The urgency of preserving the Jordanian monuments, with particular reference to the restoration of the rich cultural heritage constituted by mosaic floors of the roman, byzantine and omayyad erea, has been pointed out in various occasions. These monuments have been studied and brought to light in the last years by the Franciscan Biblical Insitute - Jordan under the direction of Dr. Michele Piccirillo ofm.
The research which I had to undertake in preparing the publication of the volume dedicated to the mosaics of Jordan lead me, first of all, to a re-examination of the known mosaics in the episcopal city of Madaba, rightly considered as an old established mosaic centre (The Madaba School). In 1979 we started cleaning up and photographing the mosaic in the church of the Virgin which lies along the roman road that crosses the city from east to west. This was the first mosaic in Madaba, known to scholars even before 1890, a few years after the re-occupation of the city ruins by christian bedouin families from Kerak. The date of the mosaic had still to be established, even after one hundred years. This resulted from a controversial reading, by some scholars, of the hundreds numeral found on the dedicatory inscription. Also, no proper plan drawings of the building were available upon which a project plan for the conservation of the area , asked for by Dr. Adnan Hadidi, the then Director General of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, could be drawn up. This was felt necessary to remedy the state of abandonment in which the monument had gone into after the expropriation of the area by the Jordanian Government in 1979. The expropriated area included also the crypt with mosaic of the church of the Prophet Elijah.
The exceptional nature of the discovery, and the concurrence of monuments from different epochs; roman, byzantine and omayyad all in the same area, induced us to file a request, which turned out to be premature, to entrust two architects of the Mount Nebo equipe with the drawing up of plans for covering the site.
A new impulse to the idea of setting up a school for the restoration and conservation of the mosaics at Madaba was given by the discovery of the mosaics in the Burnt Palace, again found further along the roman road in the summer of 1985, together with the inauguration of the Exhibition The Mosaics of Jordan, organised by the Studium Biblicum Francescanum and the architects Benedettucci, at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome in June 1986. The school was to be set up as part of the museum which had already been planned for Madaba to protect the mosaics of the Church of the Virgin and of the Church of the Prophet Elijah.
In Spring 1987, the project was brought to the attention of the Italian Government during the official visit to Italy by the Jordanian Royal Couple.
In the Winter of the same year, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities engaged the studio of architect Ja`far Tukan in Amman to prepare a project for the museum-school complex. This project was to be presented to the Italian Government in view of obtaining financing within the Cooperation for Development Agency of the Italian Foreign Ministry. The detailed plans were completed on the 4 April 1988, and submitted to two italian experts sent over from Rome. It was found that the plans fell short of the requirements as to the space allotted to the working rooms for the school of restoration. It was therefore decided to extend the project to include existing, mostly abandoned, buildings in the vicinity, thus realising an Archaeological Park right at the centre of the city.
The economic crisis in Jordan, worsened by the decision, taken in 1988, to sever all administrative and economic links with the West Bank, together with the impossibility for the italian Cooperation Agency to finance directly the construction of the complex, even though the interest in the School for the restoration of Mosaic never failed, as witnessed repeatedly by Dot. Franco de Courten, the new ambassador for Italy in Jordan, resulted in a widening of international involvement in the Madaba project. The appeals were enthusiastically answered by the officials of USAID (United States Agency for International Development) at the US embassy in Amman. They were prepared to finance, through ACOR (American Centre of Oriental Studies in Amman), the continuation of the archaeological excavations and the construction of the museum. The Gulf Crisis during 1990-91 brought about a temporary suspension of US aid to Jordan. This positively resulted in the involvement of the Canadian Government in the Madaba project. A grant was made available which was utilised to carry on uninterrupted the excavations and for the restoration of the buildings which were to be used by the School of Mosaic. In the meantime, as a result of the personal involvement of Ambassador De Courten, confirmation had been received of the definitive approval of italian participation to the project. This involvement became operative between July and September 1990 with the detachment and removal of the mosaic in the Church of the Apostles. This mosaic was in serious danger of being lost because of the infiltration of rainwater as well as the trampling upon by visitors.
At the end of the long process of protection and revaluation of the archaeological site around the Church of the Virgin at Madaba, the final project envisaged:
1. An Archaeological park that runs along the roman road that crosses the city, which extends from the Church of the Sunna' Family, to the east of the Church of the Virgin and the Church of the Prophet Elias, up to and including the area to the west of the Burnt Palace and the Church of al-Khadir.
2. A museum complex that covers and puts on exhibition the mosaics in the Church of the Virgin and the Hyppolitus Hall.
3. The Mosaic School for the restoration of antique mosaics which has been set up in refurbished existing buildings to the east of the area.
There is no doubt that the opening of the Madaba School of Mosaic, which, together with the Museum and Archaeological Park are in a very advanced stage of completion, is the most important result of the research and scientific, cultural and social commitment of the Studium Biblicum Francescanum in the Madaba region, 60 years from the start of archaeological research at the Moses Memorial on Mount Nebo. This research has meant a renewed interest in byzantine Jordan and the mosaics of the master mosaicists of the school of Madaba. This interest owes much to the studies carried out by fr. Sylvester Saller and fr. Bellarmino Bagatti. Through the collaboration of Italy, the US and Canada, the foundations have been laid to have locally trained personnel take care of this rich artistic heritage in the future.
At the end of this short note in which I have traced the long bureaucratic human course which is about to come to a positive end, I would like to anticipate the criticisms which will not be spared to the project, for which, we at Mount Nebo, are in some way responsible.
The extensions of the original project to a much larger area which are now encompassed in the Archaeological Park has meant abandoning the original idea of covering that part of the Roman Road that runs along the Church of the Virgin. The greater international involvement, which solved our financial problems, has also resulted in us having to give up a few principles regarding the healthy methodological intervention required in the practical realisation of the roofing, limited to the Church of the Virgin and the Hyppolitus Hall.
© Michele Piccirillo
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum,
Mount Nebo - Jordan