Madaba

Modern Madaba, 30 km southwest of Amman, continues an urban tradition that can be traced back at least 4,500 years (ACOR 2015). The ancient Bronze and Iron Age settlement of Madaba located at Tall Madaba, the hill in the center of the city, has now been mostly built over by the modern city. Madaba was prominent in Roman times and continued to flourish in the Byzantine and Umayyad periods. On and around the tell are the remains of the Roman and Byzantine city, often represented by churches featuring mosaic pavements for which Madaba is now famous. Most notable is the 6th-century mosaic known as the Madaba Map, the earliest map of the Holy Land including Jerusalem. After being abandoned in the mid-8th century, with limited occupation in the Abbasid and Mamluk periods, Madaba was resettled in the late 19th century by Christians from Karak. Madaba today is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city with a population of more than 60,000 and is a popular tourist destination.

The Madaba Archaeological Park Project

The Roman street in the Eastern Archaeological Park in 1986, prior to the Madaba Archaeological Park Project. Rami Khouri Collection. (ACOR Photo Archive. RK_J_2_S_68_136.)

In 1991, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of Jordan, the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) initiated a project to create an archaeological park in the heart of Madaba. The park includes a well-preserved stretch of a late Roman street and buildings dating from the Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods and the early 20th century. The goals of the park project were to explore the history of Madaba, to protect its archaeological heritage from destruction, and to revitalize downtown Madaba.

The need to preserve Madaba’s rich heritage became acute during the building boom of the 1970s and 1980s. The value of having an archaeological park in the city center had been shown by the extensive excavations of Michele Piccirillo, who at that time was preparing a major ACOR publication, The Mosaics of Jordan (1993). For the Madaba Archaeological Park Project, ACOR played a pivotal role in excavating, conserving, and creating shelters over multiple archaeological sites, in order to preserve them and make them accessible to visitors.

Modern Madaba, 30 km southwest of Amman, continues an urban tradition that can be traced back at least 4,500 years.

The project focused on three main locations in Madaba: 1) the eastern half of the archaeological park, centered around the Byzantine Church of the Virgin Mary and the Hippolytus Hall, built along a Roman street; 2) the western half of the archaeological park centered around the “Burnt Palace” along a further stretch of the Roman street; and 3) the Church of the Apostles, located around 500 m southeast of the Madaba Archaeological Park. All the buildings can be dated to between the 6th and 8th centuries AD, namely the Byzantine and Umayyad periods.

As part of the project, restoration work on the mosaics was conducted by the Madaba Mosaic School, by ACOR conservators, and by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. In a related project, under a grant from the Canada Fund to ACOR, buildings within the archaeological park were renovated for use by the Madaba Mosaic School in 1992, part of a project of the Italian government to train mosaic conservators. The school is now known as the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration (MIMAR).

Former ACOR director Pierre M. Bikai, who oversaw the project, stated: “The projects had several components: development for tourism, training unskilled workers, excavation followed by publication, and restoration and presentation of sites. When we started in Madaba, there were only two souvenir shops and one restaurant. By the time we finished the Apostle’s Church and the Madaba Archaeological Park in late 1995, there were more than fifty souvenir shops, restaurants, and hotels” (Bikai 2008).

This work by ACOR in Madaba has been connected with other archaeological projects over the years. These include the Tell Madaba Archaeological Project, directed by Tim Harrison from 1996 (University of Chicago and University of Toronto) and Debra Foran from 2006 (University of Toronto) (Foran 2012), and, since 2015, the Madaba Regional Archaeological Museum Project through USAID Sustainable Cultural Heritage through Engagement of Local Communities Project (SCHEP), which aims to develop a new archaeological museum in Madaba within the archaeological park.

Madaba Archaeological Park East

Inscription in the floor of the Church of the Virgin. (Piccirillo 1993, 19 no. 22.)

As part of the development of the Madaba Archaeological Park, excavations were conducted in the area of the Church of the Virgin and the Batjaly area by Michele Piccirillo. In this eastern area of the park, a large shelter was constructed of over the already excavated Church of the Virgin and 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 also displayed.

The Hippolytus Hall was probably a dining hall within a house or mansion built over the remains of a Roman temple. The hall dates to the first half of the 6th century AD and contained an elaborate mosaic depicting the major characters of the tragedy of Phaedra and Hippolytus by Euripides. Then, in the late 6th century, the Church of the Virgin Mary was built over the Hippolytus Hall. A shelter protects the mosaics from the elements and includes a walkway allowing visitors to safely view the interiors of both buildings.

Excavations were also carried out in the adjacent Church of the Prophet Elias, located on the other side of the Roman street from the Church of the Virgin. Excavations were carried out by Cherie Lenzen, Ghazi Bisheh, and Michele Piccirillo. The crypt of the church features a distinctive mosaic depicting a tree of life.

Madaba Archaeological Park West

Madaba Archaeological Park excavations in the west wing of the Burnt Palace with Ghazi Bisheh and Thomas Dailey, 1993.

Development of the western half of the Madaba Archaeological Park involved a year and a half of excavations by Cherie Lenzen and Ghazi Bisheh along the Roman street and the Burnt Palace. In 1994–1995 the Department of Antiquities carried out further excavations in the narthex of the Church of al-Khadir (Church of the Martyrs) south of the Burnt Palace and around the western periphery of the park. A modern building (the Beit al-Masri) that stands over part of the Burnt Palace was renovated as the Ministry of Tourism office.

Excavations in this area exposed a stretch of the Roman street already known in the eastern half of the park. The Burnt Palace to the north of the street was shown to be a large secular building from the Byzantine period, perhaps a private residence. The north half of the palace had already been destroyed by modern construction. The preserved south half revealed an open central courtyard and an east and west wing with lovely figural mosaics. The Burnt Palace was destroyed by a mid-8th century fire, which left the thick ash deposits that give the palace its name. Only limited reoccupation followed, in the early Abbasid period. There was some occupation of the area in the Mamluk period, but only at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century was this area of Madaba’s city center built once again. The final publication of the Burnt Palace is being prepared by Robert Schick on behalf of ACOR.

Personification of a season from the Burnt Palace. (Photo by Mary Scott. Bikai and Dailey 1996, vi)

Madaba: The Church of the Apostles

The Church of the Apostles, located 500 m south of the archaeological park and beyond the acropolis of Madaba, is the southernmost church within the Madaba Archaeological Park.

In 1902, excavations uncovered the church and its mosaic floors, featuring a medallion with a personification of the sea. An inscription in the mosaic recorded the name of the church and the date of its construction in AD 568 by the mosaicist Salaman. Further excavations were conducted by the German Evangelical Institute in 1967. Most of the 6th-century mosaic is well preserved. There are scenes of youths and animals on three sides of the acanthus scrolls and in the western and eastern surround of the nave.

There are two chapels to the north. The western one is decorated with a series of stags, sheep, and gazelles facing trees, and an inscription mentioning a Bishop John. The second chapel is divided into two areas. One area is decorated with trees and animals and a dedicatory inscription that refers to “the temple of the Holy Apostles.” The other area of the room has a grid of flowers with trees, flowers, leaves, fruits, and birds.

The shelter over the Church of the Apostles was completed by ACOR in 1995, with Ammar Khammash as architect. The mosaics were restored by the Madaba Mosaics School in 1996–1998.

The Madaba Regional Archaeological Museum Project

With support from USAID SCHEP, implemented by ACOR, the Madaba Regional Archaeological Museum Project (MRAMP) has conducted excavations, conservation, architectural planning, local community engagement, and capacity building and training for museum professionals, to help prepare for a new museum in the center of Madaba while also enhancing collections management and storage in the current Archaeological Museum in Madaba, managed by the Department of Antiquities. The new museum is intended to display many important archaeological finds from the Madaba region and to incorporate the remains of the late Ottoman-era buildings conserved within the western part of the park. MRAMP is co-directed by Douglas Clark, Suzanne Richard, Basem Mahamid, Marta D’Andrea, and Andrea Polcaro (Richard et al 2019; Al Adarbeh et al. 2020: 39–45).

For more details, see:

ACOR 1991. “The Pella/Umm Qeis Resthouses and the Mosaic Shelters in Madaba.” ACOR Newsletter 5: 4–5.

ACOR 1994. “The Madaba Archaeological Park.” ACOR Newsletter 6 (1): 1–9.

ACOR 2015. “Madaba – A Short History of a Vibrant Jordanian City.” ACORJordan.org, 17 September 2015.

Al-Adarbeh, N. et al. 2020. The Story of SCHEP: Sustainable Cultural Heritage Through Engagement of Local Communities Project. Amman: ACOR.

Bikai, P.M. 2008. “ACOR 1991–2006: Reflections by Pierre M. Bikai.” ACOR Newsletter 20 (1): 12–14.

Bikai, P.M. and Dailey, T.A. 1996. Madaba: Cultural Heritage. Amman: ACOR.

Foran, D. 2012. “Fifteen years of Research in Madaba—The City of Mosaics.” ACOR Newsletter 24 (1): 1–3.

Piccirillo, M. 1992. The Mosaics of Jordan. Amman, Jordan: American Center of Oriental Research.

Richard, S., D’Andrea, Polcaro, A. and Clark, D.R. 2019. “An Innovative Strategy to Protect Cultural Heritage in Jordan: The Madaba Regional Archaeological Museum Project (MRAMP).” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies 7 (2): 223–253.

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