” (Sani 2014), and so physically and metaphorically situated at the very heart of the contemporary Christian world (Mack 2018). And although it was depicted “completely out of proportion to the scale of the map, [it was] entirely in proportion to its historical and spiritual significance. [Accordingly], the detail of the Holy City is remarkable, down to the level of identifiable structures” (Rogoff 2013). Jerusalem of the sixth century “was an expansion of the Aelia Capitolina, as it was rebuilt and renamed by pagan Rome 400 years earlier” (Ibid.).

From a general layout to details

The Madaba map reflects Jerusalem’s contemporary landmarks: the Holy City is surrounded around by thick walls, protected by nineteen towers (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). “The map assumes an oblique perspective, as if the viewer were standing atop a very high mountain and looking eastward (north is on the left)” (Raezer 2020). Actually, “a viewer in Jordan would look westward for a view of Jerusalem (north is on the right). The eastward vantage suggests that the artist was likely creating the mosaic based on a map prototype that was designed in the West, likely in Constantinople” (Ibid.). According to the perspective applied in the Madaba map, “the western part of the city-wall is shown from outside, the eastern part from inside” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995).  

Starting from left, that is to say, the north part of the city, there is the largest gate of Jerusalem consistent with Damascus Gate (1), and called Saint Stephen’s Gate in the sixth century (Rogoff 2013; Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). The gate is flanked by two towers and leads to an oval square with the tall column topped probably with the statue of the emperor Hadrian (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). The Arabic name of the gate, Bab el-Amud, which means the Gate of the Column, indicates that it existed yet after the Arabs’ invasion in the seventh century (Rogoff 2013). From the east, the city is opened by the so-called Gate of the Sheep Pool (2) (today’s Saint Stephen’s Gate) (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). To the south of it, there is the Gate Beautiful (3), aka Golden Gate, leading to the temple area, and farther, there is Dung Gate (4), seen from a different perspective than the previous three (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). In the south of the city, there is Sion Gate (5), from which the main street goes across the city to Damascus Gate (1) (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). In the west, there is Jaffa Gate (6), called Gate of the Tower in the sixth century, which is depicted here from the front. (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

From north to south

The Cardo Maximus (the main street in Ancient Roman cities) is running across the city, from north to south, that is to say, from Damascus Gate (1) to Sion Gate (5) (Mack 2018; Liza B 2020). It is lined with a row of columns on each side and covered with a roof (Ibid.). “Its western colonnade is interrupted by the staircase of the Anastasis-Church (7), known as the Church of Holy Sepulchre [whereas] the eastern one ends in front of the Nea Theotokos-Church (12)” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Apparently, the mosaicist’s aim was to point out to the fact that the Cardo leads from both sides to the middle of the city, which is actually marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Mack 2018). In reality, the Church has never been centrally placed in the city (Ibid.). However, by placing it in the center of the map, the very idea of Christianity was expressed, namely the picture of heavenly Jerusalem with the holiest sites of Christian faith, where Jesus was crucified, buried, and where he finally resurrected (Ibid.). Authors of the mosaic also represented the Church’s details, such as four steps leading to its three gates, and at its top – the golden dome, which is hovering above the tomb of Christ (Ibid.).

Jerusalem with its landmarks. Photo from Raezer, J. (2020).

The surprising fact is that “the street network of Byzantine Jerusalem remains essentially unchanged today, even in the modern Jewish quarter in the southern part of the Old City” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Apart from the Cardo, there are four other streets depicted: the “second street begins on the east side of the oval square under an arch and runs to the south until the Dung Gate (4). It is colonnaded as well, but only the eastern colonnade is visible. […] The third street, starting from [the Gate of the Sheep Pool (St. Stephen’s Gate)] (2), is the beginning of the Christian ‘Via Dolorosa.’ [The] fourth street without columns — the Decumanus of Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem – starts from Jaffa Gate (6) and runs to the east. It seems to end at the main street (Cardo Maximus). The fifth street, finally, branches off the Decumanus to the south: this is, probably, the Armenian Street” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Single buildings and constructions

Jerusalem with the main street (Cardo Maximus) across the city; from northern Damascus Gate to the southern Sion Gate. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Apart from centrally positioned Church of Holy Sepulchre, other main churches of Byzantine Jerusalem are also represented by the mosaicist (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Baptistery of the Church of the Anastasis (8) “stands west of a light-brown trapezoidal space, probably the market-place(Forum) of Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). However, “its identification with the baptistery of the Holy Sepulchre [remains] uncertain. [Then, there is the] Church of the Sheep Pool (Probatica) (10), built in the first half of the [fifth] century over [the site] where Jesus healed a paralyzed man, [but it] was destroyed by the Persians in 614” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). Another church is the already mentioned “New Church of the Mother of God (Nea Theotokos) (12), built by the emperor Justinian and consecrated on November 20, 542, [which is] a fact important for dating the Madaba [map. Next, there are the] Basilica on Mount Sion (14), one of the most important churches in Jerusalem, second only to that of the Holy Sepulchre, [and] Diaconicon of the Basilica on Mount Sion (15), attached to the basilica in the south, for a time used as the Martyrium of St. Stephen. [Finally, there are also depicted the] Church of the House of Caiphas (16), [then the] Church of St. Sophia (17) [possibly standing] on the ruins of Pilate’s Praetorium, [and], the Church of St. Cosmas and St. Damianus (18)” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Jerusalem shown “upside down” with the golden dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (visible above it). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are also two other buildings identifiable in the Madaba map (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). In the eastern part of the map, there is “Temple Esplanade (22), indicated by a black line of cubes only [and the] Citadel (al-Qalca) (19), [situated in the west] on the right side of the Jaffa Gate (6). The Citadel of Jerusalem had been improved by Herod the Great. The Herodian Citadel was protected by three strong towers. […] Two of them are represented on the Madaba map, the bigger one identical with what is still called the ‘Tower of David” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Madaba map’s dating

Preserved patches of the precious mosaic on the floor of the apse. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The mosaic map was uncovered in Madaba in the nineteenth century, precisely in 1897 (Donner 1992-1995:13; Esparza 2017). It is dated back to the second half of the sixth century, which is also ascribed to its general style and special contents (Ibid.:13). By all accounts, the map tiles may have been composed into the floor mosaic probably during the reign of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian (527-565), and before 614, when Palestine was devastated by the Islamic Persians (Ibid.:14). Some observations on the map are also very useful in its dating (Ibid.:14). As mentioned above, in the depiction of Jerusalem, there is already the New Basilica of the Mother of God (Nea-Theotokos), which was consecrated in 542 (Ibid.:14). It is hence clear that the map itself was made later (Ibid.:14). Moreover, there are four churches on the map, which had been first mentioned in circa 570, namely the churches of Galgala, of the Egyptian Martyrs near Ascalon, of Saint Victor near Gaza, and the church of Zacharias (Ibid.:14).

Maps of the Mediterranean

Today, the map is one of the most significant archaeological “sources for the character and topography of Byzantine Palestine both west and east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, as well as of Lower Egypt” (Donner 1992-1995:13). Consequently, it is the oldest known geographic map of Palestine in existence, except for “a small section of the so-called Peutinger Plates” (Donner 1992-1995:13). The latter comes from the fourth century A.D. and constitutes a road map of the Roman Empire, now preserved in Vienna, in Austria, as a medieval parchment copy of a possible Roman original record (Ibid.:13).

One side of the Jordan River. The Madaba map gives astonishingly many details. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Such mosaic pavements as the Madaba map were widely common in the Christian Byzantine Empire, especially in the Mediterranean region and among them, there are also analogous mosaic representations of cities or even villages, for example the sixth century mosaics from Antioch or Jerash (Donner 1992-1995:13). However, the way in which they are represented substantially differs from the map depicted in the mosaic of Madaba (Ibid.:13). Mostly, the former give a more pictorial view of cities mainly depicted from the front (Ibid.:13). This manner of representation is also observed on the Madaba map but to a smaller degree (Ibid.:13). Yet more significant elements of the map under study, such as large cities, are usually depicted from above, which is a manner typical of a modern cartography (Ibid.:13). Additionally, all illustrated landmarks are accompanied by the Greek inscriptions for a better understanding of the picture. The writings are in different style (Ibid.:18): “black on a bright background, white on a dark background, red for texts of special importance. Some belong to cities or villages, others recall Biblical events or quote Biblical texts” (Ibid.:18).

Inferior and superior purposes of the Madaba map

The Holy Land seen in a bird’s eye view for the very first time. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Even if the sixth century examples are similar in style to the Madaba map, contemporary exact parallels depicted in a bird’s eye view are not known (Donner 1992-1995:13). As far as the Madaba map’ contents are concerned, it could have been made for different purposes (Ibid.:14). One of them, although interior, “was surely the intention to offer  information for Christian pilgrims” (Ibid.:30). Herbert Donner (1992-1995:14) claims that the Madaba map itself “looks like a cartographic illustration of two pilgrims’ reports from the sixth century: the first one written by the archdeacon Theodosius, […] the other one by an anonymous pilgrim from Piacenza, [the so-called Anonymous of Piacenza]. We may add the so-called Breviarius de Hierosolyma (Short Description of Jerusalem), […] containing only a description of the Holy City. Naturally, not everything that these reports describe can be found on the Madaba map” (Ibid.:14). Apart from being just a guide for contemporary pilgrims, one of the superior purposes of the map was “the realisation of the exceptional idea, totally unknown before the [sixth] century, to illustrate God’s salvation history in a map. On the mosaic map both Testaments […] are represented and the holy sites are [fully] displayed to the spectator’s eyes. Further purposes can be considered, for example, a clear liturgical [and symbolical] function” (Ibid.:30).

An original illustration of God’s salvation history in a map. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nonetheless, it can be concluded that the Madaba map was not just a metaphorical collections of Biblical illustrations with inscriptions but a real geographical and topographical map of the Holy Land (Ibid.:18). Accordingly, “it is not only the oldest but also the most exact map” (Ibid.:18) of the region before the appearance of modern cartography in the nineteenth century (Ibid.:18).

Madaba in the past and today

Madaba deliberately surrendered to the Muslims in 614. Consequently, the city was not destroyed and so the temple of Madaba, which was also dedicated to Saint George, may have been still used as an active church (Donner 1992-1995:14). Unfortunately, the eighth century brought an earthquake [and the fire] destroyed the temple. The city had subsequently been abandoned until the nineteenth century (Esparza 2017). “In the year 1884, when the new church of [Saint] George was being built in the place in which the old basilica stood, the mosaic was [uncovered], and incorporated in the new building across from the church’s magnificent iconostasis” (Ibid.). And even if it was made for the purposes of the early Christian Church, it is still valued in the eyes of modern pilgrims coming to the Holy Land, and visiting Madaba itself.

Christians made ten percent of the total population of Madaba and their origins reach the times of Jesus Christ. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Having left Saint George’s church, we also studied another sixth century mosaic work, namely the so-called Hippolytus Hall mosaic in Madaba’s Archaeological Park. This time, however, the intricate floor mosaic was not designed for the church but for a Byzantine private villa, and represents not a Christian story, but an ancient myth. Such a melange is in abundance in Jordan and everywhere in the Middle East, where various aspects of different cultures, traditions and religions have collided or intertwined for centuries.


Donner, H. (1992-1995) The Mosaic Map of Madaba: An Introductory Guide. Palestina Aniqua 7. The Netherlands, Kampen: Kok Pharos Publishing House.

Esparza, D. (2017) “The ‘Madaba Map’ is the oldest surviving original cartographic description of the Holy Land.” In: Aleteia. Available at <>. [Accessed 16th April, 2020].

Liza B (2020) ”Madaba Mosaic Map” In: Atlas Obscura. Available at <>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art.

Mack, M. (2018) “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” In: Stakelbeck, E. The Watchman. Available at <>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Raezer, J. (2020) “Madaba Map: Mosaic of Jerusalem” In: Approach Guides. Available at <>. [Accessed 16th April, 2020].

Rogoff, M. (2013) “A Mosaic of Jerusalem on the Ancient Madaba Map” In: Haaretz. Available at <>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Sani, E. (2014) “Madaba Map: The Holy City of Jerusalem” In: Flickr. Available at <>. [Accessed 15th April, 2020].

Stakelbeck, E. (2018) “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” In: The Watchman. Available at <>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

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