A Visual Journey through Nebo’s Beautiful Byzantine Mosaics
The region of Mt. Nebo and the nearby city of Madaba in Jordan are world famous for their Byzantine mosaics, which date from the fifth to eighth centuries and often decorate early Christian churches and monasteries. These splendid works of ancient art even led Madaba to be named the “Mosaic City” by the World Crafts Council in 2016. As I describe here, the mosaics depict an elaborate and varied array of agricultural and pastoral scenes that provide vivid insight into the life, occupations, and pastimes of the region’s ancient inhabitants.
As described in my article, “Moses and the Monks of Nebo,” in the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, the Basilica of Moses within the Byzantine monastery on Mt. Nebo is adorned with a whole series of mosaics. All of the side chapels as well as the aisles of the church were decorated with pavements. The hunting and shepherding scenes from the Old Diakonikon-Baptistery will be familiar to many (see image above). The New Baptistery Chapel, on the south side of the basilica, is decorated with natural scenes of gazelles and birds nibbling on different fruit trees. The nave of the Theotokos Chapel, also on the south side, is covered with geometric motifs, but the mosaic floor in front of the altar contains images of gazelles, bulls, and flowers facing a depiction of a temple.
Located less than 2 miles from Mt. Nebo, the three churches discovered at the site of Khirbat al-Mukhayyat (also known as the “Town of Nebo”) are all paved with exceptional mosaics. The Church of St. George, on the site’s acropolis, contains a number of pavements. As worshipers entered the building, they were greeted by agricultural scenes, exotic animals, and the portrait of John, son of Ammonius, presumably a major donor to the church. The nave of the building has a series of agricultural scenes framed by circles created by acanthus leaves.
The Church of St. Lot and Procopius, at the north end of the site, has vibrant mosaics depicting fruit trees, pairs of animals, hunting scenes, and wine production. On the eastern slope of the site, nestled among the remains of the Byzantine village, is the Church of Amos and Kasiseus. While the church itself does not have any mosaics, the small Chapel of the Priest John attached to its north side has two superimposed pavements. Both mosaics contain similar scenes of grape harvesting and hunting, but the later one is more elaborate and detailed. It also features the representation of a building façade that contains an inscription naming the benefactors who likely paid for the mosaic.
The colonnaded façade of a building, flanked by peacocks and fruit trees, from a mosaic discovered in the Chapel of the Priest John at Khirbat al-Mukhayyat’s Church of Amos and Kasiseus. The Greek inscription inside the façade gives the names of the mosaic’s benefactors. Courtesy of Debra Foran.
Near the Spring of Moses (‘Uyun Musa), in the valley just east of Mt. Nebo, there are two churches decorated with mosaics. The Church of the Deacon Thomas has a number of intricate pavements, but the most spectacular is the one in the nave. It boasts a series of hunting and grape harvesting scenes surrounded by a grapevine that winds around all the human and animal figures. The Church of Kaianus contained two superimposed mosaics. The earlier pavement has pastoral and agricultural scenes, while the later one is almost entirely decorated with geometric motifs, along with images of three benefactors, one of whom is leading a camel.
Southwest of the large monastery at Mt. Nebo is the much smaller Monastery of the Theotokos at ʻAyn al-Kanisah. The monastery’s chapel is adorned with a mosaic depicting a grapevine that meanders around a variety of images. This pavement also shows evidence of the iconoclastic damage suffered by many of the mosaics from Mt. Nebo and other nearby sites, including Umm ar-Rasas (pictured), during the eighth century. The artistic depiction of humans and animals was banned during the early Islamic period. This resulted in the erasure of the offending images. At times, only parts of the image were removed, while in other instances, the entire image was erased. This damage, though deliberate, was often carefully performed in order to preserve the mosaic and ensure that the church or chapel could still be used by worshipers.
Debra Foran is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. She directs the Town of Nebo Archaeological Project at Khirbat al-Mukhayyat in Jordan.
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