An Archaeological Tour of Madaba

Personification of a Season from the Burnt Palace; photo by Mary Scott, from Madaba Cultural Heritage (1996).
Personification of a Season from the Burnt Palace; photo by Mary Scott, from Madaba Cultural Heritage (1996).

The Madaba Archaeological Park in the heart of Madaba was initiated in 1991 by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The park includes a well-preserved stretch of late Roman street and buildings dating from the Roman period into the early part of this century. The park serves to highlight Madaba’s ancient past, protect its archaeological treasures, and provide a focal point for visitors to the important Jordanian city. Located close to the Church of St. George with the famous mosaic map, the park contains a number of Jordan’s most important mosaics.

Work began in 1991 with the construction of a shelter over two of the most important sites, the Church of the Virgin and the Hippolytus Hall. Architect Ammar Khammash designed a stone building compatible with the character of the site. The building includes arcades where other mosaics from the region are displayed. Khammash also renovated three buildings to be used as the Ministry of Tourism Reception Center, as a shop run by the Madaba Society, and as a center for resident archaeologists and conservators (Jumean House). In addition, he built a new shelter over the Church of the Apostles which is about 500 meters south of the park. As part of the project work, excavations were conducted in the area of the Church of the Virgin and the al-Batjaly sector by Michele Piccirillo, and at the Church of the Prophet Elias by Cherie Lenzen, Ghazi Bisheh, and Michele Piccirillo. In the western half of the park, excavation of parts of the Roman street and parts of the Burnt Palace were conducted by Cherie Lenzen and Ghazi Bisheh; former ACOR director Pierre Bikai excavated a number of cisterns within the park as well. Finally, as part of the project, restoration work was conducted by the Madaba Mosaic School, by ACOR conservators and by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. The following gives a brief description of the monuments which are within or near the park.

The Church of the Map

The Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, located to the northwest of the Madaba Archaeological Park, was built in 1896 over the remains of a Byzantine church. The famous mosaic map of the Holy Land, dated to the mid-6th century, is partially preserved as part of the church’s floor. It shows an area extending from Egypt to the Phoenician coast, and from the desert to the Mediterranean Sea. The cities and buildings of the map are oriented toward the east, as are the captions. There are 157 such captions and most of the sites have been identified.

Plan of Bier al-Rayes by Samer Shraideh, from Madaba Cultural Heritage (1996).
Plan of Bier al-Rayes by Samer Shraideh, from Madaba Cultural Heritage (1996).

Bier al-Rayes

Several scholars in the 1890s noted a large cistern just north of the church with the map. According to an inscription on its wall, the cistern was renovated in the time of the Emperor Justinian. That cistern cannot now be located but, in the attempt to find it, another large cistern, also to the north of the church, was completely excavated by Pierre Bikai in 1992-93. This latter cistern is 17 m wide; the bottom slopes from 12 m to 14 m from present ground level. Near the top of the cistern there is a cross which is about 60 cm high. Its inscription refers to “Jesus the Savior, the Alpha and the Omega.”

The Burnt Palace

In 1905, M. Metaxakis discovered a mosaic which he took to be the remains of a church. Excavations in 1985 by Michele Piccirillo showed that the mosaic actually decorated a room in a secular building which burned in the late Byzantine era and was then abandoned. The residence had a paved courtyard and to the east was a large hall. The frame of the carpet of the hall’s mosaic consists of a grid filled with trees, flowers, birds, fish, and animals. Within that frame there are acanthus scrolls decorated with pastoral and hunting motifs. The entrance features a pair of sandals within a medallion. The 1993-94 excavations conducted by ACOR under the direction of Ghazi Bisheh made it clear that the hall was part of a larger, opulent complex. The courtyard is flanked on the north, east, and west by wings. To the south is the Roman street. Of the northern wing only a long narrow strip has been excavated. This includes a corridor which was originally paved with mosaics in geometric patterns. North of the corridor, two rooms with mosaics were partially excavated. The preserved sections of the mosaic in the room to the east include a personification of a Season as well as a bust of Tyche wearing a turreted crown. A second room was also paved with mosaics in a scale pattern surrounded by a plaited border. To the west of the central courtyard is a long room divided into five bays. The floor of this room has two main panels separated by a strip of plain white tesserae. The center of this strip shows a lion attacking a bull. The northern panel consists of geometric designs while the southern panel has a white background sprinkled with little tassels. To the south of this hall is a square room with a nearly intact mosaic floor decorated with a pattern of indented squares, framed by a border of two-strand guilloche. The construction of the complex can be dated to the late 6th to early 7th century. The ceramic evidence indicates that it may have been destroyed by the well-documented earthquake of A.D. 747/48.

The Roman Street

The street would originally have crossed Madaba from east to west, leading to gates in the city walls which have since vanished. It was paved with large flag stones and flanked by columns. The street was covered by a layer of beaten earth during the Byzantine/ Umayyad period. Many of the columns were reused in later structures, both in antiquity and in more recent times. Today most of the Roman street is covered by the modern town but two sections, bisected by a modern street, have been excavated.

Madaba, Church of al-Khadir; plan by U. Lux and C. Florimont, from The Mosaics of Jordan (1992).
Madaba, Church of al-Khadir; plan by U. Lux and C. Florimont, from The Mosaics of Jordan (1993).

The Church of al-Khadir

Identified in the early part of this century and called locally the Church of al-Khadir, it was excavated by the German Evangelical Institute in 1966. Dated to the 6th century, the basilica incorporates a number of reused Roman capitals, columns and bases. In spite of iconoclastic mutilation, the decoration of the mosaic is still legible in its general outlines. The two aisles and the intercolumnar spaces are decorated with geometric and floral motifs. The pavement of the nave is enclosed in an acanthus border with hunting and pastoral scenes. The corner scrolls are decorated with foliate masks. The central carpet has three sections. The first panel, to the west, consists of scenes of hunting, fowling, and herding. These scenes are organized along four superimposed registers made up of trees laden with fruit. The second panel, at the center of the nave, is divided into 32 scrolls formed by eight vine branches which begin at the corners. Inside each scroll, in no particular order, there are scenes of hunting, herding, and wine-making. The third panel has alternate series of birds, flowers, fruits, and baskets. Excavation has continued and the remaining mosaics have been cleaned and treated.

This stunning mosaic in the Hippolytus Hall was discovered in 1905 by the property owner, from The Mosaics of Jordan (1992).
This stunning mosaic in the Hippolytus Hall was discovered in 1905 by the property owner; from The Mosaics of Jordan (1993).

The Hippolytus Hall

Excavations between 1972 and 1991 showed that the Church of the Virgin was built above the hall of an early 6th century Madaba house. The western section of the hall had been found in 1905 by Sulayman Sunna, then the property owner. In 1982, the eastern section was unearthed by Michele Piccirillo. A border of acanthus scrolls containing hunting and pastoral scenes frames the central field. The four scrolls in the corners are decorated with personifications of the Seasons. The central field of the mosaic is divided into three panels. In the western panel there are nilotic motifs: flowers and plants which alternate with birds. Two seagulls with extended wings glide over the water. The central panel was partially destroyed when the hall was divided into two rooms in antiquity. The remaining portion shows some of the major characters of the tragedy of Phaedra and Hippolytus. Captions reveal the names of the characters in a scene which shows handmaidens assisting Phaedra. To the south, Hippolytus accompanied by his ministers and a servant holding his mount were shown but that part of the mosaic is largely decayed. In the third panel, Aphrodite sits on a throne next to Adonis who holds a lance. The other figures are Graces and Cupids. In order to show that this scene takes place in the countryside, there is a peasant girl carrying a basket of fruit on her shoulder and a partridge in her hand. Again, the figures are identified by captions. Near the entrance is a medallion in which a pair of sandals is framed by four birds. Along the eastern wall, there are personifications of three cities together with two sea monsters who challenge each other, as well as flowers and birds. The cities are Rome, Gregoria, and Madaba. Each is depicted as Tyche seated on a throne holding a small cross on a long staff in her right hand.

Inscription in the floor of the Church of the Virgin, from The Mosaics of Jordan, (1993).
Inscription in the floor of the Church of the Virgin, from The Mosaics of Jordan, (1993).

The Church of the Virgin

This mosaic was found in 1887 and the inscriptions in it identified the edifice as the Church of the Virgin Mary. Built above a Roman monument, the church has a round nave with a mosaic which had two phases. Flower blossoms and unopened buds which run along the edge of the nave formed part of the earlier mosaic which can be dated to the late 6th to the early 7th century. The well-preserved later mosaic dates to the Umayyad period. It consists of a square frame decorated on the outer edge by a series of serrated points. In the center are a round medallion and an inscription enclosed in a guilloche. In turn, two interwoven squares, which form a star, surround the central design which lies inside another circle. The star is enclosed in a circular border made up of interlaced smaller circles. The inscription which is in the central medallion reads: “If you want to look at Mary, virginal Mother of God, and to Christ whom she generated, Universal King, only Son of the only God, purify [your] mind, flesh, and works! May you purify with [your] prayer the people of God.” A dedicatory inscription in front of the chancel screen says that the mosaic was made in the time of Bishop Theophane, “Thanks to the zeal and ardor of the people who love Christ in this city of Madaba.”

The Church of the Prophet Elias and the Crypt of St. Elianus

Inscription from the Crypt of Saint Elianus in the Church of the Prophet Elias, from The Mosaics of Jordan (1992).
Inscription from the Crypt of Saint Elianus in the Church of the Prophet Elias, from The Mosaics of Jordan (1993).

This church was discovered in 1897. Although it was largely destroyed, early excavations uncovered sections of mosaic pavements, including two inscriptions. The dedicatory inscription near the step leading to the presbytery referred to the Prophet Elias and dated the mosaic to A.D. 607/8. Forming a circle in the nave, the second inscription read: “You who with your prayer set in motion, as is fitting, the clouds, bearers of rain, and who give mercy to the people, O prophet, remember also the benefactors and this humble city.” After 1897, the church underwent further destruction. Excavations were reopened in 1992. Some mosaics still remain in the western part of the nave. These include the medallion with the inscription and sections of the southern and western side of the frame with animals in circles.The Crypt of St. Elianus, also discovered in 1897, is located beneath the Church of the Prophet Elias. Two stairways descend into the crypt from the church. Each stairway terminates in a landing with mosaics: a small tree laden with fruit and a medallion with a three-eight interlaced figure. The floor of the apse was originally decorated with a lunette enclosed in a guilloche. In it were two sheep facing a small tree laden with fruit. Most of this panel has been destroyed. In the nave, a border of winged ribbons encloses a geometric pattern. It is decorated with birds and a dedicatory inscription: “The Christ God has erected this house at the time of the most pious Bishop Sergius for the care of Sergius, the priest of Saint Elianus, the year 490 [A.D. 595/96] … was paved with mosaics with the offering … . ”

Church of the Sunna Family, from Madaba Cultural Heritage (1996).
Church of the Sunna Family, from Madaba Cultural Heritage (1996).

The Church of the Sunna Family

Dated to the 6th century, this church has a nave, two aisles, a central apse, and a synthronon. The mosaic floors of the southern aisle, portions of the nave and a small part of the northern aisle have survived. In the nave, a continuous border of juxtaposed circles was decorated in the corners with the personifications of the Rivers of Paradise. The inner carpet was divided into three main panels. The western one was decorated with hunting scenes in a vineyard. The church was discovered in the early part of the 20th century; excavation were renewed in recent decades and the mosaics have been cleaned and treated by students from the Madaba Mosaic School.

Image of the personification of the Sea in the nave of the Church of the Apostles, from The Mosaics of Jordan (1992).
Image of the personification of the Sea in the nave of the Church of the Apostles, from The Mosaics of Jordan (1993).

The Church of the Apostles

This church is located to the southeast of the acropolis, a few meters from the King’s Highway. In 1902, the name of the structure and the date of its construction, A.D. 578, were discovered in an inscription in one of the three rooms at the eastern end of the church. All three rooms have now been destroyed. Further excavations that same year led to the discovery of a medallion with a personification of the Sea in the center of the nave of the church. The accompanying inscription gives the name of the mosaicist, Salaman. Systematic excavations were conducted at the church by the German Evangelical Institute in 1967. Except for the south side of the border, the body of the sanctuary is well preserved and, because it was not disfigured by the iconoclasts, it has one of the best dated and signed decorative programs of 6th century Madaba. Of particular note are the scenes of youths and animals on three sides of the acanthus scrolls and in the western and eastern surround of the nave. The structure itself is a basilica with a nave and two aisles. Two doors in the north wall of the church lead to two chapels which also contain mosaics. The chapel at the northwest corner is decorated with a series of stags, sheep, and gazelles facing small pomegranate and apple trees. The second chapel is divided into two areas. The western area is decorated with four fruit trees, one in each corner, oriented toward the center of the room. Between the trees, there are three pairs of animals. The east side is occupied by a dedicatory inscription which refers to “the temple of the Holy Apostles.” The other area of the room is decorated with a grid of flowers on which are trees, flowers, leaves, fruits, buds, and a bird. The whole composition is enclosed in a guilloche.

This blog is drawn from excerpts of Michele Piccirillo and Branwen Denton’s article “Archaeological Remains” in the 1996 ACOR publication Madaba Cultural Heritage, edited by Patricia M. Bikai and Thomas A. Dailey.

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