The geological depression (Ghor in Arabic) that separates the mountain of Palestine from the transjordanian plateau is characterised in the Map by the meandering course of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea basin.
The Jordan River and its valley
This region, with its tropical climate, is defined by various topographic symbols: palm trees at the oases of Jericho, Betagla Archelais and at the spas at Calliroe and Zoara; bushes by the banks of the river, to define their inaccessibility due to the thick vegetation (kikkar hayarden in the hebrew biblical text zor or ghowier in arabic); the pulley driven ferries to indicate the fording spots on the river. The inhospitable desertic nature of great part of the Ghor is depicted by a lion (disfigured by iconoclasts) chasing a gazelle. Fish are represented in the rivers thus depicting the life supporting waters of the river as opposed to the lifeless brackish waters of the Dead Sea. Look-out towers with ladders to access them are also common.
Fish in the Jordan river
In the Steppes of Moab, on the eastern bank of the river, opposite Jericho, the pilgrims celebrated the last stop of the Biblical Exodus. It is certain that the two vignettes, with no caption, that can be seen right at the edge of what remains of the mosaic refer to Bet Iesimoth (modern-day Suweimeh) and to Bet Ramtha-Livias (er-Ram) which, with Bet Nimra (today's Shuneh-Nimrin) are the only localities mentioned in the text. From Livias the pilgrims took the road that lead them to Mount Nebo. Here the monks showed them the memorial tomb of Moses in the basilica, erected in honour of the Prophet. The presence of churches and monasteries christianised the memorial places in a continuity of faith between the Old and New Testament.
In a valley not far away from the river, a monastery erected near to the spring at Ainon which is today Sapsafas, is a remembrance of the place where John the Baptist met Jesus.
On the west bank of the river a church celebrated the passage of the Jews (Alon Atat which is today Betagla), as well as the spot where John baptized (Betabara (the place of) the baptism of John).
The erection of the first altar in the Promised Land, using stones from the river bed which had miraculously gone dry is remembered in the church of Galgala or (shrine) of the Twelve Stones.
The city of palms - Jericho
One could read the story of the miracle performed by Elisah who made wholesome the salty water of the spring, in the Church of Saint Elisah erected close to the spring at the oasis of Jericho, (2Kings 2, 19-22).
To the north-east of the oasis, two facing hills renamed Ebal and Garizim, reminded pilgrims of the episode where the people renewed their Covenant with God. This event was commemorated by the Samaritans on these two hills, placed in the heart of Samaria. A position which is historically correct.
Further to the north are represented the oases of Archelais and Fasaelis, the village of Koreus, the spring at Ainon today's Salem and Salumias and Ammathous.
The representation of Jerusalem reaches the apex of the art of representation in this mosaic. In a certain way the City is the ideal centre of the whole composition even if it is not physically situated in the centre of the map. The bird's eye view of the city is shown with its walls, gates, streets and major buildings which are partly identifiable even today.
From the geographic history point of view, the map owes its originality to these details. As to the rest of the contents it owes its sources to an antique journey diary, updated to cater for the needs of VI century christian pilgrims who visited the Holy Land, with the Bible at hand. This can be clearly seen from the preponderance of churches and shrines over other public buildings. From the artistic point of view, the Map must be viewed in the context of a return to the classical style prevailing in the Justinian epoch (half way through the VI century), of which the mosaics of Madaba and its surrounding region have given us many a dated witness.
The contents of the captions, especially the direct references to the tribes of Israel, names, quotation of biblical benedictions, clearly indicate that the Map is primarily a document of biblical geography based on the Onomasticon of Biblical Locations by Eusebius (IV century). The Map therefore covers the territory of the 12 biblical tribes and the surrounding regions, defined, as it were in the boundaries of Canaan promised to Abraham.
The addition of places mentioned in the New Testament, and the primary importance given to christian shrines, churches and to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher makes of the map a christian re-reading of the story of salvation in a geographic context. The Holy City of Jerusalem is represented at the centre of the redeemed ecumene, and the building which is given the greatest importance is the constantine complex built upon Calvary and Jesus' Sepulcher.
The christians living in the mid-VI century conceived and brought to conclusion this map in the church at Madaba. Seen in this perspective, the map is a witness to their faith.
© Michele Piccirillo
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum,
Mount Nebo - Jordan