The Presence of Nature
in the Madaba Mosaic Map

by José M. Blázquez

Mountains of Judea and Samaria

The Jordan River and Dead Sea

The Palm Groves of Jericho and Zoar


The Jordan Valley

Jacob's Well at Sichem



The Madaba Mosaic Map, dating from the middle of the sixth century A.D., is one of the most original and artistic pavements found in the Mediterranean region. One of its main features is its pictorial realism, which helps in the identification of the places, confirmed by the legends. The cities are arranged according to a road design similar to that found in the Tabula Peutingeriana.
Pavements representing a wide panoramic view of a country or a landscape were already well known in the mosaic art by the middle of the sixth century when the Madaba Map was made. For example, the mosaic with nilotic scenery from Preneste, made around the year 80 B.C. for the sanctuary of Fortuna, was the work of Greek mosaicists coming from Ptolemaic Egypt. As Pollit has described it, "the organization of the Preneste mosaic is very like that of a touristic map with the river as an indistinct background and the particular towns colored over it with the shape of little three-dimensional islands". 1 The Preneste mosaic has also been considered as an allegory, for instance of Isis-Fortuna, of the arrival of Augustus or Hadrian in Egypt, or as a topographical painting of Egypt or an exotic genre scene. I believe that the upper and lower parts of the mosaic are distinct. The upper part has been generally understood as a representation of Ethiopia, based on the type of landscape depicted, while the lower part has been considered a representation of the Nile Delta. According to this reading the Preneste mosaic is a detailed painting of Ethiopia and Egypt in the middle of a flood, and is conceived of as a topographical painting.
Rome Roman paintings depict pastoral scenes with motifs of nature: mountains, trees, and also buildings that remind us of those in the Preneste mosaics and the Madaba Map, such as the pictures of Ulysses in the country of the Lestrigones, dated around 50 B.C., from the House of Esquilino, with a mountainous landscape, trees, animals and water. 2

Mountains of Judea and Samaria
The Madaba Map depicts the mountains of Judea and Samaria in the same way: bare treeless mountain ranges, with dark colors strongly contrasting with light ones. Such mountain ranges were a frequent artistic motif in Roman mosaics. For example, rocky terrain with birds perched on the peaks and a few genista decorate the upper part of a mosaic from Tabarka, dating from the end of the fourth century or the beginning of the third century. 3 This same type of low hills can be found in the mosaic of the Great Hunt of Piazza Armerina, dated 310-330; 4 there some trees grow in the hills, which also show a few small buildings.
The mountain ranges of the Madaba Map are realistic. This artistic tradition in Roman and Greek mosaics of representing mountain ranges, hills and rocks, is found as well in the nilotic mosaic of Preneste and the Alexandrian painting from the end of the Ptolemaic period, and survives in Roman mosaics up to the last years of the Empire.

The Jordan River and Dead Sea
The depiction of a river or sea full of fish and boats, such as in the Madaba Map, was a favorite theme in Hellenistic and Roman mosaics, as for example the mosaic with nilotic scenery from Preneste, with all kinds of boats sailing on the river. The same theme appears in a mosaic in the House of the Donkey in Djemila, the ancient Cuicul, with pictures of the Triumph of Venus, from the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century. 5 A nilotic mosaic has been found in Hispania, in the Vega Baja, Toledo, dating from the end of the third or the beginning of the fourth century. It is of Alexandrian origin and represents a harbor with its buildings, all kinds of boats and a fisherman on board. 6
A great frieze with erotes sailing, fishing, hunting and rowing, in a stream full of fish, birds and aquatic plants, has been found in the mosaic of the Church of Saint Stephen at Umm er-Rasas, dated to the eighth century. 7 It is one of the most important mosaics, from a figurative point of view, found to date in Jordan. The mosaic of the body of the church is the work of anonymous artisans. For our present research the nilotic frieze around the tapestry is of the most interest. The scene is interrupted by 10 squares containing pictures of cities in the Nile Delta.
Although the Madaba Map reveals a different conception, both mosaics have some points in common: the river with boats and fish, and the depictions of a great number of cities. This is not the only Jordanian mosaic decorated with male figures rowing in a stream brimming with fish; the same theme is found in the Church of the Priest Wa'il at Umm al-Rasas. 8
Still other Jordanian mosaics can be mentioned, such as that in Zay al-Gharbi with two boats - one of them almost ruined and the other with a rectangular sail - and two characters - whose faces were destroyed by the iconoclasts - in a nilotic landscape with fish and a crocodile, in a religious compound dating from the middle of the fourth century. 9 A nilotic scene decorated the nave of a church in Khirbat al-Manabi. 10 As Piccirillo writes, the cities located in valleys are always accompanied by nilotic scenes in the mosaics, a classical motif that lived on in Byzantine art.
The combination of topographical representations with nilotic scenes has not been satisfactorily explained. It is not clear whether it is just a memory of a pictorial genre adopted by the mosaicists due to its intrinsic decorative value, or if there are other reasons for it that are lost to us. The River Nile was considered one of the four rivers of Paradise and came to be part of Christian iconography.

The Palm Groves of Jericho and Zoar
The palm tree does not appear very often in mosaics. Several medallions, each with two horses, face a palm tree that separates them in the mosaic of the House of Sorothus in Hadrumetum. The mosaicist placed a palm tree in the mosaic of Dominus Iulius in Tabarka, 11 and in Carthage, Bordj-Djedid from the end of the fifth century or the beginning of the sixth century, 12 and in the Villa Pompeianus in Oued Athmenia. 13 Three date palms can be seen on a pavement with scenes of daily life in Deir el-Adas in Syria dated to 621. 14 A mosaic in the Church of Saint George at Khirbet el-Mukhayyat, the town of Nebo, shows two deer facing a palm tree. 15 Finally, a palm tree placed in a large cylindrical vase between two peacocks appears in the Byzantine church of the palm tree at Umm al-Rasas. 16 Piccirillo mentions palm trees in mosaics in the Church of the Lady of Madaba, from the end of the sixth century or the beginning of the seventh; in the Church of Khadir, from the second half of the sixth century, and in the Church of Saint George in Khirbet el-Mukhayyat. 17 Palm trees were placed as well next to the villae rusticae in a Hispanic pavement of the fourth century, with the Muses, found in Arróniz (Navarra), with a clear African influence in the depicted flora and fauna. 18

Another type of tree depicted in the map seems to be a pomegranate, very common in Jordanian pavements, such as in the chancel of the Church of Bishop Sergius at Umm al-Rasas from 586; 19 or in the chapel of the Presbyter John at Khirbet el-Mukhayyat from the second half of the sixth century. 20 A third kind of tree that grows in the banks of Jordan Valley in the Map is the same as the tree represented in the city of Alexandria, in the pavement from Gerasa dated to 531. 21

The Jordan Valley
The Jordan Valley is represented in the Madaba Map. The images of bridges on rivers are well known in Roman art. For instance, a painting of Pompeii with sacred landscape; 22 or the relief with the Battle of the Malvian Bridge in Rome where Constantine won his victory over Maxentius. 23

Jacob's Well at Sichem
Wells are not frequent in mosaics. Water flowing from a fountain appears in the mosaic of Utica with hunting scenery. In the mosaic of the House of the Laberii, in Oudna, a man draws water with a pole from a well to water a horse. In a pavement of Apamea in Syria a huge chain pump was depicted on the Orontes River; it comes from the porticoes of the Great Arcade, dated to 469. 24 A similar chain pump can be seen in a mosaic of the Great Palace of Constantinople. 25 Two water mills occupy the central part of a mosaic there. 26

A pool was represented in the mosaic of Megalopsychia in Antioch. 27 The two water mills of the mosaic of the Great Palace of Constantinople pour water in a pool.

The lack of fauna is noteworthy, although it accords with a desert landscape such as the one appearing in the Map. A deer runs along the Jordan Valley. An animal of the deer family can also be found in the mosaic at the apse of the Theotokos chapel at Mount Nebo from the beginning of the sixth century. 28 Two goats with long and arched horns appear beside two bunches of grapes in a mosaic of the end of the fifth century in Khirbet el-Mukhayyat. 29

To conclude, the Madaba Map follows a style of representation that originated in Hellenistic-Roman mosaics found over a wide region, and in the Tabula Peutingeriana in the late empire. Each of its elements can be identified in other mosaics of different ages and different places of the empire, in accordance with the thesis of J. Balty of the permanence of classical art in the Near East, 30 as we have shown in the case of the paintings of Qusayr Amra, 31 and G. Bowersock has shown with other elements. 32


1. J.J. Pollit, Arte helenístico, Madrid, 1989, 327-333; figs. 221-222. Also F. Charbonnaux, Grecia helenística, Madrid, 1971, 177, 181, figs. 181-186. P.G.P. Meyboom, The Nile Mosaics of Palestrina. Early Evidence of Egyptian Religion in Italy, Leiden, 1995.

2. F. Villard, Grecia helenística, Madrid, 1971, 170-171, fig. 171.

3. H. Seim, La Mosaïque en Tunisie, 147.

4. A. Carandini, A. Ricci and M. de Vos, Filosofiana. La Villa di Piazza Armerina. Inmagine di un aristocratico romano al tempo di Constantino, Palermo, 1982, 197-228, figs. 111, 114, 124-125, 130.

5. M. Blanchard-Lemée, Maisons a mosaïques du quartier central de Djemila (Cuicul), 1975, 61-96.

6. J.M. Blázquez, Mosaicos romanos de la Real Academia de la Historia, Ciudad Real, Toledo, Madrid y Cuenca, Madrid, 1982, 31-16, plates 16, 19, 46.

7. M. Piccirillo, The Mosaics of Jordan, Amman 1993, 219-230, 231, 239, figs. 380, 383; idem, I mosaici di Giordania, Rome 1989, 76-78; idem, Madaba, 96, 286-289; J.M. Blázquez, Arte bizantino antiguo de tradición clásica en el desierto jordano: Los mosaicos de Um er-Rasas. Goya 255, 1996, 130-143.

8. M. Piccirillo, The Mosaics of Jordan, 242-243.

9. M. Piccirillo et alii, I mosaici di Giordania, 94, 96, fig. 82; idem, The Mosaics of Jordan, 318, fig. 660.

10. M. Piccirillo, The Mosaics of Jordan, 341, fig. 752.

11. H. Slim, Sols de l'Afrique Romanie, Mosaïque de Tunisie, Paris,1995, 140-141; M. Blanchard-Lemée, M. Ennaïfer, H. and L. Slim, op. cit. 170, fig. 121.

12. J.M. Blázquez, El entorno de las villas en los mosaicos de Africa e Hispania, L'Africa Romana, Sassari, 1994, 1174, pl. I,b.

13. J.M. Blázquez, El entorno de las villas, 1179, pl. IV,b; M.H. Fantar, La Mosaïque en Tunisie, Paris, 1994, 104.

14. J. Balty, Mosaïques antiques de Syrïe, Bruxelles 1977, 149.

15. M. Piccirillo, I mosaici di Giordania, 62.

16. M. Piccirillo, The Mosaics of Jordan, 240-241.

17. M. Piccirillo, Madaba, 46, 49-50, 87, 109, 112, 179.

18. J.M. Blázquez and M.A. Mezquiriz, Mosaicos romanos de Navarra, Madrid 1983, 15-20, plates 3-4, 6-8, 10-13.

19. M. Piccirillo, I mosaici di Giordania, 73-74, fig. 35.

20. M. Piccirillo, I mosaici di Giordania, 141-143.

21. M. Piccirillo, I mosaici di Giordania, 144-145.

22. A. Maiuri, La peinture romaine, Ginebra 1953, 122.

23. R. Bianchi Bandinelli, Roma. El fin del arte antiguo, Madrid 1971, 77, fig. 68.

24. J. Ch. Balty, Guida d'Apamea, Brussels 1981, 13-14; C. Dulière, Mosaïque des portiques de la Grande Colonnade, Brussels 1974, pl. LXIII, 1.

25. Concerning the date of these mosaics: J.M. Blázquez et alii, El museo de mosaicos del Gran Palacio de Bizancio, Revista de Arqueología (Madrid) 10, 1989, 29-37.

26. A. Grabar, La edad de oro de Justiniano, Madrid 1960, 103, fig. 105; G. Prett et alii, The Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors, Oxford 1949, 83, pl. 41.

27. D. Levi, Antioch Mosaic Pavements, Princeton 1947, 329, pl. LXXIX, a.

28. M. Piccirillo, I mosaici di Giordania, 61, fig. 25.

29. M. Piccirillo, I mosaici di Giordania, 65, 68, fig. 29.

30. J. Balty, Iconographie classique et identités régionales: les mosaïques romaines de Syrie, Iconographie classique et identités régionales, BCH, Sup. XIV, 1986, 395-406. Setting about the mosaics of Nilotic-type: J. Balty, Thèmes nilotiques dans la mosaïque tardive du Proche-Orient, Alessandria e il mundo ellenistico. Studi in onore di Achille Adriani, Rome 1984, 827-834.

31. J.M. Blázquez, Mosaicos romanos de España, Madrid 1993, 647-718.

32. L'ellenismo nel mondo tardo-antico, Bari 1992.

This contribution was first published in: The Madaba Map Centenary, Jerusalem 1999, 250-252.

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