Jordan may be a Muslim-majority country but you’ll find that there are large Christian communities who live peacefully here, mainly in the towns of Madaba and Al-Kerak. Many of the Old Testament Bible stories are set in Jordan, so there are plenty of sacred sites in Jordan that Christians may want to visit on a pilgrimage. On the previous day at the Dead Sea we had seen the setting of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and we would spend some of our third day re-tracing Moses’ footsteps.
Moses and Mount Nebo
The story goes that Moses, who had been leading God’s chosen people to the promised land from Egypt for many years, died at the top of Mount Nebo. Forbidden to enter, he was allowed to gaze over the country he had journeyed for so long to reach before he died and was buried in the area. Moses is an important figure in the Qur’an as well as the Bible, so this is a special place for many people.
There has been a shrine of some sort in this spot for centuries. Between the fourth and sixth centuries AD a church was built and enlarged at this holy site, until it was eventually abandoned in 1564. In 1993 it was bought by the Franciscan monks who have excavated and discovered the secret mosaics of the church.
Mount Nebo is only a short drive from the Dead Sea. Mount Nebo has another of those amazing Jordanian views over the Dead Sea and Israel. A helpful marker next to a sculpture of Moses’ staff shows you just where in the Holy Land you are.
When we visited we didn’t expect to the able to see inside the church as it has been shut for restoration, but we were in luck. Work was still being carried out but we were able to walk around the church to take a look at the famous mosaics.
The wonderful mosaics inside the church are in really good repair. The most famous is also the most complete. Shortly after it was completed in the 6th century AD it was covered over by another mosaic until the top one was removed to be restored, revealing the hidden mosaic underneath. It’s hard to believe it is so old; it could have been laid yesterday.
After a last look at the Dead Sea, we hopped back into our car and set off for Madaba.
The Byzantine Mosaics of Madaba
The whole area around the town of Madaba is famous for mosaics dating from Byzantine times.
On the way to Madaba we made a couple of stops. The first was at a small house, off the main road. The house belongs to a man who guards it day and night, to stop people stealing the contents. Inside is a beautiful mosaic showing the Tree of Life and the taming of wild animals. It’s in good repair but parts of it are scorched; the mosaic was discovered by the man’s Bedouin grandmother when she lit her fire on top of it. This mosaic appears on many souvenirs in the area.
We also stopped at a shop and art centre where mosaic-making is still an important art form today. The owner showed us how the mosaics are made. First the design is drawn on a piece of paper. Slivers of stone are stuck carefully on top with a glue of flour and water, smooth side down; the rough side is then cemented and the paper and glue washed off, revealing the smooth mosaic. The shop was something else; there was so many beautiful (and pricey!) works of mosaic art and furniture for sale.
Expensive mosaic in hand, we continued to Madaba. As with all of the places we visited, I’d have liked to have spent longer here. Madaba has some lively markets and a laid back feel. Also, there’s some great falafel to be found. Bee was a convert, but the ever-fussy Cub refused to try any. Never mind – all the more for me.
The Basilica of St George
Madaba has a large Christian population; Islam and Christianity co-exist in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect. In the 1880s many Christian families moved to Madaba and began excavating the mosaics they found here. Madaba had been settled for thousands of years but an earthquake some 1100 years previously led to the abandonment of the town until the Christians settled here.
The most important mosaic is found in the Basilica of St George and depicts a map of the Holy Land from 560AD. It shows towns and life from the Nile Delta to Jerusalem. It’s the earliest known map of Palestine and is an important source of information about the region at the time it was made. Much of it has been lost but at one time it would have contained 2 million pieces.
The rest of the Basilica is brightly decorated with mosaics and paintings; a contrast to the plainer churches that I’m used to seeing.
As with everywhere we visited, the Basilica was quiet with hardly any other tourists present.
The Archaeological Park
Just along the street we found the Madaba Archaeological Park which also contains some beautiful mosaics as well as remnants of Roman life. We walked down another paved Roman street to the Hippolytus Hall which was once a Byzantine villa.
You can see a pillared hall covered in beautifully detailed mosaics. These depicted some a scene from Greek myths, showing Aphrodite, mythical animals, cherubs and the Devil. Scattered around the rest of the Park you’ll find fragments of many other mosaics that have been uncovered.
The Shrine of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist
The setting for this grisly New Testament story is a town just south of Madaba. John the Baptist had angered Herod the King and was languishing in prison. At the King’s birthday party his stepdaughter, Salome, danced for Herod. The King was so delighted with her dancing that he promised her anything her heart desired; the girl asked her mother who replied that she should ask for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Herod was appalled but had no choice than to oblige the girl’s request.
Remnants from Roman columns dot the shrine’s courtyard. Make sure you take a look at the mosaic map of the Holy Land inside the visitor centre. You can also take a look at old photos from the end of the 19th Century showing the Christians excavating the mosaics. Inside the shrine you can find a grotto dedicated to St John, see more important mosaics and draw water from a 3000 year old Moabite well. Nabil told us that it was traditionally the woman’s job to fetch the water so I drew the bucket up. It was pretty deep; I shone my phone’s torch down the well but couldn’t see the water.
I think that there is more to see in the belly of the church but by this point the children had both gone to sleep and so we weren’t able to descend further. The same went for the belfry – you can get unsurpassed views of Madaba from the top but the husband was carrying the sleeping Cub and she was getting heavy!
We decided to get our lunch at Kerak so we left Madaba and drove south down the King’s Highway to the crusader castle.
The Crusader Castle of Kerak
En route to Kerak we crossed Wadi Mujib; a vast valley carved out by a river which flows into the Dead Sea. We paused briefly to admire yet another incredible view. As we drove, we passed Bedouin nomads grazing their goats on the hillsides, their striped tents nearby. The land slowly started to become less green and more desert-like, in contrast to the north.
Kerak castle sits imposingly on a hilltop. The castle was built by the Crusaders in 1142 and was part of a series of forts which stretched from Aqaba to Jerusalem. The castle was eventually conquered in 1189 by Saladin. Today it lies mostly ruined, owing to Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt who captured Kerak in the 1840s and destroyed large parts of it. Some 25% of the population of Al-Karak are Christian.
Kerak wasn’t exactly as we had expected; the town is built around and even encroaches upon the castle. We’d imagined that it would be more like Ajloun castle, where the fort sits high above the town. The husband was a little disappointed, and thought that more information could have been provided. I liked the romance of the place, imagining what each room would have been used for. But we all had a wonderful time exploring the old rooms and passageways. Ask at the ticket office to see the rooms underneath the castle, and bring a torch (flashlight) to explore more of the rooms. We saw old dusty staircases disappearing up into darkness but didn’t dare explore all the passages with tiny children.
It had been another busy day, but we weren’t finished yet. As the sun set, we left Kerak for Petra, where we would walk down the Siq to see Petra By Night.
Know before you go
Madaba is only a few kilometres south of Amman and is actually closer to Queen Alia Airport than the capital. You could use Madaba as an alternative base to Amman for the Dead Sea, the King’s Highway and Kerak.
If you have more time in the area try the hot springs at Ma’in; accessible either from the Dead Sea or Madaba. While we didn’t have time to visit, I hear good things about the Dana Biosphere Reserve which is south of Kerak.
A few short weeks after we visited, Kerak Castle was sadly the site of an attack in which 10 people, including a tourist, were killed. It remains unclear if tourists were deliberately targeted by the aggressors. The UK’s FCO states that travellers should be vigilant as terror attacks in Jordan are “highly likely”; for context, the same level as the UK itself, France and Germany. I can only say that at no point did we feel unsafe in Jordan.
We covered these sites in one day as we had a private driver. You might not be able to see all this in one day by public transport, but if you stay in Madaba you can hire a taxi for day trips.