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Volume 38, Number 1January/February 1987

In This Issue

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Mosaic Country

Written and photographed by Rami G. Khouri

Several important new discoveries and a major international exhibition have catapulted Jordan's mosaics, long known and loved by specialists in the ancient arts of the Middle East, onto a broader new stage.

Though best known for its Byzantine mosaics, Jordan preserves a much more extensive tradition of ancient mosaic art spanning nearly a thousand years - from the late Hellenistic period, through the Roman and Byzantine eras to the early Islamic Umayyad period - and major new discoveries are still being made faster than the Jordanian Department of Antiquities can cope with them.

For archeologists and historians, Jordan's mosaics are an invaluable original source of information on the history, language and political geography between the first century B.C. and the eighth century A.D. For scholars of ancient art, religion and culture, they are a treasure house of form and faith in the ancient world. And for the tourist, they provide a splendid one-day outing that vividly brings to life the artistic and technical skills of successive generations of ancient craftsmen.

Dozens of fine mosaic floor "tapestry" panels and fragments are displayed at the archeological museums of Amman, Jerash and Madaba, but the highlight of the Byzantine mosaic tradition is the collection of in situ mosaics in Madaba and nearby St. Nebo, half an hour south of the Jordanian capital of Amman. So rich in mosaics that it is often referred to as "mosaic country," the Madaba region is the focal point of this sparkling and durable art form.

Historians have been puzzled by why such an otherwise ordinary rural farming district, not particularly renowned as an ecclesiastical center, should have had so many lavishly decorated churches. The most widely accepted explanation is that the Madaba area was sufficiently secure and wealthy - and pious - during the Byzantine period that many of its families were inspired to show gratitude by building small chapels and commissioning local artisans to decorate them with mosaics.

In a land where tradition and continuity are well documented historical facts during the past 5,000 years, this tradition of personal thanksgiving by the pious is still practiced today. Throughout Jordan, wealthy Muslim and Christian families regularly donate funds to build or renovate neighborhood mosques and churches, complementing the building program of the religious establishments themselves.

Madaba and scores of other ancient Jordanian sites existed for thousands of years as small agricultural settlements that usually developed from rest-stops along the established caravan routes that linked China, India and Southern Arabia with Syria, Egypt and the Greco-Roman world in the Mediterranean basin.

After General Pompey brought the lands of Syria and north Jordan into the realm of the Roman Empire in 64-63 B.C., the ensuing military security, political stability and robust trading activity allowed many villages and small towns, such as Amman, Jerash and Madaba, to expand into full-fledged provincial cities.

Mosaics were first used to decorate walls in Mesopotamia during the second millenium B.C., and the first floor mosaics of natural pebbles appeared in Greece around 400 B.C. The word "mosaics" derives from the Greek word for muses, Apollo's companions who served successively as deities of springs, memory and inspiration.

The earliest mosaics discovered in Jordan to date are floor fragments from the baths of the first-century B.C., late Hellenistic Herodian fortress at Makawir (ancient Mechaerus), about half an hour south of Madaba. Several third-century A.D. Roman period mosaics from Jerash are either still buried for protection, or are displayed at museums in Jerash, Amman, the United States or West Germany.

The most impressive collection of mosaics in Jordan are from the Byzantine period between the fifth and early seventh centuries A. D., and include animated floor tapestries that covered the naves and aisles of churches in Madaba, Rihab, Amman, Khirbatas-Samra, Mt. Nebo, Nebo village, Jerash and other localities. Discoveries during the past three years at Umm ar-Rasas, Qastal and Qasr al-Hallabat confirm that the Byzantine mosaic tradition continued uninterrupted into the early Islamic Ummayad and Abbasid periods. During the first two centuries of the Islamic era in the land of Jordan, floor mosaics often decorated the homes, palaces and public buildings of local Muslim dignitaries, as well as church floors in small Christian communities that existed then - as they do today - in total harmony within the larger Islamic community

Besides their worth as beautiful works of art that gives as much pleasure now as they did in antiquity, Jordan's mosaics also represent an unbroken expression of folk and religious art that spanned nearly a thousand years. They have been excavated, studied, preserved and displayed to the public since 1884, when scholars first started examining Jordan's mosaics in a serious manner.

It was in that year that Jordan's most important mosaic - the sixth-century A.D. mosaic map of the Holy Land, depicting Old and New Testament sites throughout the Near East - was discovered at Madaba. Though unsigned and undated by any inscriptions, its style and content indicate that it was almost certainly made in the mid sixth century, during the Classical renaissance that coincided with the reign of the Emperor Justinian (527-565 A.D.). It is the oldest and most accurate map of Palestine to be handed down to us from ancient times. As such, it has been an invaluable source of historical information and place-names, which in many cases have combined with the results of archeological excavations to determine the ancient names and locations of antiquities sites.

At the center of the map is the Holy City of Jerusalem, walled and including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a column that once probably carried a statue of the Emperor Hadrian. The map, which is oriented to the east, shows representations of sites in and around Palestine, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, the Nile Delta, Sinai, and parts of the Mediterranean, Lebanon, Syria and east Jordan.

The 30 square metres (323 square feet) of the original mosaic map that still exist were made from nearly 800,000 mosaic cubes, or tesserae (deriving from a Greek word meaning "four-sided"). Dr. Herbert Donner of West Germany, one of the world's leading experts on the Madaba map, estimated that the original map had about 1,116 million tesserae, which would have required three expert mosaicists about 186 days to produce. Like all the mosaics of Jordan, the map was made from naturally colored stone cubes, though some Byzantine mosaics also included glass, shell, marble or other materials.

Another impressive sixth-century mosaic is the large intact tapestry covering the nave of the Church of the Apostles in Madaba. This mosaic, like many others in Jordan, is firmly dated by an inscription and signed by the mosaicist - one of nine local mosaicists whose names are known from inscriptions. It was made in 578 A.D. by the master mosaicist Salamaino.

Five minutes by car west of Madaba is the brilliant mosaic tapestry covering the nave of the Church of Saints Lot and Pro-copius. This area, known today as al-Mukhayyat, is the site of the Byzantine town of Nebo, five of whose andent churches have been excavated to date. The only one whose mosaics can be seen in their original place is the Church of Saints Lot and Procopius, dating from the middle of the sixth century A.D.

The main body of the mosaic is composed of 24 vine medallions enclosing figures of people or animals in everyday scenes including pastoral and hunting scenes. Rectangular panels between the columns depict scenes from the Nile - another common local motif - and a representation of a church flanked by boys fishing and rowing boats.

The mosaics at Mt. Nebo - as-Siyaghah in Arabic, and Phisga in Greek - embody one of the oldest unbroken ecclesiastical traditions in the Middle East. Discovered in 1864 by the Duc de Luynes and excavated since 1932 by the Franciscan Fathers, the Mt. Nebo complex has served as a holy site of pilgrimage and a church since the fourth century A.D. The Roman era pilgrim named num Egeria,or Etheria, visited Mt. Nebo in the late fourth century A.D. and found a small church manned by Egyptian monks, probably Copts. Elements of that fourth-century church - including the upright braided mosaic cross south of the altar - are still incorporated within the apse and altar area of the present church. The church was expanded into a larger basilica in the fifth century A.D., and, after earthquake damage, was rebuilt and enlarged in 598 A.D. to produce the complex that stands today.

The complex has been excavated and partly restored to maintain its ancient role as a church, but also to serve simultaneously as a museum displaying some of the mosaic pieces saved from other Byzantine churches and provide an overview of the evolution of mosaics over four centuries.

One of the finest mosaic pieces preserved from the Byzantine East is the floor tapestry in a room on the north side of the church, which was the diaconicon, or deacon's hall, of the sixth-century church. It was discovered in 1976 by a team of excavators headed by Father Michele Piccirillo, who directs the Franciscan team studying and preserving Jordan's mosaics. The tapestry shows pastoral and hunting scenes, including two men leading an ostrich, a zebra and a spotted camel, a shepherd tending his flock of sheep, and hunters and their dogs attacking lions, leopards and wild boar. The tapestry's two inscriptions include its date of completion (August 6, 531 A.D.).

Some of Jordan's most beautiful mosaics have been excavated in four Byzantine churches and an ancient private house in the center of Madaba. These have all been re-buried until the area can be fully excavated, conserved and roofed within the coming few years, to provide an open-air museum complex displaying some of Jordan's technically and artistically most sophisticated mosaics.

Particularly noteworthy is a mosaic discovered during excavations in 1985. This was a mosaic tapestry covering a large hall measuring 10 by seven meters (33 by 23 feet) in a private home dating from the late sixth century A. D. - the first such domestic mosaic not from a religious or public building. An unusually wide frame decorated with hearts, animals and geometric designs enclosed a central carpet with acanthus circles depicting typical Byzantine period hunting and pastoral scenes. Among the most impressive are a hunter killing a bear with a spear, a lamb suckling, a beautiful horse, rabbits and other animals.

The entire tapestry has been lifted and preserved, and is part of the exhibition of 45 Jordanian mosaics from Jerash, Madaba and Khirbat as-Samra that is currently traveling through Europe; it can be seen in Klagenfurt, Austria, until early March, then Munich, West Germany from July to September. In 1988, the exhibition will tour Britain and North America.

One of the finest mosaics in Madaba covers the floor of the Hyppolitic Hall, a law court or council chamber from the mid sixth century A.D. Hunting and pastoral scenes and representations of the four seasons as Tyches (goddesses of fortune) in a dark border enclose a series of mythological scenes within three central panels. One panel recounts the myth of Phaedra and Hyppolitus, in which Hyppolitus died tragically as a punishment by the goddess of love for his irreverent behaviour. Another panel shows Aphrodite on a throne next to Adonis, surrounded by a winged Cupid, Eros, cherubs and graces.

This is not only the most technically brilliant mosaic work in Jordan, but also one of the best examples of the smooth cultural transition from pagan Roman times to the Christian Byzantine period. The Tyches -holding crosses - show how Classical Greco-Roman themes and symbols were christianized during the Byzantine era. A similar transition took place in the mid seventh century A.D., when Islam became the dominant religion of the land. Recent discoveries at Umm ar-Rasas and Qasr al-Hallabat, in particular, have revealed high quality Islamic era mosaics that perpetuate the craftsmanship of the Byzantine period.

At the large walled Byzantine town site of Umm ar-Rasas, 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southeast of Madaba, excavations in 1986 revealed two well preserved church floors from the mid sixth and eighth centuries A.D. The Church of St. Stephen, dedicated in 786 A.D. during the Abbasid era, has the latest firmly dated church mosaics in Jordan. The large nave tapestry is surrounded by a thick frame that includes representations of seven Jordanian cities, eight Palestinian cities and 10 cities from Egypt, including Jerusalem, Nablus, Gaza, Amman, Madaba, Kerak and Alexandria. The mosaic also resolved the riddle of the ancient name of Umm ar-Rasas, which it gave as Castron Mephaon (Mephaon camp) in Greek, corresponding to the Arabic Mepha'a, and the biblical town of Meph-a-ath.

In terms of historical information, this mosaic, which should be open to public display in the coming year, ranks second only to the Madaba mosaic map. It lists several city names (such as Diblaton and Limbon) which have never been encountered before in historical texts.

The long nave inscription says the church was built by "John, son of Isaac, deacon and chief of the people and camp of Mephaon," indicating that it was not unusual for a Christian cleric to head the civil administration of a town during the Abbasid period.

Besides the mosaics that have been excavated at Christian churches in Jordan from the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, recent work has revealed some fine mosaic pavements at two Umayyad monuments, where the cultural continuity and technical transition from the Byzantine to the Islamic eras is clearly preserved. This is no surprise, given that the early Islamic Umayyad period (661-750 A.D.) spawned an outburst of exquisite mosaic decorative work, which can still be appreciated today at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Great Mosque (also called the Umayyad Mosque) in Damascus, and Khirbat al-Mafjar, built in 1740, near Jericho in the Jordan Valley and well known for its sculptured stone work, plastered decor and geometric mosaics.

Excavations at the Qasr al-Hallabat castle, 100 kilometers (62 miles) northeast of Amman, by Dr. Ghazi Bisheh of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities have revealed that all the rooms cleared to date were paved in colored mosaics during the Umayyad period, though only two rooms have preserved substantial fragments of the original work. Combining elaborate geometric designs with human, animal and plant motifs derived directly from the Byzantine period, the Umayyad mosaics show a high level of technical skill and, as Dr. Bisheh has pointed out, "a remarkable concern for plasticity, animated expression and movement."

Among the Hallabat representations are vine scrolls and leaves, grapes, pomegranates, oryx, running wolves, hares nibbling grapes, a menacing leopard, pairs of partridges and birds, fish, bulls, ostriches, people, running rabbits, rams, goats, lions and a fierce-looking snake. The best preserved tapestry at Hallabat is divided by a Tree of Life flanked by "good" animals on one side and "bad" animals on the other.

At Qastal, near Amman's Queen Alia International Airport, excavations by a French-Jordanian team headed by Dr. Patricia Carlier and Frederic Morin have uncovered the earliest known Umayyad mosaics in Jordan, dating from the caliphate of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (605-705 A.D.). They cover much of the floor of a substantial and finely decorated building that probably served as the palace of a local governor. The Qastal mosaics, a few panels of which can be seen at the Madaba archeological museum, include geometrical patterns, trees, leaves, fruits and rosettes, using small cubes of 12 different colors.

Several mosaic cubes were golden leafed glass cubes, indicating the lavish decoration that the patron of the palace commissioned during what was a period of wealth and stability in Jordan. Except for the open courtyard, entrance and staircases, the floors of the entire palace were covered in mosaics.

Evidence of iconoclastic destruction of human and animal images in the late eighth century mosaic has also revived the debate about the iconoclastic movements that shunned human and animal representations. Much of the defacing of mosaics in the regions had been traditionally attributed to the decree of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid II, around 722 A.D., but new evidence from Umm ar-Rasas suggests that much of the iconoclastic fervor of the eighth century should be attributed to currents within the Byzantine church itself.

Kami Khouri covers Jordan for Aramco World magazine.

This article appeared on pages 34-40 of the January/February 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1987 images.