George Karadsheh begins class at the New Orthodox School with a prayer. (photo: Youssef Alan)
A street scene in Madaba, Jordan, combines the old with the new. (photo: Youssef Alan)
Tourists visit St. George’s Orthodox Church with its mosaic map of Palestine. (photo: Youssef Alan)
Arab vendors ply their trade in the streets of Madaba. (photo: Youssef Alan)
Sameh Ma’iah demonstrates the ancient art of carpet-weaving. (photo: Youssef Alan)
Some may wonder what it is like for a Christian to live amidst one of the most significant biblical sites in the world.
I feel proud being a Christian and living here, says George Karadsheh, 34. George is a theology teacher in Madaba, Jordan, at the New Orthodox School, which opened in 1905. He and his family fled Lebanon after civil war erupted there in 1976.
Even though I was not born in Madaba, I feel different from those Christians who read the Bible but dont know the location of significant biblical sites. Actually, he adds, that was the reason behind my decision to get my diploma in theology.
Madaba, the City of Mosaics, lies some 30 miles south of Amman and is home to one of the worlds finest collections of Byzantine mosaics, most at least 1,400 years old. Best known is a magnificent floor map of ancient Palestine located at St. Georges Orthodox Church. Discovered in 1897, it displays a vivid, detailed depiction of the Holy Land of the sixth century. Containing two million pieces of colored stone and measuring a full 15 x 3 feet, this masterpiece is unrivaled.
There are, however, literally hundreds of other mosaics from the fifth through the seventh centuries scattered throughout Madabas churches and homes. Some depict a rampant profusion of flowers and plants, birds and fish, animals and exotic beasts, while others display scenes from mythology and everyday pursuits of hunting, fishing and farming.
Soon after the mosaic map discovery, a group of some 2,000 Christians migrated to Madaba from the ancient Crusader city of Kerak. Using the foundations of ancient structures, they built dwellings and churches. Along the way, they uncovered numerous floor mosaics. In fact, the nucleus of the citys unique museum is a combination of houses that were built over some of the oldest mosaic pavements found in Jordan.
Inhabited for at least 4,500 years, the city of Madaba is mentioned in the Bible as the Moabite town of Medaba. After several centuries of rule under the Moabites and Nabataeans, Madaba and the surrounding lands became part of the Roman province of Arabia in 106 A.D. The city prospered, boasting colonnaded streets and impressive public buildings.
During the first century A.D., Christianity spread rapidly throughout Arabia, but the Romans persecuted believers under orders from the emperor Diocletian; some Madaba Christians died for their beliefs. After the conversion of the emperor Constantine and the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, Madaba became an important Christian center and diocese. A succession of bishops presided over the building of churches and the restoration and embellishment of existing churches with mosaic floors and other decoration. Mosaics were created in Madaba and the surrounding environs until at least the eighth century.
In the mid-seventh century, the Arab Muslim conquest of the Middle East decimated the regions Christian communities. Christians in Madaba were nearly extinct until the 19th century, when Christians from Kerak and the West Bank settled there. The Izeizat clan first settled in the town in the 1870s; other clans later joined them. These clans were primarily Orthodox, although some were Greek Catholic. To accommodate this increase in faithful, St. Georges Orthodox Church was resurrected and reopened. Today Madabas Izeizat clan are mostly Latin Catholic; other families remain Orthodox or Greek Catholic.
Migrants from rural areas, especially Muslims from the south, joined the influx of Christians to Madaba. Christians learned to live cautiously but peacefully with their Muslim neighbors. Their relations with the bedouin to the east, however, remained tenuous.
In 1956, an unexpected clash occurred between Madabas Christians and Muslims. As Muslim tribes settled in the city, some newcomers attacked Christians as they left their churches. A fierce battle ensued, resulting in casualties on both sides. That was the first and last Christian-Muslim clash in Madaba.
There is no secular identity in Jordan: one is either a Muslim or a Christian. In Madaba, however, it is noticeable that the town today is no longer exclusively Christian, though it is filled with old churches and, of course, biblical sites.
The town of Madaba once was almost totally Christian, but the city limits have expanded several times, says former government minister Munther Haddadin.
Today the city includes a Palestinian refugee camp that once was adjacent to the city and additional neighborhoods in all four directions.
The city council, once all Christian, is now primarily Muslim because of expanding city limits and the consequent inclusion of more Muslims, added Haddadin.
Whatever the demographic makeup of the town, Madabas residents agree that Muslims and Christians share their joys and sorrows and stand side by side at weddings and wakes.
In all our religious feasts, weddings or funerals, our joint culture prevails, says Sibly Bahjat Haddadin, headmaster of the New Orthodox School. Even during Ramadan we gather in the evening to discuss the problems of our city and how we can solve them for the benefit of society.
At one time, the people of Madaba were mostly farmers; their crops included winter wheat and barley, some summer vegetables and other summer crops such as maize, lentils and chickpeas. They also raised livestock, primarily sheep, goats and camels. Trading with the surrounding bedouin was also popular. This activity was supplemented by the sale of land, primarily outside the city, to fellow Jordanians.
Today the role of agriculture among Madabas Christians has diminished; jobs in the services sector have increased dramatically since the early 1950s and provide most of the residents income. Others pursue higher education in neighboring countries and return to Madaba to occupy positions in the military, law enforcement, education and healthcare.
The demands of the population for jobs are perhaps the biggest challenge facing the city today, says Haddadin.
Unemployment is high, especially among Muslims, and poverty is spreading. This can trigger many social ills, he adds.
Because Madaba is considered one of the main tourist destinations in the Kingdom, most of its people work in handicrafts, own souvenir shops and run tourist businesses. Many of Madabas tour guides, in fact, are Muslim, but are proud to share Madabas Christian history with the world.
Sameh Maiah inherited his carpet-weaving business from his father and started working there with his brothers in 1954.
This is a family business I inherited it from my father and, before him, my ancestors, says Sameh.
But my children are studying at universities, he added. I dont want them to have to work as hard as I do.
Today, the apathy of the Christian youth of Madaba is a major concern for community leaders; it is considered the main obstacle facing the growth of the church.
What our young people care about is going out and partying church is not of interest to them, notes George, who is also a theology tutor. Simply put, he adds, praying is not part of our daily practice.
Since it is primarily a Muslim town, Madaba does not combat this problem with church programs for its youth. Scout camps, however, are sometimes held, which include religious lectures and activities. In addition to the Orthodox school, which educates children from all the Christian churches, Madabas Latin Catholic school plays a role in teaching languages and information technology to Christian youth and provides a haven for open discussion on day-to-day issues.
The Muslims and Christians of Madaba continue to maintain a healthy coexistence and assert their own faiths.
A living amalgam of past and present, Christian and Muslim, rest and unrest, this bustling market town continues to be a site of pilgrimage, prayer and learning for millions.
Caroline Faraj is a journalist based in Jordan.