The fertility of Madaba's plains have made it a strategic location for 3500 years. Fought over by many people during different times, it later became a Nabataean town. During the Byzantine era, the city became a bishopric and the mosaics, for which it became famous, were laid. Today, the city is still famous for mosaics, both historical and for its mosaic school, the only one of its kind in the Middle East.
Many biblical civilizations coveted the rich plains surrounding Madaba. In 106 AD, the Romans became the governors, and Madaba gained a colonnaded street and the usual impressive public buildings of a provincial town. The town failed, however, after the earthquake of 747 AD, and lay abandoned for about 1100 years.
In the 1880s, local fighting in Karak drove 2000 Christians to settle in Madaba. As they began to dig foundations for their houses, they began to uncover mosaics. From then on, Madaba has been a heaven for archeologists and a nightmare for construction workers.
In or around 562 AD, many exquisite mosaic floors were laid in Madaba, including the Chapel of St. Theodore, now part of the Madaba Cathedral. In the Church of the Apostles, a mosaicist named Salamanios completed a masterwork. The oldest and most famous floor, the Mosaic Map, was discovered in 1884 in the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. It was originally laid in 560 AD. Centering on Jerusalem, the map portrays the region with accuracy and humor. Archeologists have been able to positively identify most of the 150 named sites due to the accurate portrayals of natural features such as the River Jordan or the Dead Sea, as well as the labels. Only one-third of the map has survived.
The Archeological Park is located on the foundations of the Church of the Virgin Mary, and its floor is part of the collection. A mosaic found at Herod's castle in Mukawir is said to be the oldest mosaic found in Jordan, dating from the 1st century BC. The charming Hall of Seasons was found under a Madaba house. Across the preserved Roman road, complete with wheel ruts, are the foundations of the Church of the Prophet Elias, constructed in 608 AD.
Other tourist opportunities abound. The Burnt Palace is a 6th century luxury palace destroyed about 749 AD by fire and earth tremors, but which still boasts mosaic floors, mostly depicting animals and hunts. The Madaba Museum contains jewelry and ethnic costumes, as well as more mosaics. The unique Madaba Mosaic School seeks to preserve the craft and to teach conservation techniques.
A number of historical sites surround Madaba. Mt. Nebo is owned by the Franciscan fathers and has been part of the traditional Christian pilgrimage path for centuries. The traditional path included Jerusalem, Mt. Nebo, and a bath at Hammamat Ma'in, where Herod is said to have bathed. The new hotel and spa here makes this pilgrimage end in comfort and luxury.
Madaba is an unusual place. Once a Roman town, it is hard to find evidence of that now, but the Byzantine influence defines the tourism aspect of the area. The mosaics that were laid here long ago, and the ones being created now, set Madaba apart.