Monday, November 14, 2011

Madaba and Mt. Nebo

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On Sunday morning, we headed southwest from Amman to Madaba, which has been a Christian center for centuries and still features a large Christian enclave of about 15,000, approximately 8,000 of which are Orthodox.

We attended church at St. George's, which is the home of the famous Mosaic Map. The head priest was a Jordanian who had spent 9 years in the US serving an Antiochian parish in the Midwest, so he was happy to invite me to serve with them.

One of the deacon's doors to the altar had this interesting feature so that people could hand over their prosphora without opening the door all the way.

ROCOR Bishop Agapit (Gorachek) of Stuttgart was also with us in the altar, but did not serve. Afterwards, we headed to the parish center where we all had coffee with some of the parishioners. Christians make up about 5% of Jordan's population and, by all accounts, are very well treated both by the people and the government. Fr. Nicholas, the head priest, mentioned to me that the parish celebrates Divine Liturgy every Friday and often times it is better attended than the Sunday Liturgy, simply because weekends in the Muslim world are on Friday-Saturday, with Sunday the first day of the work week. Some Christian businesses are able to have Saturday-Sunday as their weekends, but Christians who work for Muslims don't always have that option for practical reasons.

Above is a close-up of a section of the 6th century map, which is really quite impressive. Madaba was a stopping point on Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and the map was actually just as functional as it was decorative, indicating for pilgrims the holy sites and where they were located, with a surprising degree of accuracy, as contemporary research has shown.

I found it fascinating that, as famous as this map is and as many tourists as it draws, the church is still, first and foremost, a place of prayer, not a museum. Thus, during services, a carpet is rolled over the mosaics and we made the entrances right on top of the famous floor. As soon as the Liturgy is over, the carpet is rolled up, ropes are erected, and the church is opened to tourists.

After church, we headed to Mt. Nebo, the mountain just to the east of the Jordan and the Dead Sea. This is where Moses looked out over the Promised Land before dying and being buried somewhere nearby. Above is a photo of a round stone that was used as the gate to an early Byzantine monastery on this location. The stone, probably much like the one used to close Jesus' tomb, was rolled in front of the entranceway. In the background, you can also see a tree with many ribbons tied to it. This is done by Muslims and Christians alike as a sort of tama.

Above and below, some of the incredible views over the Promised Land that Moses also saw. The photo above includes a map from the site which indicates the direction and distances to important sites.

After Mt. Nebo, we made our way to the somewhat obscure site of the 6th century Church of the Holy Martyrs Lot and Procopius. The ruins and its beautiful mosaic floor are covered by what appears from the outside to be a small, modern house with no identifying signs. We were thus quite unsure if we had come to the right place. We roused a dozing man in a nearby shack and it turned out he was the site's manager. Not only that, but his family had actually lived in a house that stood on top of these ruins, although quite unaware of them until 1932, when his mother accidentally spilled milk down the old wood stove that stood in the middle of the house. She moved the stove in order to clean down into the floor and soon hit a mosaic tile. It was thus that the ruins of the church and the beautiful floor were found underneath 60 cm of accumulated earth. In the middle of the floor, near the altar, in the photo above, you can see a black spot. This is where their wood stove had stood all those years.

As you can tell, there are countless, beautiful mosaic floors from the Byzantine churches of the 5th-7th centuries in this region east of the Jordan. Interestingly, many if not most of the subject matter was taken from classical pagan art, which was enjoying a revival in the general (not specifically ecclesiastical) culture of that time, and it was melded also into the ecclesiastical art, which sought to adorn its churches with the greatest amount of beauty. Of course, there were also some biblical themes as well, and even some of the pagan subject matter was reinterpreted in a Christian light, such that, for example, it reflected the Christian eschatological vision.

Here's a photo of my dad with the man whose family had lived 60 cm on top of these ruins for generations.

For more photos, click here.

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