Talking Travel Destination Worldview Peter Flaherty Jordan Mosaics and Moses

Mosaics and Moses:
The View From Jordan,

by Peter Flaherty


Jordan is Biblical history, at the crossroads of many ancient cultures, religions and civilizations. Three of the most spectacular historical and archaeological sites in Jordan are Mount Nebo, Madaba, and Karak. All three of these fascinating places are conveniently located along the King’s Highway, one of Jordan’s three major north-south thoroughfares, stretching from the capital Amman in the north to the ancient city of Petra in the south. During our recent media trip to Jordan, we followed this storied route, stopping at all three spots along the way. It is possible to visit all three on a single day, if one were to make an early start from Amman before arriving in Petra in the evening. Madaba would make an ideal lunchtime destination.

According to the Book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, God instructed Moses, “Go up unto Mount Nebo in Moab, across from Jericho, and view Canaan, the land I am giving to the Israelites as their own possession. There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die.” As our tour bus navigated the winding road up to the peak of this holy mountain, on our way to the Moses Memorial Church, we became aware of just how significant this site is to adherents to three of the world’s main monotheist religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For Moses, Moishe, or Musa is a major prophetic figure to all three.

In 2000, His Holiness Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to Mount Nebo, declaring it one of the three holiest sites in Christianity (the other two being Rome and Jerusalem). A gigantic crucifix marks the spot on which Moses is supposed to have stood when God revealed the Promised Land stretching away in the valleys below, all the way to the shores of the Dead Sea. At the entrance to the site, there is also a monument commemorating the Pope’s visit.

The Moses Memorial Church is one of the oldest in Christendom, its existence first reported by a Roman nun, Etheria, who made a pilgrimage to it at the end of the 4th century AD. Additions to the church were made during the Byzantine era and the main basilica was finished in 597. The church and the adjoining monastery remained important pilgrimage sites for Christians from all over Europe during their visits to the Holy Land for many centuries after this. It was abandoned after the Ottoman Turks established their domination over the region during the 16th century, making it difficult for Christian pilgrims to reach it. In 1932, an Italian branch of the Franciscan Order purchased the property, and began serious archaeological excavations of the site.

By far the most fascinating feature of the church is the exceptionally well preserved mosaic, believed to date from around 530 AD, and which measures nine metres by three metres. It depicts a number of scenes of various animals, both wild and domestic, including many not found in the Middle East, such as zebus, lions, tigers, zebras, giraffes, and an ostrich on a leash. The mosaic also features a number of human figures dressed in typical Byzantine costume, some shown leading the various beasts. It is a marvelous and colourful mosaic, and an important historical artifact for what it reveals about the Byzantine era and its lifestyles.

After leaving the church, we stood at the lookout where God is supposed to have shown Moses the Promised Land. It was a hazy late summer day, and the desert horizon and the Dead Sea shimmered in the distance. We were told that on a perfectly clear day it was possible to see the rooftops of Jerusalem. We couldn’t see that far, but were able to make out the major West Bank city of Jericho, and the azure waters of the Dead Sea. A marker directly in front of the lookout indicates the major sites that can occasionally be seen, including Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, and other important Palestinian towns such as Hebron and Ramallah. Aware of the latest round of the continuing Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that had been raging just before our visit, the irony of the term “Promised Land” was not lost on our group. For this barren, arid land has proved to be a site of major contention between Jews, Christians, and Muslims over the centuries, and remains so today.

Leaving Mount Nebo with these rather sobering thoughts, we made our way to the major town of Madaba, a few miles to the south. Here we were able to visit another extremely important church, St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, where another extremely important mosaic can be viewed on the church’s floor. This is the famous “Madaba Map,” first uncovered after excavations in the church in 1884, and it depicts the major Biblical sites in the Middle East. Believed to have been designed in 560 AD, it was originally about 25 metres long and six wide, and contained over two million individual mosaic pieces. Today, about one third of this magnificent work remains, but from it one can gain a great insight into the sense of religious geography in ancient times. Jerusalem, the holy city, is located right at the centre of the map, with the Mediterranean to the west and the walled city of Karak to the east. Jerusalem is depicted as a real city, with walls, gates, a central road, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which supposedly marks the site of Jesus’ crucifixion on Mount Calvary. Many of the geographical features, such as the Dead Sea and the Jordan River, are decorated with scenes of animals and fish, to add a note of realism (or whimsy?) to the map. It takes some time to appreciate all of the intricate features of this work of art, and our tour guide Ibrahim was extremely helpful and knowledgeable in orienting us and pointing them out to us.

After leaving the church we headed to Madaba’s most renowned restaurant, Haret Jdoudna, where the proud owners greeted us in a beautiful outdoor courtyard with tables set invitingly for lunch. Haret Jdoudna is not only a restaurant, but an entire complex of cafes, bars, and craft shops. However, our main interest on the day we visited was food, and we were not disappointed. Almost immediately after taking our seats, an efficient team of servers began depositing plate after plate of cold mezzes (appetizers), including hummus, baba ganoush, and muttabal on the table, along with fresh-from-the-oven pita bread to dip them in. These were followed in turn by the hot mezzes, delicious tidbits of fried meat and cheese, the main courses of rice and shishkabobs, and finally an array of sweet desserts and fruit. When eating in Jordan, one is well-advised to pace oneself, for any overindulgence on one of the four courses that compose a meal will prevent the full enjoyment of everything on offer! After lunch, we were intrigued by the huge selection of hookahs, or water pipes, available for the use of any guests so inclined. A group of young Jordanians selected from across the country for a highly-regarded community service program was also enjoying lunch while we were at the restaurant.

Replete after our lunch, we welcomed the opportunity to admire the scenery as we headed south from Madaba to the Crusader castle of Karak. Along the way, we had the unexpected surprise of reaching the crossroads town of Al-Qasr just as the motorcade of His Majesty King Abdullah II was approaching for a state visit. Our bus was delayed by the military security that was extremely evident along the highway, but our party was eventually permitted to step outside to witness the arrival of the king in an unmarked vehicle that sped by us on his way to an official reception. Flags and banners of welcome were displayed everywhere, clear indications of the esteem this monarch’s people hold for him in his efforts to plot a moderate, peaceful course for his nation in a troubled region, along with progressive policies for economic development.

This unanticipated delay did not prevent us from reaching our last destination of an eventful day — Karak, the imposing castle that dominates the high ground above the modern city of the same name. The Christian Crusaders or Franks built this massive edifice during the 12th century as a strategic strong point in their ongoing struggles against the Islamic armies of the legendary Saladin. The most notorious feudal knight to rule the castle was undoubtedly Renauld de Chatillon, a sadistic nobleman who enjoyed torturing his prisoners and tossing them off the ramparts into the valley 450 metres below. De Chatillon’s mortal enemy was Saladin, who always conducted cordial and respectful relations with his other main Christian opponents, including the English king Richard Coeur-de-Lion. He is reported to have sent Richard some sherbet upon hearing that he had fallen ill from the heat, and this treat was later brought back to Europe as ice cream. However, de Chatillon’s fate at Saladin’s hands was to be somewhat different. He was the only Crusader nobleman that the Muslim leader ordered executed, once the forces of Islam captured Karak in 1183.

Later in its history, Karak would become an important base for the Mamluks, originally a band of ex-slaves from Egypt who revolted against their Turkish overlords and established a kingdom in the Middle East prior to the arrival of the Ottomans. The castle later fell into ruins, some of it destroyed by a major earthquake in 1293. On his way to visit Petra in the early 19th century, the Swiss explorer and archaeologist Johann Burkhardt passed by it, remarking that its appearance was “shattered but imposing.”

Today, Karak has been largely restored, and our visit was a highlight of an eventful day. On arriving at the outer moat, once filled with water and stocked with crocodiles, one crosses a rickety wooden bridge to the main castle gate. The wind was blowing strongly that day, and I almost lost my hat while crossing. Watching it descend into the dry moat below, I momentarily lost hope that it would be possible to retrieve it, until a local boy, one of many who had gathered to meet us at the entrance, descended to fetch it for me. He politely declined the tip I offered, but did agree to a reward of some chewing gum I had purchased from one of his associates!

The interior of the castle contains a number of passageways, defensive positions, gates, and living quarters and visiting them it was possible to gain some appreciation of the hardships the Crusaders must have had to endure during their long occupation of this edifice. One important feature is the headless figure carved into the north wall, which some claim to be a depiction of Saladin. Archaeologists now believe however that it actually dates from the 2nd century and is of Nabataean design. This would link Karak’s Crusader history to a much earlier ancient civilization that dominated the region from its imposing capital, Petra, to the south, many centuries before.

The views of the surrounding countryside from the heights of Karak Castle were breathtaking. The entire site is well-designed for visitors, and there are a number of helpful and informative markers at various points that provide useful background to its history and the various conflicts between Crusaders and Islamic armies that took place there. As we left the castle, the afternoon sun was beginning to fade into the horizon, and night was about to fall. After a short visit to some of the craft shops dotting the main road in the new town of Karak, we began our journey to Petra. The southern stretch of the King’s Highway opened up onto a less mountainous and increasingly flat desert landscape. We were leaving behind three of Jordan’s fabled historical and archaeological treasures from different periods of its long and fascinating history — Mount Nebo, Madaba, and Karak.