Madaba Map: Mosaic of Jerusalem

Madaba Map of Jerusalem. Photo by Jean Housen

The Byzantine church St George in Madaba, Jordan, is home to the “Madaba Map,” an impressive and by far the most well-known mosaic in the Holy Land.

  • Floor map mosaic. Dating from the second half of the 6th century, the floor map mosaic depicts the geography of the Holy Land in the 6th century. It is the oldest map of the Holy Land in existence.
  • Position in church. It occupies all of the floor space in the apse of the church.
  • Orientation implies Constantinople’s west-to-east viewpoint. The map assumes an oblique perspective, as if the viewer were standing atop a very high mountain and looking eastward (north is on the left). This is interesting since it is the opposite view that a viewer would have from Madaba in Jordan: a viewer in Jordan would look westward for a view of Jerusalem (north is on the right). The eastward vantage suggests that the artist was likely creating the mosaic based on a map prototype that was designed in the West, likely in Constantinople.
  • Key Jerusalem structures. The old city of Jerusalem stands out on the map. In the photo above, we have marked the most clearly identifiable structures of the 6th century city, most of which are still in place today: Damascus Gate, the north-south running Cardo and Colonnaded Street, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the old city walls, and Nea Church. The famous Temple Mount — the site of the ruined Jewish Second Temple; the Islamic Dome of the Rock had yet to be built — is conspicuously absent for reasons unknown.
  • Compare with Google Maps. Compare this map with our Google Map of Jerusalem. You will many of the same landmarks.

Another tip: Also visit Madaba’s Archaeological Park. It has the city’s most impressive small-tesserae mosaics, the highlight of which is the 6th century Hippolytus Hall mosaic.

Going to Petra?

Travel Guide and eBook to Petra, Jordan Petra’s temples and tombs — carved into the sandstone cliffs of Jordan’s Negev Desert — are a sight to be seen, standing witness to the greatness of the Nabataean civilization. Get our travel guidebook to Petra to explore the ancient city and its stunning architecture.

Eastern Influences on St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy (Video)

In this episode of our Insights series, Jennifer Raezer, Approach Guides founder, explores the eastern influences that shaped the art and architecture of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy, highlighting the church’s domes, floorplan, and mosaics, which were influenced by Venice’s interaction with the Byzantine (Constantinople/Istanbul) and Fatimid (Cairo) empires.

Istanbul Skyline: A View from the Golden Horn (Video)

Take a guided tour of Istanbul’s skyline. We highlight the principal monuments in Istanbul’s old city (Fatih) visible from the Galata Tower across the Golden Horn in this video, which is a part of Approach Guides’ On Location video series.

This video was created in conjunction with our two guidebooks in our Istanbul Revealed series: Hagia Sophia and Sinan’s mosques.

Morocco Architecture: What to See in Morocco’s Imperial Cities (Video)

Travelers to Morocco will encounter three types of structures: mosques, madrasas and city gates. In this Approach Guides Insight series video, founder Jennifer Raezer explains Moroccan architecture, walking through each building type and highlighting what makes Morocco’s Islamic art and architecture distinctive.

Call To Prayer in Fez, Morocco (Video)

In this episode of Approach Guides’ On Location series, we take you to Morocco’s Fez to hear the call to prayer echoing through the ancient medina, pointing out the city’s two 9th century founding mosques — Kairaouine and Andalous — along the way.

The Call to Prayer Explained

To get a translation of the call to prayer, see our related post.

Famous Mosques in Cairo: Mosque of Ibn Tulun

Cairo is a unique location: it is the only place in the world where you can see architectural remains of nearly every great Islamic Empire.  Not to mention that most of the sites are concentrated in geographically small area, making touring on foot very reasonable.

History

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun, built from 876- 879 under the Tulunid Empire, is the oldest intact, functioning mosque in Cairo. Further, it is huge, covering approximately 6.5 acres. This is one of the best examples of the classic congregational courtyard mosque design. This is the earliest mosque design, is derived from the layout of what became the first mosque prototype, the house of the Prophet Mohammed in Medina.

The design was influenced heavily by the Great Mosque of Samarra (located in Iraq, built 848-851), where Ibn Tulun received his military training. That said, this mosque’s use of bricks as a building material (rather than marble), arcades based on rectangular piers with engaged colonnettes in the corners (rather than columns), a spiraling minaret (the most striking similarity, both inspired by the shape of the Babylonian stepped ziggurat), and detailed stucco work are clear adaptations from Samarra.

Mosque of Ibn Tulun - Cairo, Egypt

View of the minaret from the courtyard of Ibn Tulun

What to look for during your visit

  • Original inscriptions run along the arcades near the ceiling. These Koranic inscriptions are done on sycamore wood and are nearly 2 kilometers in length; at this length, it is estimated that the walls contain nearly 1/15 of the entire Koran.
  • Stucco decoration lining the along the arches, interestingly, was created by pressing wooden molds into wet plaster.
  • This mosque was the first to use the pointed-arch as part of a vast architectural complex; as a historical point of comparison, note that the pointed arches of this mosque pre-date those of the first French Gothic (an architectural movement synonymous with the point arch, among other characteristics) by more than 250 years!

Moses Mountain: Climbing Mount Sinai

The Sinai Peninsula’s Moses’ Mountain (aka Mount Sinai, Mount/Gebel Horeb, Mount/Gebel Musa) rises behind the storied, 4th century St. Catherine’s Monastery, the oldest continuously operating Christian monastery in existence today.

St Catherines Monastery and Icons, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

St. Catherine’s Monastery sits at the base of Moses’ Mountain (Mt. Sinai) in Egypt

Brief History

The monastery — formally named Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai — is built upon the supposed location of the Bible’s famed “burning bush”. The site of the burning bush is where god supposedly revealed himself to Moses, as recounted in Exodus 3: “The Lord spoke to Moses in this place, saying I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, I am who I am.” The monastery’s origins date back to Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, who isolated the spot of the “burning bush” in 337 AD. A small shrine/chapel was built on the site. This shrine of the burning bush is not visible, however, as it sits behind the apse of the church, and is not open for viewing. Thereafter, Roman Emperor Justinian built a 12-pillar granite basilica (constructed 542-551) to house Helena’s shrine. Justinian also fortified the site, by building fortified granite walls for protection — it is these walls that still stand around the city to this day.

Although there is heated debate as to whether the summit of Moses’ Mountain is the actual historical site where Moses received the Ten Commandments, this is certainly the traditional, recognized location.

Climbing Moses’ Mountain

From the summit, the views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are great! The climb is certainly worth the effort.

  • When to do it. Seeing sunrise or sunset from the top is traditional, but we chose to climb to the summit during the day, missing the crowds at sunrise and sunset, and really enjoyed the experience.
  • Geology of the mountain. The mountain is made of granite.
  • The summit is not visible from the Monastery, but the ascent up the mountain is visible off the northwest corner of the Monastery. The stone step path that rises to the summit was likely constructed in the sixth or seventh century.
  • Summit altitude of 2,285 meters. This amounts to a 685 meter climb, given an altitude of 1,600 meters at the gates of St Catherine’s.
  • Climbing to the summit. You can take two different routes to the top:
    • The camel track (ascent takes 2.5-3 hours up). This is a less taxing route and certainly riding a camel reduces the climbing strain, but probably not the riding sores. 😉
    • The 3700 steps (ascent takes 1.5-2 hours, descent takes 1 hour). We would definitely recommend this route (we went up and down this route). It is much prettier, not to mention faster, plus it is the “historical” route taken by pilgrims up the mountain. Although many guidebooks warn about this being a brutal ascent, with some steps over a meter high, we did not find it difficult and certainly did not encounter any meter-high steps! We would recommend taking a flashlight (for each person) if you are going to undertake this at night or during the early morning.

    Further, no matter which route you select, certainly bring a jacket because the wind really blows at the top.

See a map for the location of Moses’ Mountain and St Catherine’s Monastery.

Don’t miss: St. Catherine’s Monastery

Icons of St Catherine's Monastery: eBook and Guide

While visiting Moses Mountain, don’t miss taking a tour of St. Catherine’s Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The monastery holds one of the greatest collections of Christian icons, containing icons dating from the 6th century – the oldest icons in the world.

Touring the White Desert in Egypt

One of our most memorable adventures in Egypt was an overnight stay in the White Desert. It takes about 4-5 hours to get there by car from Cairo and has a unique landscape that must be seen to be believed.

White Desert in Egypt

The Chicken & The Mushroom. White Desert, Egypt

How the White Desert was Created

The White Desert and its nearby neighbor, the Black Desert form a part of the world’s largest desert, the Libyan Desert (1600 sq. km). Here is what you can expect to encounter during  an overnight stay:

  • Black Desert. The black color is derived from basalt, an igneous (volcanic) rock. Underlying the basalt is sand comprised of pulverized Bahariya sandstone and quartz.
  • Crystal Mountain. Located in between the Black and White Deserts. The mountain consists of a significant portion of quartz, effectively the crystallization of chalk.
  • New White Desert. Absolutely amazing! This place is the whole reason to do the overnight trip. The desert consists entirely of white chalk, the result of the sedimentation of the cretaceous sea (chalk is effectively limestone — stone that has been formed formed from the sedimentation of organic elements out of a fluid, such as a river, lake or ocean — that has been broken down or reduced to a finer powder-like composition). The wind and sand have eroded three-story building-sized blocks of chalk (called inselbergs, meaning prominent steep-sided hills of solid rock, rising abruptly from a plain of low relief ) into all sorts of shapes (animals, mushrooms, etc). Further, on the ground, there are small iron pyrites and marcasite that are naturally formed into every conceivable shapes; walking around the desert is almost like walking along the seashore, picking up small shells. There is also an “old” white desert – not quite as impressive, but it is close and worth a visit.

How Far is the White Desert from Cairo?

The White Desert is only about 4-5 hours away from Cairo. You can arrange transportation with a driver, or use a local bus. Typically, you will be picked up in the morning from your hotel, spend the night in the oasis (not as charming as it sounds), and depart early the next morning for the desert. We opted to stay only one night, but encountered other travelers who were on longer adventures.

White Desert Tour

We highly recommend organizing your tour through Peter Wirth at International Hot Springs Hotel (www.whitedeserttours.com). He arranged our private overnight tour with a 4×4-driving local Bedouin guide (as well as our transfer from Cairo); we were absolutely delighted with the service, the fireside dinner, our guide and, of course, the scenery.