For most, professionals included, the meat of history is written. Whether a work is authored as deliberate witness to historical events or is, like legal documents and personal memoranda, an incidental source, it provides scholars with a direct route into the thoughts and actions of the past not offered by archaeology. In mediaeval history, however, there are some spectacular sources whose value lies not in what is written, but in what is shown. These visual records include items like the Bayeux Tapestry (which is perennially useful from a blogging perspective,) and today’s own featured item: the Madaba Map.
Created some time in the 6th century (an era known either as the very early Middle Ages or very late Antiquity) the Madaba Map is an extraordinarily detailed mosaic of the holy land, now located in Jordan. It was discovered in the 1880s during the construction of a new church, but suffered several decades of damage before its restoration in the 1960s. Despite its fragmentary state–caused both by passive damage and active destruction–it remains an unprecedented resource for the shape of the Middle East before the Muslim conquests of the following century.
As with written records, the Madaba Map was created with a particular audience in mind. Located in the heart of the sacred geography of Christendom, it sought to depict the most significant sites from the perspective of pilgrims. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Jerusalem and its environs are rendered in astonishing detail–yielding insight into how the city might have looked at this point in its history.
The most striking features are the walls and gates, punctuated by many towers, which gird the city and separate it from its surroundings. Although here they appear formidable–and were said by one 7th century observer to have no less than 84 towers–they were unable to prevent the city from surrendering to the early Muslim conquerors in 637, and were taken by storm by the first crusaders in 1099. Bisecting the city, we see a colonnaded street rendered in loving detail; these marble columns would have lent the city centre a classical atmosphere. Reminiscent both of the Greek agora and the mediaeval souk (or covered bazaar), these streets were filled with commercial as well as religious traffic. Adomnan, reporting the experiences of a 7th century pilgrim, noted that
“an almost countless multitude of various nations is in the habit of gathering from all sides to Jerusalem for the purposes of commerce by mutual sale and purchase….”
Although no figures appear in the Jerusalem section of the Madaba Map, it is easy to imagine these precisely rendered streets full of life. Especially popular would have been the landmarks of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which projects downward from the centre of the city, and Gethsemane (located outside the walls above the legend in red on white on the top left-hand side).
Moving beyond Jerusalem, we can see the Sea of Galilee as well as the Dead Sea. The River Jordan teems with fish and the landscape is filled with annotations that give the locations of shrines, cities, and monasteries. Importantly, the map retains a partial image of Ascalon (a port taken by the first Crusaders) whose location was previously uncertain. Wherever modern excavations have uncovered new archaeological material (particularly in Jerusalem itself), the Madaba Map has proven itself a reliable guide to the topography and urban landscapes it depicts with such verve.
For this reason, the Madaba Map deserves recognition as an unparalleled source of information on the most important landscape known to mediaeval Christians. As a snapshot, it captures the levant at a critical time–before the reconfiguration of religious and political life in the 7th century as the Umayyad Caliphate arose and the Byzantine Empire ebbed. The obscured figures, damaged areas, and its ultimate rediscovery, however, also attest to its continuing significance to the many generations who beheld it.
The quoted text is from Adomnan’s De Locis Sanctis, a 7th century guide to the Holy Places based upon the testimony of the Frankish pilgrim Arnulf.
To explore more specific features of the Madaba Map in sections, I recommend A Virtual Travel Tour through the Madaba Map.