The Madaba Map

The Madaba mosaic map is the earliest representation of Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) yet discovered. Located in biblical Medeba -now the town of Madaba, east of the Jordan - it seems to have been laid sometime between 560 and 565 CE, as part of the floor of a large Byzantine basilica.

Originally measuring about 24 x 6 meters and surrounded by a 75 centimeter wide scroll border, the Madaba map was orientated towards the church apse. It depicted the whole of biblical Palestine, reaching north to Hamat and Damascus, east to Rabbat Ammon and Petra, south to the Nile delta, and west to the Mediterranean. Jerusalem was its centre, the actual centre-point being the pillar shown immediately inside Damascus Gate - Jerusalem's northern gate (shown on the stamp's left side) - in Arabic, Bab el Amud, the Gate of the Pillar.

Drawn by a craftsman who knew the area well, and was familiar with both Old and New Testaments, this remarkable piece of work utilized no less than 2,300,000 tesserae in 16 different colors, and was skillfully fashioned to include the maximum amount of information.

"Jerusalem" is the most famous section of the map (it is the one depicted on the stamps). It shows many of the city's sixth century structures that are still visible today. The main thoroughfare, the Cardo maximus (Cardo, in short) was a colonnaded street bisecting the city from north to south, from today's Damascus Gate to the Zion Gate. Along the Cardo in the map, two large church complexes are clearly shown: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the north and the Basilica of the Nea (discovered in the Jewish Quarter about 40 years ago) at the southern end. Also visible on the map are the Western Wall of the Temple enclosure and David's Tower, now part of the Citadel. Other places were also marked with their contemporary as well as their biblical names, making the Madaba map a true reflection of the Holy Land as it was during Byzantine times.

In the map, mountains are outlined in pastel-tinted cubes separated by black lines along the valleys, and water is indicated by blue and brown waves. Fish appear in the rivers, and ships on the Dead Sea, while palm trees symbolize the country's vegetation and deer and lions the animals of the land. Cities are marked by gates and battlements; smaller towns by an entry flanked by towers, and churches are distinguished by red roofs. Inscriptions - many of them quotations from the Bible - are generally written in black and legends of particular importance in red.

To make the picture more vivid, it was sketched as from a high point, rather like an aerial photograph, and emphasized walls, colonnaded streets, and the facades of public buildings. Various devices of perspective were employed to give a lively and attractive appearance, creating the first pictorial map ever found. The scaling is not uniform, the more important a place is the bigger is its representation. Jerusalem has the biggest representation, in a scale of about 1:1600.

Following the Muslim conquest of this part of the world around 636 CE, the church apparently remained in use for perhaps a century, then it was abandoned and the Madaba pavement fell into oblivion. In 1884, when a new Greek Orthodox church was planned on the site, it was brought to the attention of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem, but no action was taken. During the process of construction much damage was done, and only in 1896, with the building nearly completed, did scholars suddenly realize the implications of the map, and flocked to study and record it.

Despite the damage to the pavement, "Jerusalem" was left in its entirety. Disintegration of the map over the years since it was discovered gradually continued, and the mosaic was in danger of obliteration. However, in 1966 a team of West German experts cleaned and reset this unique masterpiece, preserving it for future generations.

The 4 stamps depicting the "Jerusalem" section of the Madaba map were issued in 1978.