The rambling modern face of Madaba, situated some 30 km south of ‘Amman, belies the fact that it is the site of a very ancient settlement, which occupied a tell (an artificial mound), which stands out above the surrounding fertile plains.
Referred to in the Bible as Medeba in its account of Moses and the Exodus (Num. 21:30; Josh. 13:9), Madaba was a Moabite town near the borders of Ammon, which tended to change hands from time to time when captured by the Amorites or Israelites. It was one of several towns mentioned in the Mesha stele, or Moabite stone, which recorded the achievements of Mesha, king of Moab in the mid-9th century BC. It tells of his recapture of Madaba (and other places) from the Israelites and its rebuilding. Later Madaba became part of the Nabataean kingdom and, after the 106 AD Roman annexation; it was a thriving provincial town in the Province of Arabia, adorned with fine buildings, temples and colonnaded streets.
Christianity took strong root in Madaba, which became an episcopal see – in 45 I its bishop took part in the Ecumenical Council of the church at Chalcedon. In this period, and particularly in the 6th century, Madaba was the centre of a mosaic school, which accounts for the large number of mosaics that were lavished on its churches and public and private buildings. Though the designs emanated from Constantinople, the quality of execution of mosaics in the area is from the skill of the Madaba craftsmen.
Madaba remained prosperous under the Umayyads, and Christians continued to worship in their churches. Decline appears to have set in after the great earthquake of 749 and the defeat of the Umayyads in the following year. From the Mamluk period the town stood abandoned for many centuries – several 19th- century European travelers reported it as a field of ruins surrounded by fertile plains, parts of which were cultivated by local bedouin of the Bani Sakhr tribe.
So it remained until 1881 when three Christian tribes, who had left Karak after a dispute with other tribes, settled among the ruins. Their cultivation of the surrounding farmland inevitably created tensions with the Bani Sakhr who wanted a share of the crops. But with the support of both the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches, and also of the Ottoman authorities, and in some cases with compensation being paid to the bedouin, the settlers were soon allowed to grow their wheat and barley, herd their sheep and goats, and live in peace with their new neighbors. The population is now a mixture of both Christian and Muslim.
It was these 1881 settlers who, in the course of building a new village among the ancient ruins, found mosaics buried beneath the rubble and incorporated many of them into their new houses and churches. The most famous is the unique (but now partial) map of the Holy Land in the Greek Orthodox Church of St George.