Early manuscript rendering of the Madaba Map of the Holy Land

[Anonymous,] “Map of Medaba”, [1906?]
Manuscript in pencil, ink and colored pigments (including a gold border) on very heavy wove paper, 17 ½”h x 29 1/8”w at outer neat line plus margins.

A rare and lovely manuscript based on the famed Madaba Map. One of the most spectacular cartographic relics of the ancient world, this enormous sixth-century mosaic floor map includes the earliest extant map of the Holy Land.

Created in the late seventh century, the mammoth mosaic of the Middle East now known as the Madaba Map was originally some 24 by 6 meters, containing well over a million stones. In 1884 large sections, irregular in shape but some 10 ½ by 5 meters at their greatest extent, were uncovered under the ruins of an ancient basilica in Madaba in modern-day Jordan. The fragments were rescued, crudely repaired, and incorporated into the floor of a new church on the same site.

News of the stunning find did not leak out until it was viewed in 1896 by one Father Koikylides, librarian to the Greek Orthodox patriarch. Koikylides made a preliminary drawing of the mosaic and in 1897 published a commentary in Greek. Madaba at the time was not easy to reach, but motivated, scholarly pilgrims began to visit, draw the mosaic and publish their observations. (One such copy emerged at an auction in San Francisco in the 1980s, and is now held by the Israel Museum.) Around 1901 Jerusalem architect Paul Palmer made drawings based on a large-scale painting of the mosaic, and these were published in Leipzig in 1906 under the title Die Mosaikkarte von Madeba.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its growing fame, over the years the mosaic suffered from fire, moisture and activity in the church, with significant additional loss to the image. The 1960s saw a major German-led effort to restore and conserve what remained. However numerous differences, large and small, in early renderings of the mosaic make it difficult to determine its exact appearance when it was first uncovered int he late 19th century.

Offered here is one of those early copies, bearing what appears to be the date “1906” in the rectangular panel at upper right, and perhaps produced by or for one of the pilgrims to Madaba. The image was drawn in pencil then hand colored with pigments including a gold border… yielding an image far, far more vibrant than the surviving mosaic. Oriented with East at the top, it depicts the area from “Neapolis” (Nablus) on the left to Egypt and the lower Nile River on the right. The map is packed with geographical features, towns and villages and their associated names in Greek, and, where emptiness threatens, tiny vignettes of trees and animals and notations of Biblical events. Mountains and hills are depicted in grays, browns and blues, while rivers are picked out in blue, purple and gold and, with the Dead Sea enlivened by a pair of large, oared vessels. Several long Greek notations panels at top describe the history of the map, though it is not clear whether they are taken from the original mosaic or interpolations by the copyist.

The focal point of the map is an oval rendering at lower center of Byzantine Jerusalem. Though some of the features are difficult to make out in this small-scale copy, the mosaic clearly shows the Damascus Gate to the north leading to a long colonnaded central street, at the far end of which a basilica is visible. This depiction catalyzed a major archaeological dig after the Israeli capture of Jerusalem in 1967, and both the colonnade (now known as the Cardo) and the basilica (the Nea Church) were located.

The image reproduces the essentials of the original, but it is somewhat crude in execution: the hundreds of thousands of surviving mosaic stones are here reduced to several thousand, and spatial relationships are not rendered with complete fidelity. The rendering is not nearly as detailed as Palmer’s 1901 copy and gives the impression that it was intended as more of a keepsake than a scholarly production. However, though dated 1906 I believe it was copied from a rendering produced prior to Palmer’s work, as it contains significant material not captured by him. These omissions presumably reflect further damage incurred by the mosaic in the several years between Koikylides’ “discovery” and Palmer’s arrival. Complicating matters even more, the text panels in the margins differ very substantially from those on the Israel Museum copy mentioned earlier.

A census by a scholar of the map has identified 11 manuscript copies of the map, all in European or Middle Eastern institutions, and not including the 1896 copy at the Israel Museum copy or the one offered here. A close comparison of these copies might well shed valuable light on the original content of the map.

In all, a rare, fascinating and lovely manuscript map, closely linked to the early years of excitement and scholarship following the discovery of the Madaba Map.

A. W. Dilke and the editors, “Cartography in the Byzantine Empire,” in The History of Cartography, Volume One: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe in the Meditteranean, pp. 265-265 and plates 7-8. Herbert Donner, The Mosaic Map of Madaba: An Introductory Guide (Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing, 1992). Yannis Meimaris, “The Discovery of the Madaba Mosaic Map. Mythology and Reality” (Originally published in Michele Piccirillo and Eugenio Alliata, eds., The Madaba Map Centenary, 1897-1997… Proceedings of the International Conferences Held in Amman, 7-9 April 1997 but now available on line.)

Special thanks to Margaret Trenchard-Smith, formerly of Loyola-Marymount University, for her assistance in translating and interpreting the Greek text on the map.


Minor soiling and foxing, but about excellent.