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Madaba Mosaic Map: Palestine, 565 A.D.

Parthian Empire 247 BC–224 AD)
Stacked Wooden Logs


In 1896 Kleopas Koikylides visited a sixth-century church then being rebuilt in Madaba, Jordan. He discovered in the floor the oldest extant map of Palestine, the Madaba Mosaic. It is the most significant example of the biblical school of mapmaking to have survived and probably descends from the lost map of Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea. Koikylides, the librarian for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, halted the construction, which tragically had damaged the mosaic, and drew scholarly attention to this unique and splendid artifact.

The surviving sections depict biblical Palestine from Salem, south of Bet She' an, to the Nile Delta. The map is oriented with east at the top, and the Mediterranean coastline runs straight from left to right, aligning Alexandria with the Holy Land coast and tracing the Nile east to west. A study of the source material and three fragments elsewhere in the floor indicates that originally the map measured nearly seven by twenty-two meters, plus a wide margin, and depicted the area from Byblus and Damascus in the north to Alexandria and the Red Sea in the south.

The biblical focus of the map is immediately apparent, though the mapmaker carefully locates ancient sites within a contemporary framework of the local Roman roads. The regions of five of the Twelve Tribes of Israel are distinguished in the existing sections. There are numerous sites associated with the Old Testament, such as the Oaks of Mamre, Jacob's Well, the Desert of Zin that figured in the Exodus, and the location of the brazen serpent, which saved the Israelites. New Testament features include the garden of Gethsemane and Beth Abara, where St. John was baptized.
Much of the map depicts nonbiblical information. The Nile Delta contains many cities. Specifically Roman references include several mileposts outside of Jerusalem and the Hot Springs of Callerhoe, where Herod, the Roman King of Palestine, took a rest cure. There are also two local ferries crossing the Jordan River.

Natural features include the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, three portions of the Mediterranean coastline, the Nile Delta, and a number of mountain ranges. The twin mountains of Gerizein and Gegal are shown twice in different locations in deference to both Jewish and Samaritan traditions. Palm trees line the Jordan, and fish swim in the Jordan and the Nile. Two fishing boats sail on the Dead Sea.

Jerusalem is dominant among the nearly 150 places described. It occupies the center and is shown in intricate detail, nearly ten times larger than other parts of the map. Virtually all the buildings in the city, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, may be identified. Individual gates are designated as well as a column thought to be the point of reference for Roman surveyors and road builders.
The excellent detail of Jerusalem allows scholars to date the map between A.D. 560 and 565. The Church of the Theodokos was consecrated on November 23, 542, and the Wall built by Eudocia to enclose Mt. Sion was completed shortly afterwards, in the middle of the sixth century. Accounts of Jerusalem from about 570 begin to record alterations not depicted on the map.

According to one of the mosaics inscriptions, construction was sponsored entirely by the inhabitants of Madaba. The project required at least three mosaicists as well as a specialist in biblical topography. The artist chose from a wide selection of cubes: eight different colors were used, as well as ten additional shades of red and blue. Given the size of the original map, nearly 2,300,000 cubes were laid. If an expert worker could place two hundred cubes an hour, a team of three would have had to work twelve hours a day for a full year to accomplish the design in stone.

The procedure involved composing a sketch map, drawing the outlines in wet cement, and then placing lines of black cubes; the interior was filled in next with colored cubes. In the mountainous areas, the hills were drawn first, then captions, and finally the symbols for villages and churches. In the plains the order was reversed, and the placement of symbols preceded the inscriptions.

The map was damaged, probably during the Iconoclastic controversy in the eighth or ninth century. The Iconoclasts, followers of the Byzantine emperors, believed that it was idolatrous to portray living figures in churches. They effaced scenes of a lion chasing a gazelle in the wilderness of Moab, and sailors rowing two boats on the Dead Sea.

Damage was repaired by filling in the obliterated spaces with a random assortment of cubes. Unfortunately, the map suffered again while the church was being rebuilt in the nineteenth century, and these portions have been replaced by brown and tan cement. Otherwise, the Madaba map has been preserved as it was constructed over fourteen hundred years ago.

The two main sources for information on the map are Eusebius's Onomastikon (388) and a Roman road map. Copies of the Onomastikon were probably in Madaba from a very early date. Madaba was also the seat of a bishop and, after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Madaba and Caesarea, where Euscbius had been bishop over a century earlier, were both under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. More importantly, most of the inscriptions and place names are identical with the unique surviving Greek manuscript of Eusebius s text.

Jerome's version of Eusebius' map, known from a twelfth century copy, bears some similarities to the Madaba Mosaic, particularly in the rectangular format and treatment of the Nile Delta and Mediterranean Sea. Both show a huge inlet, called on Jerome's map the Egyptian Sea, between Palestine and the Nile Delta (also visible on medieval maps like the Hereford World Map of about 1275, Slide #226). The Madaba Mosaic, however, probably reflects the lost map of Eusebius more accurately than Jerome's does. In addition to the close textual relationship, the mosaic is divided by the territories of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, distinguishing feature of Eusebius s map.

The second major source is a Roman road map, similar to the Peutinger Table (Slide #120). Madaba was on a Roman road that linked Damascus, Philadelphia (Amman), and Petra with Aela (Eilat). on the Gulf of Aqaba and that brought incense and spice caravans from the East to the Roman Empire. All the cities on the mosaic lie along major routes; lesser towns near roads are depicted to the exclusion of larger but more remote places. Some villages are located on a road from which they were actually far removed. Finally, a column is shown in Jerusalem that was the point of reference for local surveyors, and two mileposts are identified just outside the city.

The Madaba Mosaic is spectacular proof of Roman and Byzantine accomplishment. It illustrates the scholarly work of Eusebius and the technical capabilities of provincial mapmakers and mosaicists. No other map of Palestine is as old, and few so masterfully portray biblical topography.

Location: Madaba, Jordan

*Avi Yonah, Madaba Mosaic Map
Beazley, C. R., The Dawn of Modern Geography, volume 2, pp. 580-83, 633-36
*Nebenzahl, K., Maps of the Holy Land, pp. 24-25, Plate 5.

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Very good information.

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