A Virtual Visit to the “City of Mosaics”

New project brings biblical Madaba to life

The walled city of Byzantine Jerusalem, as depicted on the sixth-century Madaba Map, the oldest-known map of the Holy Land.

With many people unable to travel during the past year, archaeological and tourism sites across the Middle East have faced extremely difficult times. The ancient biblical city of Madaba, located 20 miles south of Amman in central Jordan, is no exception. In 2019, the city known for its ancient churches and beautiful mosaics saw nearly 650,000 visitors, but during the year of the pandemic, Jordan’s “City of Mosaics” became a ghost town.

With support from the One Place, Many Stories program, however, towns like Madaba that are dependent on tourism are finding new and innovative ways to draw attention to their sites and hopefully attract tourists in the future. The program, developed with support from CyArk, a nonprofit organization funded through the U.S. Departments of State’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, has helped community members create 3D, interactive models of several of the city’s historical sites. Most notable is the Church of St. George, which houses the famous sixth-century C.E. Madaba Map, the oldest-known map of the Holy Land that features a stunning mosaic depiction of Jerusalem. Other Madaba landmarks that have been modeled include the Church of St. Mary and the Burnt Palace, both of which feature stunning and elaborate mosaics from the Byzantine period. These incredible 3D models, along with guided virtual tours and stories from local community members, have now been made available online for anyone to view, completely free.

Already a major settlement by the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2100–1550 B.C.E.), Madaba was a Moabite border town that is mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible, first as a town destroyed by the Israelites (Numbers 21:30), and later as part of the territory allotted to the tribe of Reuben (Joshua 13:16). The famous Moabite Stone records that Mesha, king of Moab, re-conquered the city for the Moabites in the ninth century B.C.E.

Under Roman and Byzantine rule, the city rose to even greater prominence and became a hub of early Christian life, with numerous churches and monasteries, many adorned with beautiful mosaic pavements. Today, the excavated remains of many of these sites can be visited, including several Roman churches, halls, a palace, and a well-preserved Roman street.

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Read more in the BAS Library:

Excavating the Tribe of Reuben
by: Larry G. Herr, Douglas R. Clark
We were lucky. There’s no other way to explain it. When our archaeological survey team, part of a larger expedition known as the Madaba Plains Project, discovered Tall al-‘Umayri in 1976, we had no idea it would yield great treasures. But now, almost 25 years later and after seven excavation seasons (beginning in 1984), we can only stand back and marvel as the Holy Land’s best-preserved site from the time of the Judges slowly emerges from beneath more than three millennia of accumulated dust and debris.

Why King Mesha of Moab Sacrificed His Oldest Son
by: Baruch Margalit
In his highly interesting article, Why the Moabite Stone Was Blown to Pieces, BAR 12:03, Professor Siegfried Horn recounts the ninth-century B.C. war between Moab and an alliance of Israel, Judah and Edom. When the alliance besieged the Moabite capital of Kir-Hareseth, the Moabite king Mesha, in desperation, sacrificed his eldest son to the god Chemosh. King Mesha offered the crown prince as a burnt offering on top of the city wall in full view of the enemy forces.

Why the Moabite Stone Was Blown to Pieces
by: Siegfried H. Horn
F. A. Klein was an Anglican minister, born in Alsace, who came to the Holy Land as a medical missionary in the mid-1800s. Although he lived in Jerusalem, he traveled widely on both sides of the Jordan, seeking to relieve pain and win converts. As a result of his work in Palestine, he spoke Arabic fluently and had many friends among the Arabs.

Scholars Identify Biblical King Balak on the Mesha Stele
by: Robin Ngo
One of the most exceptional biblical archaeology artifacts ever found, the three-foot-tall Mesha Stele contains a 34-line inscription celebrating the Moabite vassal king Mesha’s rebellion against the Israelites. Renowned epigrapher André Lemaire identified in line 31 of the ninth-century B.C.E. stele the phrase בת[ד]וד (bt[d]wd), or “House of David”—a tantalizing reference to King David on an artifact discovered before the famed Tel Dan inscription that also references David. Scholars Israel Finkelstein, Nadav Na’aman, and Thomas Römer have recently re-examined the inscription, however, and propose a new reading: Line 31 references not the “House of David,” but the Moab king Balak from the story of Balaam in the Bible (Numbers 22–24).

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