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The mosaics
Later history
Written by Micah Key

On a fertile plateau southwest of Amman lies a sleepy market town of many treasures: a trove of Byzantine mosaics that are among the best examples of this art form in the world. The town’s name is Madaba, and although its most famous mosaic is the map of the Holy Land found in its Church of St. George, there are many more that are well worth seeing.

The history of Madaba goes back thousands of years before the mosaics, for there was already a settlement here in the 4th millennium BC. The center of the present town, higher than the rest, is in fact a tell. It was located on the N-S King's Highway near its intersection with the E-W road coming up to Heshbon. (See the satellite photo below.) Archaeology has turned up evidence of occupation in the 13th century BC, when the whole area east of the Jordan underwent a marked increase in settlement, as well as in the 10th and 9th centuries BC, a period that fits the  mentions of Madaba in the Bible and the Mesha stele (discussed below).

No trace of a spring has been found near the tell. As in Bethlehem and several other highland towns, people probably depended on the winter rains to fill up their cisterns. As air moves east from the Mediterranean in winter, it first drops much of its moisture on the coast and mountains of the Holy Land (enlarge map on right); it then crosses the deep depression of the desert and the Dead Sea, where the heat turns its moisture to vapor; still moving east, however, the air rises to the plateau of Jordan, cooling underway, and the last remaining vapor condenses into drops. This final rain has always given life to the towns on the plateau. East of them lie 400 miles of desert.

Given the scarcity of rain (about 12 inches or 300 mm. today), agriculture must have been marginal, but there would have been plenty of good pastureland. So, for instance, in the 9th century BC, when the area paid tribute to the northern kingdom of Israel, it took the form of lambs and wool.

Madaba appears in Numbers, in an ancient song celebrating the defeat of Moab by the Israelites. Later, the plateau of Madaba is mentioned as part of the inheritance that the tribes of Reuben and Gad received from Moses.
madaba and environs

In 1868, in nearby Dhiban (the Biblical Dibon - see the satellite photo), a stele was found, recording how the Moabite king Mesha triumphed over the northern kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BC. As mentioned above, the Bible says that Israel had been exacting tribute in the form of lambs and wool. In the stele, also known as the Moabite stone, Mesha claims to have thrown off the Israelite occupation throughout the "land of Madaba" (mentioned in lines 7-8). The account in 2 Kings gives the events a different "spin," but it is clear that Israel and its allies withdrew.

In 1 Maccabees 9:32-42 , we learn that Madaba was inhabited by a Nabataean tribe, the sons of Jambri or Iamri, in the 2nd century BC. In their own language they were called the Banu Amrat. They appear under this name in an inscription found in the Madaba cathedral; it shows that the city was part of the Kingdom of Petra. Other inscriptions indicate that the Nabataeans were still ruling Madaba in the 1st century AD. When Rome annexed their kingdom in 106 AD, Madaba became part of the Provincia Arabia (as mentioned in a description found near Mount Nebo), and so it remained well into the Byzantine era. It was during this period that the mosaic artists began their work.