The Holy Land – ‘Floored’ by history – The city of Madaba
‘Floored’ by history – The city of Madaba
Madaba which means ‘calmly moving water’ in Aramaic is located about thirty kilometres south west from the capital city of Amman. In the Bible, Madaba, a Moabite town is mentioned in Joshua 13:9, 16 and in Numbers 21:30 as ‘Medeba’. David also vanquished an Ammonite and Aramean coalition near Madaba (I Chronicles 19: 7). His victory was short-lived, however, as in the mid-ninth century BCE the Moabite King Mesha freed the city from the control of the Israelites (2 Kings 3). This is the land that Moses gave to the Reubenites as their inheritance. Historically, at the time of the Exodus and conquest in 1406 BC, Madaba and Mt. Nebo were part of the territory of Moab.
Around 614 AD the Persian sacked Madaba and it was further ruined by an earthquake in 747 AD after which it stood abandoned for a thousand years. In 1880 a group of 2000 Christians from Karak settled in Madaba. The Ottomans allowed the Christians to build Churches but only on the same location as the ancient Churches. The sites of the ancient Churches going back to the Byzantine period were marked by mosaic floors and this helped the Christians identify these ancient Churches. A total of 14 Churches were reconstructed which earned the city the nick name; city of mosaics.
The Greek Orthodox Church of St George was built in 1896 over the remains of a Byzantine era Church going back to the sixth century AD during the reign of emperor Justinian (AD 527-565). The Church holds the oldest existing map of the holy land in mosaic embedded in the floor completed in 542 AD and was twenty feet wide and is based upon the ” Onomasticon” written by Eusebius in 325 AD.
The current remains of the mosaic measuring 34.5 feet x 16.5 feet or 10.5 meters x 5 meters are patchy and not entirely square; only about one-third the original size. There are currently 750,000 cubes remaining. The original size of the map was approximately 51 ft x 19.5 ft (15.5 m x 6 m), although no borders are visible. It has 150 Greek inscriptions in various sizes, and covers the area from Tyre in the north to the Egyptian Delta in the south.
In about 700 AD, the Muslims under the Umayyad Dynasty were offended by the fact that the mosaic portrays Jesus as God’s Son and that Jesus is seen walking on water asking Peter to get out of the fishing boat to join him; so they defaced the mosaic where it shows Islam to be an apostate religion.
Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's, Mahim, St Paul's, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.