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Madaba and Umm Al-Rassas – royalty of Jordanian mosaics

So many sights and so little time – heading down the King’s Highway to Petra

sunny 27 °C

Determined to beat the masses of tourists bound to head for Mount Nebo, we got up some ridiculous time in the morning (I might be slightly exaggerating here). We were still congratulating ourselves on the immaculate timing of our arrival at 8am, when we spotted the barrage of tourists waiting at the gates. A bus!
On a good day, views from Mount Nebo reach as far as Jerusalem

On a good day, views from Mount Nebo reach as far as Jerusalem


But we were not giving up. Neglecting the views to be had from the car park, we set off towards the visitor centre in the speed of Olympic sprinters, until we could be sure that whatever it is Mount Nebo has to offer won’t be obscured by eager pensioners. We were only partially successful as the multitude of signs and explanations along the way took us much longer to read than it took their guide to recite, so by the time we hit a group of roofed mosaics, we were definitely not the first. This is when we changed our strategy and decided to first focus on signs and sites that had already been frequented by the bussers.
Hazy views from Mount Nebo

Hazy views from Mount Nebo


The museum on top of Mount Nebo offers some fascinating artefacts including extracts from the Bible relating to the sighting of the Holy Land by Moses just before he died. Rumour has it that he was buried somewhere in the proximity, although the exact location of his grave has never been found. That meant that just about every minor sight along the way to and from Mount Nebo is called Moses’ Something, including a spring from which he allegedly drank.

At the time of our visit, the Moses’s Church being rebuilt on top of the mountain was already a couple of years behind its scheduled completion, and so we unfortunately didn’t see the ancient mosaic floor said to be hiding beneath the scaffolding. Another drawback was the impenetrable haziness covering the otherwise stunning views we remembered from the previous day. The Duke disappointedly hid his binoculars, and after we read just about every sign pitched on top of the mountain, we picked up the car and drove back towards Madaba.
Intricate decoration of a camel-bone trunk near Mount Nebo's mosaic factory and outlet

Intricate decoration of a camel-bone trunk near Mount Nebo's mosaic factory and outlet


At Mount Nebo, one of the tourist guides recommended to stop at a nearby Mosaic Factory to see the traditional way of mosaic making. Driving past it we thought ‘why not’. It turned out to be a great move and except tons of mosaics and fascinating demonstration of how they are made, the factory doubled-up as a shop with anything considered Jordanian including camel-bone furniture, jewellery and Dead Sea products.

This is where we encountered the best, or perhaps the worst, salesman of Jordan. Very knowledgeable and sharing about the traditional Jordanian crafts, he took our reluctance to succumb to pressure to buy as a challenge and eventually offered discounts which we just couldn’t refuse. After half an hour of following us around the shop, I made his day by filling up a shopping basket with a selection of Dead Sea products (intended as presents but time proved them to largely remain with us) at a sizeable discount. As the Duke pointed out, the size of the discounts rose with every minute we spent in the shop and so if we were so inclined, we could get some actually reasonably priced souvenirs and arty bits.
The famous mosaic map of Palestine in St. Georg's church in Madaba

The famous mosaic map of Palestine in St. Georg's church in Madaba


Apart from being very knowledgeable, he was also very forthcoming with personal information and so it came to pass that we learnt about his hash smoking habit (in his distant youth), which after a while became so vivid that we took it as a cue to leave.

Already the previous night we felt that one day in Madaba can never be enough. Now with Mount Nebo behind us, we faced a list of places we wanted to see and knew that if we were to get to Petra that evening, we would have to make some compromises.

St. George’s church was our first stop and what a sight! The famous mosaic map of Palestine, although today only one third remains, offers an interesting read and is for many an important historical record of the 6th century world east of the Jordan River, back then Christian lands, including Egypt and Jordan. But it is not only this mosaic which makes St. George’s church special, with the entire interior being beautifully decorated.
Detail of the mosaic of Palestine in St. George's Church in Madaba

Detail of the mosaic of Palestine in St. George's Church in Madaba


Once out again, we headed in the general direction of the town centre, partially to check if our shopkeeper friend Joseph was already back from his errand in Amman, and partially to explore the souvenir shops along the way. My sister decided to take advantage of my extensive travelling habit and years ago tasked me with bringing a fridge magnet from every trip I embark on. So far, I failed to secure one from Jordan and this seemed like just the place to change it. In a typical ‘M’, I wanted to make sure the magnet is reflective of where we are and so I rampaged through the different shops stocking various sizes of mosaics to find a real magnet mosaic (as opposed to a glazed tile with a mosaic-like pattern). It turned out that this was a rather unique request and a bit of a challenge for the Madaba souvenir shops. The solution – we bribed a local shopkeeper to custom-make us a magnet from a cup coaster with a typical tree of life motive. Mission accomplished thanks to a superglue magic.
Madaba outdoor Archeological Park with plenty of fascinating mosaics, remains of Roman road and houses, neighbouring a mosque

Madaba outdoor Archeological Park with plenty of fascinating mosaics, remains of Roman road and houses, neighbouring a mosque


Enjoying the nice weather, we slowly made our way to the outdoors Archaeological Park, which offers plenty of differently sized mosaics found all over Madaba, as well as breathtakingly preserved mosaic floors of ancient churches. But that wasn’t it. Just like many other places in Jordan, Madaba was once upon a time occupied by the Romans and so apart from the all-present mosaics, the Archaeological park includes remains of an old Roman road and thick-walled houses, as well as a school specialising in a mosaic restoration and production. If we had the time, our stay here could easily extend by another day or two, without running out of things to see. But time was something we didn’t have and so we decided to take a walk through the town towards our next destination – St. John’s church.
Piece of mosaic in Madaba's Archeological Park

Piece of mosaic in Madaba's Archeological Park


Despite the large concentration of tourists in Madaba, I once again attracted a fair amount of attention walking through the souks and side streets. Although this was becoming a standard feature, I cannot say I was getting used to it. Looking decisively sheepish I kept thanking everyone who with starry eyes called me ‘beautiful’, hoping that I look sufficiently humble and not as uncomfortable as I felt. It was interesting also exploring parts of the town that are normally frequented only by locals, seeing how the two religions of Christianity and Islam are living next to each other in a seamless harmony.

When in Madaba, St. John’s church is another must-see place. The only church dedicated to the beheading of John the Baptist (obvious by the mosaic of a head on a plate adorning the main church entry), St. John’s offers not only a beautifully decorated main body of the church, but also a fascinating underground section. Fortunately for us, we happened to come across a very knowledgeable resident guide and our visit turned into exploring the explored and hearing about the potential of the unexplored.
Head of John the Baptist decorating the main entrance into St. John's Church in Madaba

Head of John the Baptist decorating the main entrance into St. John's Church in Madaba


It transpired that only a month ago, an underground system of rooms and passages was discovered right beneath the church, extending the known-of labyrinth-like ancient structures that the modern church was build upon. For safety reasons, excavations commenced strictly from the top, leading to a slow process filled with suspense and anticipation of what shall be found. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the guide explained that such rooms and passages may connect the underground of the entire Madaba, historically serving as a hiding places or safe ways to move through during times of war.

On top of that, the church sits on a 2000 years old Nabataean water well, surprisingly holding fresh water. This suggests that a pipe system from times long gone is still functional in Madaba, possibly connecting a number of water cisterns beneath the city to an underground spring. Tree of life - a favourite motive of Jordanian mosaics

Tree of life - a favourite motive of Jordanian mosaics

Of course, the depth and age of the well do not exactly lend themselves to being explored by amateurs, and so the church ordered diving archaeological experts for summer 2012 to explore the inside of the well and identify any outlets or inlets of the water. The Duke and I wished we could come back sometimes later on in the year to catch-up on the progress of the excavations and hear about the results of the diving explorations. Unfortunately we might just need to do with an online check instead.

Positively impressed with St. Johns’s church, the Duke and I disappointedly found out that time was running out and we better start thinking about moving on. But before we could leave, we had to say good-bye to our friend Joseph, who looked very pleased when he saw us walking in through the doors of his shop. Talking about our day, we promised to visit Umm Al-Rassas on our way to Petra and after a little while we left to find the car.

Knowing that we are unlikely to come back to Madaba any time soon, the Duke suggested one last stop we should make before finally leaving the town. It was the Church of Apostles. And what a contrast it was to the tourist-busy sites in the centre of Madaba. Gazellas and fruit trees mosaic in the Church of Apostles in Madaba

Gazellas and fruit trees mosaic in the Church of Apostles in Madaba

Slightly off-track, the Church of Apostles was a gem! To start with, the building looked nothing like the traditional churches with tower and altar. It was a huge hall with a newly reconstructed roof, housing the most extensive and fragile looking mosaics we have seen so far. To our huge surprise, however, the only other person in the church was a bored-looking security guide. Note: If in Madaba, make sure to see the Church of Apostles! It is well worth it.

The boredom of the guide demonstrated itself in a couple of ways. One was his laizzes-faire way of hanging outside the church, willing any passer by to come in. The other was his offer to come down from the dedicated platform overlooking the mosaics and explore the mosaics from the remains of the church walls. He even encouraged me to step on the mosaics to take a picture! Slightly nervous that we were trotting on forbidden grounds but excited about being so close to this over thousand years old piece of art, we dreamily walked around the church, taking care not to step on anything out of bounds and listened to his limited English talking about some of the most famous mosaics in Madaba. Ruins around the Umm Al-Rassas tower

Ruins around the Umm Al-Rassas tower

Glad not to have missed this and feeling only a little bit guilty about resisting the urge to tip him for the privilege, we eventually got back in the car and drove off – this time direction Umm Al-Rassas.

Umm Al-Rassas proved to be another unjustifiably under-visited place – one of many in Jordan. Before we made our way to the main site, we briefly wandered around the Umm Al-Rassas Tower ruins and although we were the only people here, we could just about understand that this alone would not be worth a detour. But our feelings completely changed when we hit the main attraction.

Entering through a newly built (and not yet finished) visitor centre, we soon found out that there was yet once again noone else around. But we could not understand why. The scale of the site commanded admiration and the amount of the yet to be excavated hectares enticed curiosity. From the visitor centre of St. John’s church in Madaba, we remembered that this site was supposed to be home to one of the most famous mosaics in Jordan found in an excavated St. Stefan’s church, but we were not sure where to look for it, until we reached a horizon and saw the, by now familiar, roofs of white tents protecting excavations from the damaging effects of sun. Umm Al-Rassas newly built visitor centre

Umm Al-Rassas newly built visitor centre

Taking in the ruins in various stages of excavation and reconstruction along the way, we finally arrived at the tent, which promised to hide one of the many treasures of Jordan.

The mosaics of Umm Al-Rassas were, what else, amazing. Not being mosaic-obsessed type of people, when we arrived in Madaba the previous night we expected that a couple of mosaics would be enough to satisfy our curiosity and just the right number before we start feeling like we’ve seen it all before. The amazing construction of a self-supporting arches in Umm Al-Rassas

The amazing construction of a self-supporting arches in Umm Al-Rassas

So why was it that with every new mosaic in Jordan, we felt we just discovered something new, completely different and unique? In fact, throughout our Jordan travels we were yet to feel like we can skip something because it is similar or just the same what we just saw somewhere else. We need more time!

Whilst I suppose it is part of the history and the cultural and religious intricacies of the area, we couldn’t help not to feel irritated at seeing the animal and human figures on the mosaics distorted to the point of no recognition. Somehow, all of the mosaic replicas scattered around Jordan depicted the figures as they would have been during the time of their creation, which we disappointingly found out was not the reality. However, despite the alterations, Umm Al-Rassas mosaics were breathtaking thanks to their scale, artistic value but also the insight their provided into life thousands of years ago. One of the most famous Jordanian mosaics in Umm Al-Rassas St. Stephan church - unfortunately with distorted figures

One of the most famous Jordanian mosaics in Umm Al-Rassas St. Stephan church - unfortunately with distorted figures

The main attraction for us was a series of Palestine city views in the border of the main gigantic mosaic, which just looked like European cities 1000 years later, complete with multi-storey bricked houses, chimney systems and artistic decorations. We were in a state of permanent awe and amusement, telling each other that it is an eternal shame that most people make the rounds around the convenient sites, being deprived of some of the most amazing experiences and sights Jordan has to offer.

It was a couple of hours before we were ready to leave and head for the famous King’s Highway, which would take us south to Petra. Once on it, we were treated to the most spectacular views along the way, offering differently shaped and coloured mountains and canyons with the occasional village and plenty of serpentines. Stunning views along the King's Highway

Stunning views along the King's Highway

In fact, the windiness of the road paired with the constant risk of being surprised by a herd of goats, sheep or other farm animals, topped by the notoriously bad signposting resulting in an occasional detour, meant that our journey took much longer than anticipated.

Initially, we were thinking big. Our ambitious plan was to see Al-Karak and Dana along the way to Petra. Soon we realised that Al-Karak would have to wait and so we cut down our itinerary to Dana only. Ahemp. Dana didn’t last long either and eventually even hitting Petra the very same day seemed slightly too ambitious. But after several hours of straight driving we victoriously arrived in a moon lit Wadi Musa! Petra, here we come!

Preserved doorway in Umm Al-Rassas

Preserved doorway in Umm Al-Rassas

Posted by TheDukes 02.06.2012 04:30 Archived in Jordan Tagged ruins jordan archeology mosaics madaba umm_al-rassas kings_highway

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