15 August 2011

Marvelous Madaba

The Moabite town of Madaba dates back some 3,500 years and is frequently referred to in the Old Testament. In those days it was known as Medeba and was mentioned in connection to Prophet Moses and the Exodus, as well as several others.

Numbers, chapter 21 describes the revenge taken by Israel on the entire country of Sihon. The Israelites sarcastically expressed compassion for the Moabites because their god, Chemosh failed to deliver them from the hands of their enemies. They then burned the cities of Heshbon, Dibon, Nopah and, in verse 30 "...We have destroyed even to Nopah, the fire did reach to Medeba".

As a descendant of Ruth, David may be said to have Moabite blood in his veins. He even sent his parents to the Moabite King when King Saul was on the rampage (1 Samuel 22:3,4). Good relations deteriorated, though and David waged war against the Moabites who lived around Madaba. King Mesha of Moab staged a rebellion against Israel. The biblical account and that of the Mesha Stele differ as to the outcome of the battle. Each side, naturally, claimed victory. Prophet Isaiah prophesied against Moab in the Moabite Oracles (Isaiah chapters 15, 16).

Mesha Stele, now housed in the Louvre Museum
Madaba became a prosperous ecclesiastical center between the 4th and 7th centuries CE. One of the world's greatest Byzantine mosaic collections was produced here. Many of them are still very well preserved. Some of the church floor mosaics, most notably the Map Mosaic at St George Orthodox Church, can still be seen in their original locations. Others have been moved to the Madaba Archaeological Park for protection and display.

So now, you have a bit of background on Madaba. Last Friday Zeek and I decided to visit our friend, Geries Hamarneh who owns a hotel there. We were also joined by Rami and Jasmin. The front door of his place takes you directly into the restaurant, and what an astonishing place it is! Geries has had the place for a couple of years or so and did much of the restoration work himself. The building itself is quite old, as are most of the buildings in this street. The restaurant is rustic, cosy and inviting. We sat at the first table and I reclined on a couch as we enjoyed our excellent Turkish coffee. The waiter is no slouch as a coffee brewer! It was tasty and refreshing after a morning of nothing but American coffee at home and on the short drive to Madaba.
Queen Ayola Restaurant

Geries, Ol' Big Jim, Jasmin, Rami

Rami, Abozaky, Geries, Ol' Big Jim, Jasmin

Jasmin, Rami

Geries, Ol' Big Jim

After visiting awhile, Geries asked whether I'd been to the Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist. When I allowed that I hadn't been there, it was decided that I must see it straightaway. Turns out it was only a few steps us the steeply inclined street and it was well worth the walk!

Stepping through the gate, I was greeted by a row of ancient columns standing guard over the entryway. Beautiful succulent plants were interspersed between the columns and down on the cobbled pavement. One in particular caught my attention. Aunt Frances used to have one; she called it "Crocodile Tears". Well, you know Ol' Big Jim had to collect a few of the "tears" to bring home and plant! As we continued our walk inside I could't help being amused by the whimsical placement of 5-gallon "pickle buckets" holding palm trees perched atop each of the columns.
Ol' Big Jim goin' to church!

The facade of the classic arched basilica design church is adorned by a mosaic (it's Madaba!) over the main door, stained glass made by Latroun Monks in 1958, with a cross attached at the top of the roof. The simplicity and clean lines of the church make it one of the most beautiful in the kingdom.

Have a look at this picture! The geranium is hugely popular over here and is usually planted outside, exhibiting enormous growth. I never saw such growth back in the states! This one though, must be the biggest one I've seen yet! Some of the blossoms were fading, but I can just imagine how beautiful it must be when it's in full bloom. I especially wanted Mother and Aunt Frances to see this.

Inside the little museum is a replica of the mosaic floor from the Church of St Stephen down in Umm Al-Rasas. Like the mosaic map down the street, this floor shows many of the towns of the ancient world such as Madaba, Jerusalem, Philadelphia (Amman) and others. The central field of the original mosaic did not survive the multiple earthquakes and the passage of time, so the artisans filled it in with some gorgeous designs in keeping with the character of the floor.
Reproduction of the floor of the Church of St Stephen in Umm al-Rasas
Standing in the nave of the church, looking at the main altar one cannot help feeling awed and maybe even a bit humbled by the beautiful craftsmanship evident in the Shrine. The mosaics, stained glass, statuary and vaulted ceilings urge reverence and quiet in this place of worship. Just for a second, I thought I was still a practicing Catholic and started looking about for the confessional. I managed to shake it off and we started making our way to the bell tower.

Climbing up and up and up...
I'm not sure just how tall the bell tower is, but Father Yacoub told me it is the highest structure in Madaba. Ninety-nine steps take one to the top. A series of stairs, both straight and curved (lighthouse style), and ladders led us upward past the bells and out onto the tiny, narrow balcony that surrounds the top. The commanding view of the countryside surrounding Madaba were breathtaking! The church sexton loaned us binoculars and a telescope to enhance our site seeing experience.
Geries, Jasmin, Rami

I was just lookin' back to see if you were lookin' back to see...

A tight squeeze for Ol' Big Jim!

Had to take off my shoes to back down the ladder

I rang his bell!

This wall is all that was left of one of the original houses of ancient Madaba; the traditional facade of the house of Ibrahim Twal was incorporated into the wall of the church entrance square. This, along with the ancient stone watering troughs, plants and trees create a quiet, serene spot that begs to be enjoyed. I believe I could easily have spent the entire day just sitting there, enjoying the solitude.

After the climb and descent from, the tower. Geries led us down under the church. Down two flights of stairs we found ourselves in a grotto of ancient arched rooms that is now the Acropolis Museum consisting of the grotto of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, a place of vows and an exhibition of the most significant Madaba mosaics. Down one more flight is an ancient Moabite well that's around 3,000 years old. We drew a bucket of some of the coldest, most refreshing water I ever had!

Following our visit, I met the parish Priest, Father Yacoub Rafidi. Father is a quiet, unassuming man with a scholarly, dignified persona. His warm eyes and smile make you know you are welcome in this place. After giving me a brief history of the Shrine, he told me that it is believed that there is a mosaic floor under the main altar of the church. Excavations will begin in December to determine what is there. This is exciting news and now I'm all in a dither to know what will be found. I'll definitely be paying return visits to check on the progress of the dig!
Jim, Fr Yacoub, Geries

After that very interesting excursion, Zeek, Geries and I returned to Queen Ayola to have a bite to eat. Only one word is needed to describe that meal: OUTSTANDING!

Our chef, Bady

You know me, though, I can't stop with just one word... Ba'donsieh is a dish I'd never had before. It consists of parsley in tahini and a bit of yogurt. It was unbelievably good.  There were two chicken dishes; fajita and sajieh. This was also my first time for sajieh. It won't be the last! It's chicken and onions coked with spices. It was probably 7-spice, but I don't know that for sure...yet. I will be trying to get that recipe, though. The fajita was pure Mexican and beautifully done. This most excellent meal was rounded out with a crisp, tasty Greek salad, a wonderfully tart and tangy tabouleh salad and pita. Queen Ayola serves food fit for a king!

If you are reading this post, you really should consider coming to Jordan for a visit. The country is safe and secure and the natives are friendly and welcoming. A week or two spent here will afford you the opportunity to see many sites you have only read about in scripture and history. Zeek and I will be more than happy to arrange an itinerary for you that ensures you see everything possible!

If you haven't taken the time to watch the video Zeek made, have a look at it right away. After watching it, contact us for a tour!
One more for Mother, Jenny and all the plant lovers

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