Madaba Map online at last

The late antique Mosaic Map (below) in Madaba, Jordan is the world's oldest detailed Greek-language topological diagram still in existence. It is both a tourist attraction of the first order and a landmark in human cognitive history, since it indicates that sophisticated topological diagrams (though not maps) were in common use and well understood by the general public in the west by about 550 CE.

Four or five hundred years earlier, over-the-horizon diagrams had not been part of the culture. There is a continuing controversy about the Agrippa Survey, a public mural in Rome mentioned (once only) by Pliny the Elder which detailed the regions of the empire and their sizes. Whether it was a list or a diagram has never been conclusively proved.

Topological diagrams come into their own in late antiquity, with the Tabula Peutingeriana (preserved in one roll-form manuscript in Vienna, ÖNB cod. 324) and the Madaba "Map" as the two key examples. The fragment at Madaba is a mosaic floor in a church. It was originally much larger. But even depleted, its colorful depiction of Palestine and Jerusalem is amazing.

While the Tabula Peutingeriana is now online in the highest resolution at the Vienna library and in more convenient form at Richard Talbert's website, quality reproductions of the Madaba Mosaic are unfindable online. To my knowledge it has been published only twice: a painstaking colored drawing at 1:4 scale by Paul Palmer in 1906, and in a book of photographic plates by Herbert Donner.

A few weeks ago I decided to do something about this problem. I contacted the University of Toronto Library, where the Robarts Collection owns a printed copy of the Palmer drawing in the form of a large-format book printed at Leipzig. Palmer died in 1935, so the book is in the public domain. I suggested it be added to the library's admirable digitization program. Now, a few weeks later, it can be inspected online at the Archive.org library of books.

Here's a fish in the River Jordan:

These are houses in the city of Jerusalem:

Palmer was a Jerusalem architect of German-Swiss extraction, who relates in a short autobiography online:
During our involuntary stay at the Jordan we were told by some Arabs of Madeba that a beautiful mosaic-map of Palestine had been found while they were flooring the new Greek church. We decided to ride to Madeba at the first opportunity and to inspect this mosaic-map, to sketch it or to take some photographs. But, when we got there we could not get a true picture. Later by accident, two painters were staying in Jerusalem and I rode with them to Madeba. Working for several days, I made a drawing of the mosaic-map, I painted the exact colours of each of the stones and a copy of the original painting will still be obtainable from the Society of the German League for Exploration of Palestine (Gesellschaft des deutschen Vereins zur Erforschung Palästinas).
Herman Guthe (1849-1936) who wrote the book of commentary issued with the map, tells a slightly different story, in the Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins, saying the board of the society commissioned the drawing and Palmer travelled to Madeba in May 1901 to make it. Guthe notes how difficult travel then was: just the horse ride from the bank of the Jordan up to Madaba took eight hours.

A summary of sorts by Aharon Yaffe appeared in the Israel Review of Arts and Letters in 1998. The Palmer drawing at half size was republished in 1954 in Professor Avi Yonah's book, The Madaba mosaic map: with introduction and commentary (not online) and on a single sheet by the same publisher, the Israel Exploration Society, but eSbírky.cz in Prague, the only digital image repository holding the latter, seems to be permanently down.

Ill-lit tourist snaps of the mosaic are of no help and UNESCO's listing of the whole Um er-Rasas World Heritage site of which the church is part does not have any image of whole floor. Göttingen University's facsimile of the mosaic is good, but individual stones are not resolved in the online image.

That is why the long-overdue appearance of the mosaic online at a resolution where you can read all its detail is such a reason for celebration. Explore it and enjoy.

Avî-Yônā, Mîḵā’ēl. The Madaba Mosaic Map: With Introduction and Commentary. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1954.

Donner, Herbert. The Mosaic Map of Madaba: An Introductory Guide. Peeters Publishers, 1992.

Donner, Herbert, and Heinz Cüppers. Die Mosaikkarte von Madeba: Tafelband. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 1977.

Palmer, Paul, Hermann Guthe, and Deutscher Verein zur Erforschung Palästinas. Die Mosaikkarte von Madeba. Leipzig, Baedeker, 1906. http://archive.org/details/diemosaikkartevo00deut.

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