In search of rare orchids: The Mosaics of Jordan
I would hazard a guess that being a lover of ancient mosaics is much like being a bird watcher or a seeker of rare orchids. You read books about them, browse the internet in search of them, communicate with fellow obsessives about them and occasionally, if you’re lucky, you hack your way through the rain forest oblivious to ten-metre anacondas and bird-eating spiders in your determination to find them. Then, drenched in sweat and covered in leeches, you arrive, and the whole world becomes still as you gaze at the thing you know so well but have never known at all.
Fortunately, there aren’t many ancient mosaics in the rain forest but that doesn’t mean that getting to see them in situ is always an easy matter. Work, family, money, practicalities and responsibilities all assemble in serried ranks to block your way as surely as lianas and buttress roots. But I got lucky. Our middle son was spending his year abroad studying in Amman so the mosaics of Jordan were finally in my sights*. Moreover, the middle son is the one with an appetite for ancient ruins that (almost) exceeds my own and a tolerance for mosaic hunting that goes beyond filial duty.
Nevertheless the visit was to be short – our son had classes to go to and we had left the two other boys at home so this wasn’t intended to be a full blown holiday. Just four days to see him and to take in the mosaics of Jordan. It was a tall order but nothing was going to hold me back. Agenda: book a car, set the alarm, gulp down some thick Arabic coffee and humous-smeared flat bread and hit the road. The mosaics of Jordan here I come.
Forgive me, dear reader. Once again you find me galloping full tilt towards the ticket offices of ancient mosaic sites, hair dishevelled, clothes akimbo, my hollered goodbye to the tiny figures left far behind me lost in the wind. When it comes to visiting ancient mosaics I am like one of those rotund gymkhana ponies, ears pricked, tail swishing , charging forward as if nothing could stop me. But then comes the first fence, the first mosaic, and I screech to a halt. My progress from that point on becomes painfully slow. The tiny figures soon catch up and move on, eventually idling away their time at a neaby cafe as I dally and linger.
All I intend to do here is give you an idea of the mosaic wonders that are in store if you ever manage to get to Jordan yourself. This post is not aiming to be comprehensive or learned – the topic is too vast and diverse to be distilled down and anyway it seems foolish to separate out the mosaics from this small, newly created kingdom when of course the ancient and Byzantine-era mosaics I was looking at were created when the human geography of the area was entirely different and the mosaics which decorated the churches, palaces and public buildings were part of much larger empires. To look at the mosaics of Jordan, one also has to look at those of Israel, Palestine and Syria at the very least to see how styles and influences crossed, merged and were reinvented throughout the region.
During our brief time I managed to see the mosaics still on site at the sprawling ancient city of Jerash, an hour’s drive from Jordan’s capital; the small but exquisite early 6th century church of Petra whose floors were only saved from the hammers of the iconoclasts by an earthquake in 600AD which buried them; the extraordinary Baptistry of Moses at Mount Nebo (around 530AD) which qualifies as one of my rare orchids; the 6th century Church of Lot and Procopius, discovered by chance by a Bedu grandmother as she racked the family hearth; the famous and tantalisingly fragmented early Byzantine Map of Madaba in the town of the same name; the eclectic collection of the Madaba Archeological Park and, last but not least, with the custodian breathing down my neck and telling me that closing time had been and gone, the Church of the Apostles, also dating to the 6th century.
Please take these photo galleries as my memento of those galloping days and this picture of a pensive camel on a hill above Al Deir in Petra as proof that I did occasionally look up despite all appearances to the contrary.
The Mosaics of Jordan: Jerash
The Mosaics of Jordan: Petra.
The Mosaics of Jordan: The Baptistry of Moses, Mount Nebo.
The Mosaics of Jordan: Church of Lot and Procopius, Madaba.
The Mosaics of Jordan: Map of Madaba
The Mosaics of Jordan: The Madaba Archaeological Museum.
The Mosaics of Jordan: The Church of the Apostles, Madaba.
*Those of you who are on your toes will be aware that Jordan is just a hop and a skip away from Israel. Surely it would be a scandal to come so far and not nip over the border to see that country’s mosaics too? I’m glad you agree. Upcoming blog post: The Mosaics of Israel.