January 19, 2001
Today I travel to Madaba along the Jordan Valley and then into the hills, in silence, on the silent back seat of the dig bus. I become aware of car wrecks, two new ones over an edge which has no guard rail.
We run into trouble with the tourist police when we reach Madaba: we’re not a designated tourist bus, and we go up a one way street the wrong way. Finally we straggle in light rain to the early Byzantine church of St George, which hosts a mosaic map, dating from the 6th century AD, the colour still stunning. It’s a map of the Middle East, including the oldest surviving cartographic depiction of the Holy Land.
I escape from the group and somehow manage to find the archaeological park, the remnants of an old building displaying mosaics, some of them in place as paving, some hung on the wall. One is the victim of iconoclasts: cloven hooves and a tail remain and the rest of the animal has been overlaid with a tree. I finally track down the source of my growing attraction to mosaic: the restfulness of a limited palette, the same attraction as that of traditional Aboriginal art perhaps.
I join local people going about their business, walking the streets past stalls selling schwarma, falafels, plastic buckets and vegetables.
Soon it’s time to return to the bus to visit Mt Nebo, where I stand where Moses stood. There below me is the Dead Sea, blue but edged with the whiteness of salt. The landscape is bare except for groves of olive trees. Inside the partially excavated church are more mosaics, and a very large vicious-looking scorpion – no wonder people don’t warm to my star sign.
We travel on to Um er-Rasas through a desolate landscape. We come, in a bleak wind, to a strange tower, maybe a rare trace of ascetic monks who retreated to the top of a pillar. The ruins include an almost intact cistern, collapsed arches and partial excavations. Further on are scattered black ruins, perhaps of a Roman military outpost. Inside a vast tin shed we find a mosaic showing buildings and fruit trees contained by a wonderful border. Again iconoclasts have been at work, darning out the offensive human forms between the fruit trees.
The bus journey back is long, through rain and into dark. The hill where I saw crashed vehicles in the morning has me invoking my protective angel.