Mapping the World – St George’s Church, Madaba

He cannot be older than about eight, yet his eyes hold the wisdom and struggles of someone who has lived a long, hard life. He is dirty and dishevelled, and his mantra of “Money! Money!” is uttered in a persistent, irritated, and impatient manner, as he trails behind me. In a country where I have only met gentle, friendly people, this encounter feels brusque and intrusive.

I am therefor grateful to escape this assault, when I step through the gates of St George’s Church, where Madaba’s most famous mosaic can be found. Accidentally discovered in 1896, when the present-day church was built on the remains of a Byzantine church, it has charmed scholars, archaeologists, and ordinary tourists alike.

It is the oldest map of the Holy Land in existence, even though a large part of the map has been lost, and the remaining part has suffered a lot of damage. Originally the map covered an area of 94 square metres, of which only 24 square metres remain. The map depicts the area from Lebanon to the Nile Delta, and from the Mediterranean to the Eastern Desert of Jordan, and dates from the late 6th Century. It is thought that the map was created not simply for decoration, but to assist pilgrims who were making their way from one holy site to another.

If one expects to be dazzled by the sight of this ancient and important map, disappointment will surely be the reward. It speaks in quiet tones, and faded colours. It reminds the visitor of the layers of history, religion, and humanity that have existed in this area. Stories of human suffering, happiness, faith, and conquest have surged, fluttered and sighed in cycles of time. Human beings have not changed much through the ages, and although the landscape of life filled with different rulers, fashions and technologies may have changed, the passions, desires, and vices of people have stayed pretty much unaltered.

Soothing religious music filters through invisible speakers, and fills every corner of the richly decorated church with an ambience suitable for worship. Various mosaics and murals depicting saints or highlighting different key moments from Jesus’ life decorate the walls. Their colours are deep and vibrant: crimson, green, blue, turquoise, gold. The interior is over-flowing with the symbols of faith and devotion.

Slender, honey-comb coloured candles flicker in the cool breeze, wafting in through the doorway, where the heavy wooden doors are flung wide open like arms anticipating an embrace. The prayers of the faithful drift upwards with the smell of melting wax.

The human voices fluttering in on the breeze are a harbinger of the tourists who will, hopefully, arrive later in the day. The dry leaves of the palm tree, towering into the blue sky, softly rustle in the breeze, obscuring the hum of cicadas announcing the day’s approaching heat.

I am mostly alone. Tourists saunter in, often in pairs, point their cameras at the map, lift their heads, whisper, smile, and move on. The faithful step inside with purpose, perhaps caught between daily errands, for a prayer, and a brief moment of quiet and respite. No one lingers, and their scraping footsteps leave a brief, ringing echo behind.

Fatigued by the repetitive and predictable conversations that await me outside, I am reluctant to leave a place that floods my soul with a torrent of peace. Places of religious significance are, more often than not, imbued with an energy of deep and constant belief. The prayers and yearnings of the faithful soak into the very structure, and like the heat of the day trapped in concrete walls, slowly radiate it back into the environment.

Visited:  August 2015

Entrance Fee:  JD1

Notes:

# Click here for an excellent website filled with information about the Mosaic Map.

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