Considering the treasure it houses, St George’s Church is a modest and unassuming edifice. During building, in 1884, the Christian workers uncovered the remnants of a Byzantine church on the site of their new building. Despite willful destruction, fire and neglect, a segment of an ancient mosaic peered through the ancient dust. It was a map! Now, 129 years later, this exciting discovery still represents the oldest map of Palestine in existence, providing historical insights into the region. It was an extraordinary discovery that has attracted millions of visitors and scholars.
The masterpiece, best known as the Madaba Mosaic Map, covers the floor of the Greek Orthodox church. The map dates back to the 6th century CE and originally measured about 21 x 7 meters (69 x 23 feet). The mosaic, constructed in 560 CE originally contained more than 2 million tiles. Only about a quarter of it has survived. It was a map containing 157 captions, written in Greek, of all the major biblical sites from Lebanon to Egypt. The colored stones accurately show the hills and valleys, towns and villages in Palestine and the Nile Delta. The accuracy of the map has assisted archaeologists in locating and verifying biblical sites. For example, the location of Askalon, the Nea Church, and Cardo Maximus in Jerusalem were all discovered as a direct result of studying the mosaic map in Madaba.
The map of Jerusalem is remarkably detailed and shows the city as it existed at the height of the Byzantine period. Damascus Gate, St Steven’s Gate, the Golden Gate, Mount Zion Gate, Citadel (Tower of David), Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Cardo Maximus are all depicted in the mosaic. The map has been a crucial key for scholars attempting to learn about the physical layout of the city following the destruction and rebuilding in 70 CE.
It is believed that the map was constructed in Madaba because it was the seat of a bishop at the time. When the Persian empire conquered this region in 614 CE, Madaba was part of the occupied territory. During the 8th century the Muslim Umayyads removed some of the figural motifs from the mosaic as they were considered sacrilegious. The 746 CE earthquake nearly completely destroyed Madaba and it was abandoned.
In the years following the 1884 re-discovery of the map, it suffered from fires, activities in the new church and the effects of moisture. Thanks to a 90,000 DM gift from the Volkswagen Foundation in late 1964 the German Society for the Exploration of Palestine went to work to save the mosaic. Thanks to their efforts, we are able to learn about our far distant past.