Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Map You Walk On

The Jordan River Valley on the Madaba Map
Madaba, a town east of the Dead Sea, suffered from a devastating earthquake in 746 and was left to become wilderness. Centuries later, Madaba began slowly to be restored as a habitable city. In 1884, while the ancient ruins of a church were being cleared to make way for a new Greek Orthodox church, workers discovered a mosaic on the floor.

The Madaba Mosaic Map is considered a reliable source of data on Byzantine-era Jerusalem because of the detail with which it is constructed. Known old structures such as the Damascus Gate, the Tower of David, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and others are depicted with enough detail to distinguish them from simple symbolic images. The detail even allows scholars to date the map: Jerusalem shows the Nea Church, which was built and in use by 542, but does not show any changes or structures built after 570. In fact, the Nea Church was only able to be discovered by archaeologists when they used the Madaba Mosaic as their cue for where to dig! Furthermore, the exact location of the ancient Jewish city of Askalon/Ashkelon was uncertain until the Madaba Mosaic showed where it was on the coast.

The map as seen now in the Church of St. George
The floor mosaic faced east, toward the altar. Therefore, when one was facing the altar, one was facing in the proper direction to orient the map with the real world. All the inscriptions are in Greek. The map extends from Lebanon in the north to the Nile Delta, and the Mediterranean to the Eastern Desert. The original dimensions were 21 meters by 7 meters and would have required over 2,000,000 individual tiles, but damage over the years has reduced it by about a third, to 16x5 meters. We do know that some of it was damaged deliberately in the 8th century when Muslim rulers had depictions of people removed. Now carefully preserved, it can be seen in the Greek Orthodox Church of St George.

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