Many cities around the globe that have witnessed and contributed to our history bear remembrances of the people, movements and actions that have shaped our human experience. Often such remembrances take form many years later as sculptures, parks, buildings, museums etc. There is a remarkable town in Northwestern Jordan where history speaks through the art and architecture of the original inhabitants themselves. This is the town of Madaba. It is the fifth largest town in Jordan and situated equidistant from the capital of Amman and the Western border of the Dead Sea. The town serves as a major tourist destination for its own ancient mosaics and architecture. The greater area boasts a short trip to Mt. Nebo, the site of Moses Death and the Baptism site of Jesus on the Jordan River. While Petra is and will always be Jordan’s main attraction, I really recommend you get to Madaba as well. It is a trip that gives insight into modern Jordan’s respect and care for Biblical, New Testament and Koranic locales.
As I already mentioned, one of the greatest things about the history that has occurred in this area is the fact that it is attested to by both ancient monuments as well as modern ones. Madaba in my opinion has solved the question of balance that many historical cities struggle with: How do you preserve ancient sites while still allowing for modern needs of daily life and construction? Many of the Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad ruins and mosaics had been covered up and lost until 200 years ago. A cooperation between locals, archaeologists and priests allowed for the care and preservation of these treasures as large portions of the city were renovated for new construction. The end result are a series of well preserved ancient sites surrounded by modern housing, tourist shops and hotels and a city that goes on with day to day life.
Madaba is known as the city of Mosaics. This is not only because of the many ones created and rediscovered here, but because it actually has a university that teaches the art and restoration of mosaics. Many local shopkeepers are also familiar with the trade, they make their own to sell and they are quite beautiful. The most famous treasure of all is the Madaba Mosaic Map. This is a map of the region ornately laid out across the floor of St. George’s Church. This map is a 6th century masterpiece made up of over 2 million colored stones. Apart from its aesthetic value, the map is a testament for scholars as to the ancient names and layouts of regions that are now gone. In many ways it is a treasure map of archeological locations. The church of the Virgin and Apostles contains many ancient mosaics on themes of nature, mythology and daily life. The Mosaic University, located just next to the impressive tourism center boasts many ancient mosaics on display as well as a fully preserved Roman street and square. One may also pay an entrance to the Archeological Park to see mosaics and ruins in the central district.
As concerns logistics: a rental car or operated tour buses are really the two best ways of getting around Jordan. The local bus system and walking are not practical options for tourists, even though Madaba’s two other sites are not too distant. Madaba is a great starting point for a tour of Jordan because of its proximity to the main airport and the capital. There are many small, clean hotels spread around downtown Madaba. I recommend Mosaic City Hotel (Yarmouk St. Madaba 17110) for its cleanliness, friendliness and home-style atmosphere.
Moving outside of Madaba proper, I arrive at the site of Mt. Nebo. The story goes that this is where Moses saw the Promised Land and passed away before he could enter. In any event the summit commands such an impressive view of the Dead Sea, Jordan River Valley and Israel beyond that such an idea doesn’t seem so farfetched. A small church was build here in the 4th century to commemorate Moses life and it is still maintained as a place of pilgrimage. Besides many mosaics, there is a church, museum and a panoramic viewing site of the Dead Sea.
I continued down the same road I took to Mt. Nebo and gradually descended, all the while with a view of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. I was awed during my whole Jordanian trek by the quality of the roads. One can experience some serious bends and climbs in the middle of the desert but the roads were always as wide and as straight as possible. After a thirty minute drive and passing out of the Municipality of Madaba; I followed the signs to “Baptism Site.” This is an area called Bethany beyond the Jordan. Now there are two claimed sites for the baptism of Christ, one is in Jordan and one in Israel. What makes the site so special here in Jordan is not just oral traditions, but the recent archeological finds and the matching of New Testament descriptions to the site itself. It is a spot of real significance. It is the place where Jesus Christ enters history as a public figure and teacher.
From this point I could safely say that I had explored the regions of Madaba. If you have some time on your hands, do as I did and head south to Petra. Stop along the Dead Sea and take a floating dip. Wash off some desert dust and stop by the thermal waterfalls in the oasis of Ma’in only 20 minutes away. Head all the way down to Aqaba and see Jordan’s Red Sea resort town. The possibilities are endless. If you’re staying in the area and looking for a serious adventure, make the crossing into Jerico, the oldest city in the world. If doing so be aware that fees and lines await you as you are crossing into Palestine. Overall Madaba is a great place to discover for itself. It is a center of religious tolerance, significance and culture. It is also a great location from which to launch the rest of you ventures into glorious Jordan.