Reexamining the famous Madaba Map
In 1884, the local community in Madaba, Jordan, made an incredible discovery, the oldest Holy Land map in the world. The now-famous Madaba Map, however, is not found on a piece of paper but rather is part of an intricately designed mosaic floor, now part of the Church of St. George. The map was constructed in the second half of the sixth century C.E. and originally depicted the entire Holy Land and neighboring regions. Although older maps have been discovered, the Madaba Map is by far the oldest Holy Land map. It is not the map’s age that makes it remarkable, however, but rather its extreme accuracy and detail.
The preserved portions of the map depict much of the biblical world, with the Jordan River and the Dead Sea in the center of the floor. The Holy Land map stretches from the area of modern Lebanon in the north to Egypt’s Nile Delta in the south, with the Mediterranean Sea as its western border and the Jordan desert as its eastern border. Using at least eight different colors, the Madaba Map portrays the cities, landscapes, flora, and fauna of the region. The map further includes more than 150 Greek inscriptions with place names, Bible verses, and quotations from other ancient works. Of special note is the map’s portrayal of the Byzantine city of Jerusalem, which appears larger on the map than any other city. The depiction of Jerusalem, like other large cities shown on the map, includes the city’s walls, streets, and major buildings and monuments. Indeed, the Jerusalem depiction is so detailed that some consider it to be an accurate map of the Byzantine city. The image of Jerusalem includes 19 towers, six city gates, three city streets, 11 churches, and several other buildings. The map’s representation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remains the only known artistic representation of the original church complex as it was constructed by Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century.
Several other features of ancient Jerusalem, only uncovered in the 20th century, can also be identified in the Holy Land map. As such, the map functions as an incredible window into the ancient city of Jerusalem during the Byzantine period. Examples include the city’s ancient Cardo Maximus and the Nea Theotokos (New Church of the Mother of God).
To this day, the purpose of Madaba’s Holy Land map remains a mystery, along with the identification of its creators. However, three main theories have been put forward as to the map’s original purpose. One hypothesis holds that the map was originally intended to serve as a guide for Christian pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land, either as an actual map to guide pilgrims in reaching sites or as a visual tool that might allow pilgrims to ‘virtually’ travel to holy sites. The second hypothesis is that the Holy Land map was intended to visualize “God’s salvation history.”1 According to this theory, the map served to display the salvation of God by placing Jerusalem at the center of the world, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the center of Jerusalem. In either case, the map’s creation goes back to the sixth-century Christian community in Madaba that had the map constructed for the floor of its church. Byzantine Madaba was a very wealthy city that included many churches with beautiful mosaic floors. Indeed, today Madaba has the nickname “the City of Mosaics.”
There are notable problems with these two theories, however, in that many of the places noted on the map have nothing to do with Christian pilgrimage, and many holy sites are either completely missing from the map or appear only as minor features. For instance, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is completely missing and Bethlehem itself is marked in small letters. Additionally, recent studies have suggested that Jerusalem would have been nowhere close to the center of the map when it was created. Instead, Madaba itself would have been at the map’s center, and may have been represented at the same scale as Jerusalem. Furthermore, all four biblical verses referenced on the map are from the Old Testament, not the New, while the map contains just a single reference to Jesus.2
A third hypothesis, proposed in the journal Gesta, argues that the map was not created for a church at all. Instead, the Holy Land map was created as the mosaic floor of an elaborate public audience hall within the city. As such, the map would have not have been created for religious or devotional reasons, but rather for political and economic ones. In many cases, however, the map’s religious and political functions would have overlapped, especially given the power and influence wielded by the Church in the Byzantine period. This would explain why the Madaba Map bears very little stylistic similarity to other contemporary church mosaics and instead is far more similar to mosaics found in residential and palatial buildings. Early descriptions of the Holy Land map also mention several places, now no longer visible on the mosaic, that would be far outside the dimensions of the original Byzantine church. It is possible, then, that the Byzantine church was a later addition and that the mosaic—which was perhaps once far more expansive—was originally part of an earlier and much larger structure. Unfortunately, this theory cannot be confirmed, as the Church of St. George, which was constructed in the ninth century, largely removed earlier archaeological material, including the full extent of the mosaic map.
The extant map measures about 35 by 15 feet, or around 560 square feet. Most scholars estimate that the map was originally around 1,000 square feet, although some think it was even larger, perhaps double that size. But even at the smaller extent, the original mosaic map would have been made up of more than 1 million tesserae, or individual stone tiles. Various reconstructions likewise differ on the locations that would have been present on the original map. Conservative estimates place the northern border on the Phoenician coast and the southern border at Mt. Sinai and the Egyptian city of Thebes. This would have roughly followed the borders of the Promised Land described in Numbers 34:1–12. Meanwhile, other scholars think the original map would have included Asia Minor, Crete, Cyprus, the Red Sea, and even parts of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
It is clear that one of the primary sources for the map’s geography was the Greek translation of the Bible. Another major source was the Onomasticon of Biblical Place Names by Eusebius of Caesarea, written around 320 C.E. Several of the mosaic’s inscriptions are taken word-for-word from Eusebius. It is also likely that the mosaic relied on the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, as well as Byzantine trade and pilgrimage maps. However, the map’s creators also clearly relied upon their own experience of the land and its geography. The incredible visual details given on the map could only have been provided by someone familiar with the locations. Indeed, as one moves farther away from Madaba on the map, more inaccuracies can be found, suggesting the creators were quite familiar with the landscape around central Transjordan and the Judean hill country, but were less aware of the geography of more distant locales.
1 Herbert Donner, The Mosaic Map of Madaba: An Introductory Guide (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing, 1993).
2 Beatrice Leal, “A Reconsideration of the Madaba Map,” Gesta 57/2 (2018), pp. 123–143.
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