The oldest map of the Holy Land is actually a magnificent mosaic

Discovered in a remote Ottoman town in 1884, the Madaba Map is both a masterpiece of Byzantine design and a working map of Jerusalem and the sixth-century Middle East.

A detail of the Madaba Map reveals how its makers imagined the world from above. The large body of water is the Dead Sea, and the central walled city is Jerusalem.
ERICH LESSING / ALBUM

Tensions between Muslims and Christians in the 1880s in what is today Jordan led to a compromise. The Christians could relocate to a town named Madaba on the condition they could only build churches on sites where churches had once stood before. The proposal had a certain logic, for although Madaba by this time was a dusty, obscure outpost in the Ottoman Empire, during the Byzantine period it had been a thriving Christian city.

In 1884 the newly settled Greek Orthodox Christians wanted to build a new Church of St. George over its former site. They duly cleared the ground over what had been the ancient church and made a stunning discovery: Underneath the rubble was a huge mosaic of a detailed map. Although damaged in places, its myriad colored fragments still depicted sites across the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, in dazzling detail. (New treasures are being unearthed under Jerusalem.)

Locals were excited, but the discovery was slow to attract the attention of the Greek Orthodox Christian authorities in Jerusalem, which was then under Ottoman rule. It was not until a decade later in the mid-1890s that the librarian of the Jerusalem patriarchate, Kleopas Koikylides, visited Madaba to inspect the find. He realized straightaway the importance of the artwork. Mosaics adorning the floors of Byzantine churches generally represented cities and monuments in a pictorial sense. Although the Madaba mosaic has such pictorial elements—buildings rendered in naturalistic detail and vivid depictions of objects and animals—its design, a bird’s-eye view of the region, was unique.

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