Thursday, September 24, 2015


The third country in our Middle Eastern Adventure Triumvirate was Jordan, a country with an ancient history but only recognized as a state under British supervision in 1922 by the League of Nations (and known as Transjordan until 1949). It was given independent status by the United Nations in 1946. For a good timeline of subsequent events in Jordan's history, go here.  

We arrived at the Queen Alia International Airport several hours ahead of our tour group. Although the airport has been around since 1983, this beautiful terminal is just two years old.
Jordan is slightly smaller in area than the state of Indiana and has a similar population. I'm always shocked by the relatively tiny size of these countries that seem to play such a critical part in world affairs.  It was a little scary to visit a country that borders Syria and Iraq, not the most docile places in the world right now. In fact, while we were there--March 2015--Jordan was participating with their neighbor Saudi Arabia in airstrikes on Yemen. However, Jordan itself seemed very peaceful. One thing that helped us feel comfortable was that Bob had hired a local private guide named Isam who took good care of us.
Our first destination was the town of Madaba (population 60,000), located about 20 miles south of the capital city of Amman. It was definitely a tourist town:
Jordan is about 92% Sunni Muslim, so it was interesting to see this partially dismantled Christmas tree in the town center. Note also the name of the Hotel: "Moab Land." No, not Utah's Moab. The Biblical land of Moab--the original Moab--was located in Jordan.
A few interesting things Isam told us about Muslims in Jordan:
- Almost all Muslims in Jordan are Sunnis, and almost all Muslims in Iraq are Shi'a. "Shi-ites are not Muslim," he said. The Kurds are Sunni.
- Assad, the leader of Syria, is Shi'a.
- Sunnis are liberal, so covering the face is against the law. Someone with a covered face, for example, is not allowed to enter a bank.
- They have no imam. They follow God. "Islam" means "surrender self to God" (not to man or a leader).
- Their practice of wearing head coverings comes from Christianity.

As we were walking through town, Isam (far left and wearing a white shirt in the photo below) stopped to buy us a cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Note the store in the background: Frankfurter (Wir sprechen Deutsch--"We speak English"). There are lots of German tourists in Jordan.

Our guide told us that the name Madaba (which he pronounce MAY-duh-buh) means "table of fruits":
The juice, for which we paid a rather steep $3/cup, was delicious. Pomegranates grow well where we live, and if it had been possible, I would have loved to buy one of these juice-squeezing gizmos to take home.

We weren't the only ones having a snack:
Our reason for making the drive to Madaba was inside this rather simple church:
St. George's Greek Orthodox Church was built in the late 19th century:

Ever since our trips to the Black Sea in 2010 and Russia in 2011, I have loved Orthodox churches.
While relatively simple, St. George's contains all of the best Orthodox elements--a riot of bold colors, wonderfully gaudy chandeliers, the iconostasis at the front of the room, a sanctuary behind the doors of the iconostasis, and a painted cupola over the sanctuary:
The iconostasis has the typical arrangement of Mary on the left and Christ on the right of the entry with the life of Christ depicted in the row of paintings above the door:
A painting of Christ rising from the tomb fills the dome above the inner sanctuary:
Paintings of the saints and apostles cover the columns:
No one does chandeliers as well as the Orthodox Church:

Hey, it looks like I chose my shirt to match the church!
This church celebrates St. George slaying the dragon. It's a wonderful story, and if you're not familiar with it, you can read about it here. There is a 500-year-old painting of the event inside:
Madaba is known as the "City of Mosaics." On the walls of St. George's Church are wonderfully detailed mosaics that look like they could date back more than a thousand years to the Byzantine period but that I think are mostly reproductions from the 19th century when the church was built. They tell the life of Christ, beginning with the Annunciation:
The birth of Christ, complete with the swaddled Christ Child, Mary and Joseph (both with halos), a cave with animals, angels, shepherds, and the wise men:
Mother and Child:
The Presentation in the Temple on the left and Teaching in the Temple on the right:
John the Baptist, including his decapitation (I love his rough clothing, gnarly hair, skinny legs, and wings):
The Baptism of Jesus on the left and the Mount of Transfiguration on the right:
The raising of Lazarus:
The Triumphal Entry (with a child laying down a cloak on the road and a man watching from a nearby tree):
The Crucifixion:
The deposition and placement in the tomb:
Christ raising the dead in Paradise:
The final ascension:
There are other portrait-style mosaics sprinkled around the nave, including Christ Pantocrator and Saint Mark the Evangelist:
Because of the raven in the upper left corner, I am guessing this must be the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who was fed by ravens when he was hiding out from the wicked rulers Ahab and Jezebel:
The most important of all the mosaics is not on the wall, however. It is on the floor and is the primary reason why we flew to Jordan earlier than the rest of our group. This mosaic map was high on Bob's list of Things to See.
The Madaba Map was discovered 1884 during the construction of the current church. It dates to the 6th century AD and shows the geography and towns from Lebanon in the north to the Nile River Delta in the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea on the west to the Eastern Desert. Included in that area is most of Palestine. Two million tiny pieces of stone once formed what was originally a 66-foot-wide map. (These days it measures 52 x 16 feet.)
Although some of the map was destroyed by Islamic conquerors, what was left are parts that have been tediously re-pieced to create the earliest map of the area, and most particularly of Jerusalem, located at the center of the map and labeled the "Holy City." The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is plainly visible, as are the various gates and the central colonnaded street:
One of my favorite scenes in the map is a depiction of the Dead Sea with two fishing boats on it. What were they fishing for in the Dead Sea?
Restoration and preservation was undertaken in 1965 by a German archaeological group that was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.

Not only does the map give historians their best view of Jerusalem, but it has also led to new discoveries, for if it is on the map, it must be there, right?  Five years ago archaeologists uncovered an unknown road buried four meters below the present street near the Jaffa Gate that is shown on this map.

As a follow-up to our experience with the Madaba Mosaic Map, Isam took us to the Madaba Arts and Handicraft Center and Mosaic Workshop. He told us that Madaba is the capital mosaic city in the world, and that Jordan's current leader, King Abdullah, controls the mosaic business. His current wife (#4), Queen Rania, is a big advocate of education and women's rights, making Jordan #1 in the Middle East for women. This Handicraft Center is one of her pet projects. The women who work here are all handicapped.
This place was started both as a way to keep the fine art of mosaic work alive and to employ local artisans.

We were given a tour of the workshop, which was a small area at the front of the shop. Five or six women were chipping tiny pieces of stone and gluing them onto a cloth on which a design had been drawn or transferred:
It is tiresome, exacting work
Once the stone was in place, the gaps were filled with a sandy substance, and then water was added to make a kind of grout.
This woman was working on a table top:
Her pink cell phone seems just a bit out of place, don't you think?
I really like that cityscape hanging on the wall behind this woman's head. We should have bought that one, Bob:
There were all kinds of mosaics for sale, including a representation of the Madaba Map of Jerusalem (far left, middle row) and a really ugly depiction of King Abdullah on the top row:
This is one of the most common designs, a tree of life with a lion killing a deer on the left and two young deer on the right--war and peace:
Here is a finer version, larger and made with smaller pieces and no doubt costing thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars:

There were other handicrafts for sale, including these hand-painted eggs.
We ended up with our own Tree of Life:
. . . and an intricately painted ostrich egg:

They shipped "for free" (after we paid their exorbitant price), and everything arrived as promised within a few weeks of our return.

Next up: Will the Real Mount Nebo Please Step Forward?


  1. I really love mosaics and I loved the mosaics in this church. But they did not compare to the mosaics we saw in St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg. But seeing them being made helped me to appreciate how incredible St. Isaac's was. I would like to have spent more time in Madaba. A clean city with interesting shops, churches and other things to see.

    1. I totally agree, but it's not fair to compare a little Byzantine church in a little town with an enormous cathedral in St. Petersburg. Here's a link to my blog on that church:

  2. What were they fishing for in the Dead Sea? I'm guessing dead fish. After viewing these pictures, I'm convinced I need to bring my better camera when we travel. You've got some really great shots. I really like that John the Baptist, too, who looks like someone to avoid rather than the Preparer for Christ.

  3. Have you seen the Greek Orthodox Church in Riverside (not too far from my house). On their Greek Festival Days they give tours of the church, which has some fine paintings and art work--they are adding to it every year. The festival just concluded this weekend; it's always around conference time.