There is nothing more beautiful than watching the sun set in the mountains. The skies turn crimson and the desert sands light up as the colours brighten the stark landscape. I am in Jordan and we are on our way to an ancient site. No, not Petra, but Madaba.
The very word Madaba has an ancient ring to it. Walking along the quaint streets, the town takes you into a world of treasures. Our destination is the 19th century Byzantine church of St George built on the ruins of a 6th century Greek orthodox church that housed one of the biggest treasures of the ancient period – a mosaic of two million pieces of colourful stones that maps almost 150 sites of The Holy Land.
We enter the church and kneel on the floor where the 6th century mosaic map was imprinted facing the altar. Mountains and rivers, villages and towns, imagery and mythology, with captions in Greek, give you a picture of the Holy Land and the sites around it as the map stretches from Lebanon to Egypt. There is the Nile Delta, the River Jordan where John the Baptist was baptized, the Dead Sea with fish swimming away from it, the old town of Jerusalem along with Bethlehem, Jericho ringed by palms and Bethany, marked by millions of tiny stones that make up the entire mosaic.
As we scan the floor map we see the world as it was depicted in the Bible centuries ago. Abdul, our guide, tells us that the mosaic was one of the clues for archaeologists to discover several sites mentioned in the Bible, including Bethany where Christ was baptized and the Holy Land of Jerusalem with its landmarks, monuments and streetscape. He points to a deer and mentions that it represents John the Baptist, while a lion represents King Herod.
Madaba was destroyed in an earthquake and the floor mosaic was discovered only a couple of centuries ago when the church was rebuilt. As more maps were unearthed in different churches across the city, Madaba earned its sobriquet – City of Mosaics. Local shops sell souvenirs of these mosaics, but the art lives on in showrooms and galleries where artists carefully recreate these mosaics with a million pieces of colourful stones.
Our tour is more about stories than just places. We drive through towns mentioned in the Bible, where Moses saw the Promised Land, where John the Baptist met Christ, where Jesus Christ gave his first sermon, where Elijah ascended to Heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire, where Lot’s wife was turned to a pillar of salt. Our tour takes us through the Jordan Valley, from where treasures and tombs have been unearthed from some of the oldest churches. And I stand mesmerized watching my first glimpse of the Dead Sea bathed in the hues of the setting sun.
But nothing can be more mesmerizing than the view seen by Moses centuries ago, when he was shown the Promised Land. Standing and gazing endlessly at the horizon from Mount Nebo into the Holy Land of Canaan, I wonder if this was the view that Moses saw. A veil of mist covers the landscape, leaving us to imagine the scene. This was the last place where Moses halted in his flight from Egypt to the Holy Land and was buried here apparently by God himself. A church was built here around the 4th century only to be rebuilt a couple of centuries later with fragments of the past depicted in the floor mosaic. We spend more time, looking at the montage of stones depicting people, places and symbols while Abdul tells us that six tombs have been found beneath it.
The Serpentine Cross lit by the evening rays of the sun stands here as a tall sculpture, a reminder of the cross where Christ was crucified. It was also a representation of the brass serpent taken by Moses into the desert on God’s orders. We take another glance at Jerusalem, but all we see is a haze of crimson.
Morning dawns and we drive past the Dead Sea across the Jordan valley, to a place where God first spoke to man. It is believed that somewhere in between the Jordan River and the Tall Al-Kharrar, also known as St Elijah’s Hill, is the Biblical site referred to as Bethany beyond the Jordan where Christ was baptized. The sanctity of the site goes back to the various incidents that the Bible records – Jesus Christ gathered his first disciples and gave his first sermon here.
The landscape dramatically changes as the mountains and seas give way to patches of shrubs and forests on dry river beds creating an image of the wilderness portrayed in the Bible. The remains of an old Byzantine monastery with churches and large pools of water for baptism have been excavated here. The archeological findings included the cave where John the Baptist had lived, a 3rd century prayer hall along with four other churches built near the Jordan River.
We walk through the dry landscape with patches of green and see the river, now a stream used by people for baptism. As we watch the reflections of the tall grass dancing in the waters, we see a group of people on the other bank, dipping into the holy waters. The river separates the two countries – Israel and Jordan, but as the waters flow and the people baptize with it, you realize that faith has no boundaries.