Bible - pilgrims
In the fourth century an older building on Mount Nebo, possible in existence
from classical times, was converted by the Christians into a church. This rectangular shaped edifice possessed three apses within its walls.
The mosaic floor in the presbytery was constructed of large blocks of limestone
transported from the quarries of Ma'in. Six tombs have been found by the
archaeologists hollowed from the natural rock beneath the mosaic-covered floor
of the church. One of these occupied the center of the building.
The primitive sanctuary was composed by the three apse church with a vestibule
on the summit of the mountain, and by two funerary chapels north and south of
the vestibule at a lower Ievel. A central open courtyard to the west was
flanked by rooms of the monastery to the south, and, later on, by the
diaconicon-baptistry on the north side. One of the southern rooms of the
monastery was decorated with geometric entrelacs. The church's vestibule was
also surfaced in white mosaics with a large braided cross at the southern end .
The foundations for the wall of the façade are still visible near the
second row of columns within the basilica.
Two doors joined the vestibule with two funeral chapels built outside the
sanctuary, one to the south and the other to the north. In the southem chapel
the excavations revealed a Greek inscription (now placed on the southem wall of
the baptistry) with the name of the Abbot Alexios.
The space at the foot of the synthronon was decorated with two large birds
facing an amphora and other birds depicted around a vine stalk. Names of the
benefactors can still be deciphered on the partially extant mosaic, including
the name of Alexios (who must have been abbot at the time the sanctuary was
renovated).Alexios' name makes it possible to assign the reconstruction to the
fourth century which would also be the date for the mosaic work.
A small open court stood before the sanctuary's façade. It was bordered
on the north by a closed passage way (also decorated with white mosaics)
leading to the monastery hall and cells.
This mosaic-lined passage was interrupted towards its western end by a doorway
through which one stepped down a short flight of stairs to the
diaconicon-baptistry, roughly three feet below the level of the sanctuary
proper. This little room built against one of the funeral chapels contained the
stone baptismal fountain fashioned in the form of a cross and surfaced with a
plaster of mortarized pottery. At the rear of the font itself three steps led
down the three arms of a cross. However, a semicircular basin was substituted
for the steps in the fourth (southern) arm of the cross; it had an opening and
had possibly been used for the baptism of children.
Two long Greek inscriptions give us the name of the artisans who completed the
mosaic work, the names of the bishop of Madaba and of the abbot of the
monastery and, with the date (August, 531) the name of the incumbent Roman
The diaconicon-baptistry was separated from the service area of the monastery
by its western wall. In its decorative scheme the mosaic floor is divided into
three distinct parts: a panel of flowering crosses, at the foot of the entrance
stairs, the larger center piece showing, within a trellised border, hunting and
pastoral scenes and containing the dedicatory inscription; in between the
pillars small lozenges and crosses are arranged in rectangular panels.
The illustrated central panel is further subdivided into four separate
vignettes, thematically harmonised and interrelated on a white background. The
addition of trees and stylized flowers adds a breath of life to this setting.
In the first tableau a young shepherd is fighting off the assaults of a lion,
protecting a zebu which is roped to a tree, and a shield-bearing soldier
wearing a Phrygian cap thrusts his lance into an attacking lioness. In the
second tableau two hunters on horseback, accompanied by dogs, are spearing a
bear and a wild boar. A more peaceful scene occupies the third tableau: a
shepherd seated quietly on a rock beneath a tree surveys his little flock of
sheep and goat who placidly forage among the plants and small trees that
surround them. In the fourth tableau a negro holds an ostrich on a kind of
leash, while a camel and a zebra, both harnessed, are led by a boy dressed in a
Phrygian cap and mantle.
There is a hieratic formality in the composition of these three artisans of
Madaba, a canon of conventionality which has transformed the original meaning
of the episodes into more or less symbolical decorative patterns. Contributing
to this effect is the poverty of color; everything is reduced to the few
essential shades which could be provided by local materials, plus the black
outline that locks the mosaic figures into a frozen immobility, even when
depicted in motion. This latter technique was generously exploited by the
mosaic artisans of the Madaba school and the work at Nebo is one of their
earliest and most beautiful achievements.