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date: 04 December 2020

This damaged, but still striking, floor-mosaic map offers a unique and invaluable example of late antique cartography, as well as the earliest surviving vision of the Holy Land. The map was discovered by accident around 1890, when the inhabitants of the recently repopulated village of Madaba in modern Jordan were erecting a new church (dedicated to Saint George) in the ruins of a former Byzantine one in the province of Arabia. By far the largest part of what survives of the map extends up to 10.5 × 5 metres (34 × 16 feet), although within this span several areas are missing. The survival of three other small segments reinforces the probability that the original map covered the full width of the nave(14 metres/46 feet). The orientation is east, so that the top of the map is closest to the apse and altar. The coverage visible comprises two large sections: (1) the Nile delta, part of Sinai, and the south coast of Palestine as far as Gaza; and (2) Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and several towns around it. There is no means to determine how much farther the original map extended in each direction, but in all likelihood it ranged considerably farther north at least. The Jordan and Nile rivers, the Dead Sea, and the city of Jerusalem in bird’s-eye view (Fig. 1) appear especially prominent. Altogether, more than 150 settlements, villages, regions, and physical features are differentiated by colour, and the majority of them are named very clearly in Greek with lettering of varying size and colour. One source used in the compilation of the map was evidently the 4th-century ce Onomasticon (biblical gazetteer) by Eusebius of Caesarea, but there must have been several others, including itineraries and perhaps city plans. The cartography, although schematic, is remarkably detailed and up-to-date. Jerusalem is rendered with such exceptional care and realism that individual churches may be identified, as well as colonnaded main streets, gates, walls, and a column erected by Hadrian. This rendering of Jerusalem also furnishes the best clue to the date of the map’s production, most probably around the mid-6th century ce. Similar, but smaller, pictorial vignettes represent other cities in a style that recalls the Peutinger Map.

In general, however, the Madaba and Peutinger maps differ unmistakably in their presentation. In particular, the decision has been taken not to trace route-line work on the Madaba Map, although its captions do refer to boundaries between regions and even to distances. Didactic captions relating to the Bible are a prominent feature, including historically conscious ones that record the name of a place in Old Testament times along with the current name. While it is notable that many of the places chosen for marking on the map have no obvious connection with the Bible, part of the intention was no doubt to encourage pilgrimage: the map could act to inspire and prepare would-be pilgrims (and even instruct those unable to make such journeys), as well as to refresh the memories of returned pilgrims. Because the map was laid out on the floor of the church, it was feasible literally to walk through it, and thereby to gain an arresting sense of how Madaba and its Christian congregation were situated spatially and culturally within the contemporary world around them. Even for nonliterate viewers without an informed guide, the experience could be delightful because of the vivid, appealing colours and the wealth of attractive decorative features, such as birds, animals, fish, trees, and boats with oarsmen. The map’s highly creative cartographic artistry bears comparison with the representations of cities on mosaics of broadly contemporary date at Gerasa, Khirbet as-Samra, and Ma‘in in Jordan, as well as more generally with the Colle Oppio fresco in Rome, the Dura Shield map, and the Ammaedara mosaic “map,” all of much earlier date.

Figure 1. Detail of Jerusalem on the Madaba Map. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Bibliography

  • Avi-Yonah, Michael. The Madaba Mosaic Map, with Introduction and Commentary. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1954.
  • Bowersock, G. W. Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. See especially pp. 1–29.
  • Gatier, Pierre-Louis. Inscriptions de la Jordanie, vol. 2. Paris: Geuthner, 1986. See no. 153, pp. 148–180.
  • Harvey, P. D. A.Medieval Maps of the Holy Land. London: British Library, 2012. See pp. 19–20.
  • Piccirillo, Michele, and Eugenio Alliata, eds. The Madaba Map Centenary 1897–1997: Travelling through the Byzantine Umayyad Period. Jerusalem: Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, 1999.
  • Wilkinson, John. Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades. Warminster, U.K.: Aris & Phillips, 2002. See 152–156; all captions in English translation.