Peaceful Coexistence in the City of Mosaics

Despite a rocky history, Madaba’s Christians and Muslims share faiths and livelihoods.

text by Caroline Faraj
photographs by Youssef Alan

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Some may wonder what it is like for a Christian to live amidst one of the most significant biblical sites in the world.

“I feel proud being a Christian and living here,” says George Karadsheh, 34. George is a theology teacher in Madaba, Jordan, at the New Orthodox School, which opened in 1905. He and his family fled Lebanon after civil war erupted there in 1976.

“Even though I was not born in Madaba, I feel different from those Christians who read the Bible but don’t know the location of significant biblical sites. Actually,” he adds, “that was the reason behind my decision to get my diploma in theology.”

Madaba, the “City of Mosaics,” lies some 30 miles south of Amman and is home to one of the world’s finest collections of Byzantine mosaics, most at least 1,400 years old. Best known is a magnificent floor map of ancient Palestine located at St. George’s Orthodox Church. Discovered in 1897, it displays a vivid, detailed depiction of the Holy Land of the sixth century. Containing two million pieces of colored stone and measuring a full 15 x 3 feet, this masterpiece is unrivaled.

There are, however, literally hundreds of other mosaics from the fifth through the seventh centuries scattered throughout Madaba’s churches and homes. Some depict a rampant profusion of flowers and plants, birds and fish, animals and exotic beasts, while others display scenes from mythology and everyday pursuits of hunting, fishing and farming.

Soon after the mosaic map discovery, a group of some 2,000 Christians migrated to Madaba from the ancient Crusader city of Kerak. Using the foundations of ancient structures, they built dwellings and churches. Along the way, they uncovered numerous floor mosaics. In fact, the nucleus of the city’s unique museum is a combination of houses that were built over some of the oldest mosaic pavements found in Jordan.

Inhabited for at least 4,500 years, the city of Madaba is mentioned in the Bible as the Moabite town of Medaba. After several centuries of rule under the Moabites and Nabataeans, Madaba and the surrounding lands became part of the Roman province of Arabia in 106 A.D. The city prospered, boasting colonnaded streets and impressive public buildings.

During the first century A.D., Christianity spread rapidly throughout Arabia, but the Romans persecuted believers under orders from the emperor Diocletian; some Madaba Christians died for their beliefs. After the conversion of the emperor Constantine and the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, Madaba became an important Christian center and diocese. A succession of bishops presided over the building of churches and the restoration and embellishment of existing churches with mosaic floors and other decoration. Mosaics were created in Madaba and the surrounding environs until at least the eighth century.

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Tags: Jordan Muslim Christian-Muslim relations