In 1884, in the city of Madaba, Jordan, an ancient floor mosaic was discovered in the ruins of a long-abandoned Byzantine church. Containing millions of tiny tesserae, the mosaic depicted important locations of the Middle East, including Jerusalem, the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, Mt. Sinai, and the Nile Delta. Greek text fills the empty spaces, explaining the religious significance of various locations throughout the area. Based on the buildings present in the map’s view of Jerusalem, it was determined that the mosaic was created some time between 542 and 570 A.D., which makes it the oldest surviving map of Jerusalem and the biblical Holy Land.
The mosaic was restored as well as it could be, but the original colors have faded and some of the pieces are missing. There are, however, numerous colorful reproductions. Below is a section from one of these reproductions, which shows Jerusalem in a prominent central position, and the Jordan River flowing into the Dead Sea at the top. This mosaic may have served as a guide for Christian pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem and other biblical sites during the early middle ages.
Photograph of a reproduction of the Madaba Mosaic Map. Photograph taken by Lakshmi Sharath, via http://www.lakshmisharath.com/2014/05/27/souvenirs-jordan-madaba-mosaics-sand-art-petra/
Here is a reproduction of the full Madaba Mosaic:
Reproduction of the Madaba Mosiac Map, by Bernard Gagnon, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madaba_Map)
The Madaba Mosaic can be a little disorienting at first. The full view, shown above, has several large chunks missing, including most of the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, we are used to maps having North at the top, but this mosaic, like so many from this era, has East at the top. Even accounting for that, the orientation still does not quite make sense to me. The Nile River delta is located in the bottom right corner of the mosaic, but Jerusalem is on the left side of the mosaic. In real life, Jerusalem is East and a little North of the Nile River delta. Shouldn’t the Nile be underneath Jerusalem on this mosaic? Perhaps someone with more cartographic expertise could shed some light on this.
Today, the Madaba Mosaic is not useful for anything more than artistic appreciation. When examining it, though, I do get the sense that it was a very impressive cartographic depiction at the time it was made. The locations included are rather extensive, and if I could read all the ancient Greek, I would probably be even more impressed with the biblical information cited.
The mosaic was not in use for very long, because Madaba was conquered by the Persians in 614 A.D., then the Muslims in the 8th century, and finally the city was destroyed in an earthquake and abandoned in 746 A.D. But during the mosaic’s relatively brief life, I am sure that it helped many a traveler find his way to Jerusalem.