The Madaba map of Byzantine Jerusalem

dome of the rock jerusalem

Jerusalem experienced something of a population surge in the late Roman empire when it became the centre of Christian pilgrimage. And this boom for Byzantine Jerusalem is captured in the so-called Madaba Map that you can see in Jordan. In a mosaic representation, the map shows the new churches that were springing up all over the city as it was dramatically transformed.

I saw this very distinct map in situ in 2013 when touring around Jordan. It dates back to the sixth century AD after the Emperor Justinian had completed some major building work in Jerusalem. Aside from the Holy Sepulchre – site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus – the emperor also built the New Church of the Theotokos (also known as the “Nea” church). This was a vast structure that barely lasted seventy years when it was destroyed by an invading Persian army.

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You can see the Holy Sepulchre and the Theotokos on the Madaba Map. Right down the middle of the map is a colonnaded street – very much in the Roman style. That was the Cardo Maximus – the main north-south highway though Jerusalem. This street and other landmarks would have existed when the Roman Empire was pagan but once the Romans adopted Christianity, emperors like Justinian carried our major improvements.

The map covered the whole region, not just Jerusalem, and was made up of something like two million tiny tiles. It was only re-discovered in the 19th century and for cartographers – the Madaba Map gives an intriguing glimpse of Byzantine Jerusalem. A city that would subsequently be ravaged by the Persians, changed again under Muslim rule before the crusaders and Knights Templar arrived in 1099.

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