Jerusalem, for Byzantine Christians, was the center of the earth and the focal point of spiritual experience. Pilgrims flocked to the sites where the New Testament says Jesus lived, died and was resurrected, and emperors built monumental churches—dedicated to Jesus, Mary and the apostles—throughout the city. These churches dominate the city in the oldest existing map of Palestine—the Madaba map.30 Made of more than 700,000 ceramic tiles, or tesserae, this mosaic map covers part of the floor of a church in Madaba, Jordan, a city about 20 miles south of Amman. The mosaic was created in the mid- to late sixth century, probably during the reign of Emperor Justinian (527–565), who commissioned some of the most impressive churches depicted on the map.

The map was discovered in the early 1880s, when a group of displaced Greek Orthodox Christians received permission from the Turkish government in Istanbul to settle in Madaba. The government permitted the settlers to build churches—but only where churches had existed in antiquity. The Christian immigrants found plenty of sites, for Madaba had flourished as a bishop’s see during the Byzantine period (fourth to seventh centuries). In 1884, as the settlers removed debris and rubble from the foundation walls of an ancient cathedral, they discovered the mosaic map. They repaired the floor roughly and incorporated it into a new small church, dedicated to St. George.

Despite centuries of damage by fire, erosion, rodents, tomb diggers and construction work, the map remains one of our best sources for the character and topography of Byzantine Palestine. The extant fragments depict the Holy Land from the Mediterranean in the west to the desert east of the Dead Sea, from Phoenicia in the north to Lower Egypt in the south.

“The Holy City of Jerusalem”—as the mosaic inscription has it—is undoubtedly the most impressive (and largest) city on the whole map. In the photo at left, archaeologist Dan Bahat points out the city. The map shows a walled city, oval in shape and protected by 19 towers. In the photo (at the beginning of the sidebar) and drawing (above), the map appears upside down. That is, most of the buildings and inscriptions are oriented toward Bahat. A few buildings—including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (7), at which Bahat is pointing—were depicted upside down on the map and thus appear right side up here.

Archaeological remains of the buildings and accounts by pilgrims who visited Byzantine Jerusalem allow us to identify many of the carefully rendered churches (depicted with red roofs), secular buildings, city streets and other structures:

City Gates

(counterclockwise from right)

1. Damascus Gate, called St. Stephen’s Gate in the sixth century. Flanked by two towers, the main entrance to Byzantine Jerusalem, at the northern (left on the map) end of the city, opened onto a semicircular courtyard in which a single column stood. This column (the source of the gate’s modern Arabic name, Bab el-Amud, or Gate of the Column) probably once supported the statue of an emperor, perhaps Hadrian (117 to 138 C.E.).

2. Jaffa Gate, called the Gate of the Tower in the sixth century.

3. Zion Gate.

4. Dung Gate. In the fifth century, Empress Eudocia built a new southern city wall, which enclosed Jerusalem’s southern hills—Mount Zion and the City of David. The Dung and Zion gates stood inside this wall and thus no longer led outside the city.

5. Golden Gate or Beautiful Gate (see Acts 3:2), leading to the Temple Mount (23).

6. St. Stephen’s Gate, called the Gate of the Sheep Pool in the sixth century.

Major Streets

A. Cardo Maximus. White columns line the main street of Byzantine Jerusalem, which ran from Damascus Gate (1) to Zion Gate (3). In the Roman period, the Cardo ran from Damascus Gate to the Decumanus (C), but in the sixth century Emperor Justinian extended the street to his newly built Nea Church (13) just inside Zion Gate (3). Like the other four streets on the Madaba map, the Cardo is depicted in white and brownish tiles. Much of the Byzantine city plan has been preserved in the streets of Jerusalem today: Modern Beit ha-Bad Street follows the line of the ancient Cardo.

B. Second colonnaded street. This curved street follows the line of the Tyropoeon Valley, from the courtyard inside Damascus Gate to the Dung Gate (4). Only the eastern side of its colonnade is visible on the map. The line of the ancient street is preserved today in Haggai Street.

C. Decumanus. The city’s main east-west street begins at Jaffa Gate (2). Although on the map it appears to end at the Cardo Maximus (A), excavations have revealed that the street actually extended to the western wall of the Temple Mount (23). Modern David Street roughly follows the line of the Decumanus.


(counterclockwise from top center)

7. Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This monumental complex of buildings—which was depicted upside down on the map but appears right side up as oriented here—was erected by Emperor Constantine (311–337) on the traditional site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. From the writings of the fourth-century church historian Eusebius, we know that the church included, from east to west, a staircase (shown as gray stripes of tile on the map) leading up from the Cardo to three entranceways (in yellow); a forecourt (not visible on the map); a basilican church (shown with a red roof—as are all the churches on the map—and a yellow triangular pediment); an inner open-air courtyard with the rock of Golgotha (represented by a line of black tesserae); and a rotunda (which appears as a golden dome) erected over the traditional tomb of Jesus.

8. Baptistery of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (?). This building with a flat red roof, two small doors and a window may be described by the Pilgrim of Bordeaux, a fourth-century visitor to Jerusalem who wrote: “At the back [of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre] is a bath in which children are baptized.” Like the church, the baptistery appears right side up here.

9. Church of the House of Caiaphas. Erected in about 500, the church was built on the site of the palace of Caiaphas, the high priest who presided at Jesus’ trial. The location was also associated with St. Peter’s contrition over his denial of Jesus. The church appears right side up here.

10. Basilica of Holy Zion. Known in the Byzantine period as “the mother of all churches,” this large basilica, shown with a double yellow portal, was second only to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in importance. Built in about 415, the church abutted the Church of the Apostles (11).

11. The Church of the Apostles or the Sacristy of the Basilica of Holy Zion (?). In the late first century, this building may have served as a Judeo-Christian synagogue.31 By the fourth century, the building was known as the Church of the Apostles and was thought to mark the traditional site of the Last Supper and the place where the apostles gathered after witnessing Jesus’ ascension into heaven (Acts 1:3). When the Basilica of Holy Zion (10) was built alongside the church in about 415, the Church of the Apostles may have been converted into the basilica’s sacristy, a storeroom for vessels and vestments. Today, a stone cenotaph placed in the church by the Crusaders is erroneously referred to as the Tomb of David.

12. Church north of the Siloam Pool. This church was probably built in the fifth century under Empress Eudocia to commemorate Jesus’ healing of the man born blind. According to the New Testament, Jesus encountered the blind man after leaving the Temple. Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’ Then he went and washed and came back able to see” (John 9:1–6). Today a mosque stands on the site of the Byzantine church, and only a small piece of a wall and cornice from the church can still be seen.

13. Nea Theotokos (New Church of the Mother of God). Recent excavations have uncovered the apse of this church, previously known only from ancient literary sources and the Madaba map. The largest known basilica in Palestine, the Nea originally measured 375 feet long and 185 feet wide. A dedicatory inscription found beneath the church commemorated the construction of the building, which was consecrated on November 20, 542: “This is the work that our most pious Emperor Flavius Justinianus carried out with munificence.”32 On the map, the church appears as a massive basilica with a double yellow portal, accessible from the Cardo (A) near Zion Gate (3).

14. Church on the Pinnacle of the Temple. This church commemorated the temptation of Jesus by Satan. According to the New Testament, Satan took Jesus “to the pinnacle of the Temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down!’” (Matthew 4:5–6; Luke 4:9). Built on the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount—the platform where the Jewish Temple had stood before the Romans destroyed it in the year 70—the church is attested only on the Madaba map and in an account by a mid-sixth-century pilgrim.

15. Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damianus (?).

16. Church of St. Sophia (?).

17. Church of the Sheep Pool. Built in the early fifth century over the Sheep Pool of Bethesda, the church commemorates the site where tradition says Jesus healed a paralyzed man, commanding him to “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (John 5:1–16). In the 1950s, archaeologists excavated the area around the pools and the Byzantine and Crusader church.

18. Unidentified church.

Other Buildings

(counterclockwise from top center)

19. Monastery (?).

20. Patriarchal Quarter (?). These three buildings may represent the Palace of the Patriarchs, built in the fifth century by Empress Eudocia.

21. Citadel. On the Madaba map, two towers protect this citadel, just inside Jaffa Gate. Today the area is known as the Citadel of David. The earliest known association with David appears in the writings of the sixth-century Piacenza Pilgrim: “Then we climbed the Tower of David where he recited the Psalter. It is enormous, and has cells in each of the rooms. The tower itself is a hollow square building without a roof.”

22. Staircase (?). Rows of yellow and gray tiles may represent a recently excavated staircase leading up to the southern wall of the ancient Temple Mount (23).33

23. Temple Mount. Indicated only by a line of black tiles, the platform where the Jewish Temple had stood was ruined and desolate in Byzantine times.

24. Unidentified building on the ruins of the Antonia Fortress.

25. Public baths (?).

We thank Herbert Donner, professor emeritus of the University of Kiel and author of The Mosaic Map of Madaba—An Introductory Guide, Palaestina antiqua 7 (Kampen, the Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1992), for his assistance in preparing this piece. His book is available from its U.S. distributor, Eisenbrauns, for $29.75; call 219–269-2011.