In 1996, the scientific world celebrated the 110th anniversary of one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the study of the Holy Land the map of Madaba. This map, actually a mosaic floor, was revealed when the foundations were being dug for the construction of a Greek Orthodox church in a place which had once been a central town in the biblical kingdom of Moab. The late Israeli archaeologist, Prof. Michael Avi-Yonah, who worked on the mosaic together with several other researchers, dated the building of the mosaic floor to the second half of the sixth century (565-560 ce). In any event, it is certain that the map was made during the Byzantine period and it is one of the most beautiful geographical testimonies extant to the biblical Land of Israel, from Babylon to Egypt and from the Arabian desert to the Mediterranean Sea.
During the Byzantine period (324 until the Persian conquest of 614 ce), Madaba was on the eastern border of the province of Palaestina, the smallest of the provinces of the Byzantine Empire. It was one of four cities (together with Heshbon, Philadelphia modern Amman and Jerash) on the western border of the Byzantine province of Arabia, which shared a northern border with Palaestina Secunda, in the centre with Palaestina Prima, and in the south, with Palaestina Tertia. These were the main districts of the province, which were later divided into sub-districts.
When Christianity was adopted as the religion of the Byzantine Empire, the ecclesiastical division of the government was adapted to suit its administrative division. Each administrative area was headed by a bishop, who was the head of the churches in his district. All the bishops were subject to the rule of the Archbishop of Caesarea who sat at the administrative and ecclesiastic centre of Palaestina and was head of all the churches in the area. This hierarchy lasted until the days of Juvenal, who was bishop of Jerusalem in the first half of the fifth century. Juvenal contended for, and won, the title of Patriarch of Antioch in the decisive meeting at Chalcedon (451 ce) and became head of the Eastern Church.
The Chalcedon Order determined that the archbishops of Caesarea, Beisan (Beit Shean) and Petra would come under the rule of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, while the bishops of Arabia and Phoenicia would remain subject to the Patriarch of Antioch.
Thus the church at Madaba was no longer in the area of Palaestina; neither politically nor ecclesiastially. It is therefore amazing that the church maintained such a close relationship with Eretz-Israel and Jerusalem. This relationship is clearly expressed in the mosaic floor which apparently decorated a church or magnificent public edifice, and which avoided the use of religious symbols or portraits of political and ecclesiastic rulers of the period.
In 1880, the Bedouin tribe of Aziziat, Christian by faith, settled in the by now ruined, site of Madaba. Members of the Greek Orthodox community living in the area had flourished, and while involved in construction work, had discovered the mosaic floor, with its depiction of the Holy Land in the form of a map. Notice of the discovery was conveyed to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Nicodemos (1883-1890), but he did not recognize its importance. His successor, the Patriarch Gerasimos, (1890-1897) realized the significance of the discovery and determined to erect a church at the site. In 1890, he sent an architect to Madaba, and ordered him to examine the remains and to include them in the new church "if he deemed them worthy of inclusion."
But the architect saw no value in the mosaic floor. The new church was therefore situated partly on the foundations of the ancient church, and later the construction itself actually destroyed parts of it (the part of the floor depicting the area between Hebron and Beersheba, the southern area till the Zered Stream, and more). According to witnesses who saw the floor before the builders got to work, the mosaic had been almost complete at that time.
The first scholar who appreciated the scientific and artistic value of the floor was Father Kleopas Koikylides, who was librarian of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem. He visited Madaba in December, 1896, and he began to publicize it in March, 1897. The map was first copied and issued in a coloured print in 1906.
Jerusalem is the most prominent site on the map. The city is seen as if from the air and is presented in three-dimensional form with a considerable degree of realism. Despite the schematic interpretation, the stereotypical design of the buildings and the selectivity in choosing them, it gives a tangible depiction of Jerusalem in the sixth century, with its walls, towers and gates, its streets and main buildings. This is the most ancient pictorial representation of Jerusalem ever found and it is a primary source for studying the plan of the city.
Because the anonymous artist wished to emphasize Jerusalems prominence on the map, it is as if he split the city into two the Cardo, which is its main street, divides it into two projections the eastern part leans west while the western part slants downwards. The buildings in the western part of the city are displayed from their western side except for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a few other important buildings whose façades point eastward.
In the walls of the city, 21 towers can be seen. The largest is the one erroneously called "The Tower of David" and which probably should be called "The Tower of Phasael," built by King Herod. North of it and behind the tower of Phasael the tower of Hippicus can be seen. The walls of the city are pierced by six gates, the number of gates in the wall until the New Gate was opened in the Christian Quarter in the 1890s.
The Madaba map also gives prominence to other areas. We see the Jordan Valley south of Beit Shean to the Cannubian tributary of the Nile. The Dead Sea is drawn with boats and sailors. In the plains of Moab, a lion appears and fish swim in the Jordan and the Nile. In the Jordan Plain there are palm trees, and adjacent to each item are written explanations. Important cities and tribal lands appear in red in Greek. Next to the names of some of the cities, are the names of important events that occurred later in the area. Father Koikylides dated it to 350-450 ce, since it did not include the large monasteries in the Judean desert built after 450 ce.
Other researchers were aided by inscriptions found in a nearby cistern, in which there is mention of the Emperor Justinian (527-565 ce), who built the Nea Church in Jerusalem. This epigraphic evidence has been discounted by other researchers because of the lack of any connection between the cistern and the church; despite their proximity, the cistern is outside the wall of Jerusalem and the church is within its walls.
Professor Avi Yona produced nine supporting pieces of evidence for his hypothesis that the map should be dated to the second half of the fifth century: the depiction of the Sanctuary of John the Baptist near Beit Evra shows that the map cannot be dated prior to the builder of the sanctuary, the Emperor Anastasius (491-518 ce); the description of the Nea Church, built by Justinian and dedicated in 543 ce, shows that the map is later than this date; the Church next to the Well of Elisheva is first mentioned by Theodosius in about 570 ce, as is the church of Saint Victor near Gaza.
Detail from the Madaba Map showing the "Salt" or "Asphalt" Sea - The Dead Sea
Another researcher, Thompson, draws a parallel between the mosaic floor and another Madaba mosaic in the Church of the Apostles, built in the days of Bishop Sergius in 579 ce. According to another inscription, Sergius served at least till 596 ce. Both of these mosaics resemble the floor of Hirams grave near the city of Tyre, dating from 573 ce.
Besides its scientific and historical value for the study of Eretz-Israel in the Byzantine period, the Madaba map is a unique and priceless source of information and documentation of the Land of Israel and of Jerusalem for those interested in places that are sacred to Judaism and to Christianity.
Section of the Madaba Map showing Jerusalem - the most prominent site on the whole map.
1 Damascus Gate|
2 St. Stephen's Gate
3 Golden Gate
4 Dung Gate
5 Zion Gate
6 Jaffa Gate
7 Church of the Holy Sepulchre
8 Nea Church
9 Temple Mount
10 The Cardo