Why Roads Aren't Marked on the Madaba Map, the Earliest Map of the Holy Land

In the 6th century, the earliest map depicting the Land of Israel was created – the only map from the first millennium depicting a country in full, but what purpose did it serve?

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Madaba’s portrayal of Jerusalem. The city of Christ’s Passion, without a hint of its Jewish past.
Madaba’s portrayal of Jerusalem. The city of Christ’s Passion, without a hint of its Jewish past.Credit: Jean Housen
Pnina Arad
Pnina Arad

The concept of a map depicting an entire land had not yet been developed in late antiquity, but in the 6th century C.E., as if from out of nowhere, a map of the Holy Land was created. Known as the Madaba map and fashioned from mosaic tesserae, it was discovered in the town of Madaba in Jordan in 1884. The original, which was more than 20 meters (65 feet) in length, and had been created for a church, depicted the entire Holy Land, with Jerusalem at its center. What survives is a portion of the map about 10 meters long. According to a reconstruction proposed in the 1950s by Israeli archaeologist Michael Avi-Yonah, the church was a basilica with a broad transept, which was covered in its entirety by the map.

The Madaba map is the earliest known map to display the Holy Land and the only known instance in the first millennium of a map depicting a country in full. That is to say that the Madaba map was novel due to the fact that it represented a new kind of visual medium – a graphic description of an entire country, one of the striking features of which was that it didn’t show roads. The map does show mountain ranges, rivers, streams, architectural symbols representing towns and holy sites.

The holy places are depicted via simple structures with red roofs, probably symbolic representations of churches that existed there. The towns are represented through a range of symbols that hint at their varying importance. The Greek titles mostly note place names, but there are also short inscriptions associating particular locations with specific biblical events.

For example: “Galgala, also the twelve stones,” “Bethabara of St. John, the Baptism,” “Ephraim which is Ephraea, there walked the Lord,” “Ailamon, where stood the moon in the time of Joshua [son of] Nun one day.” The names of the Tribes of Israel are also noted and their distribution on the map represents the division of Canaan according to the Bible.

What we have here is a picture that combines topography and religious tradition, and that eliminates the gaps between past and present. The inscriptions create a narrative that seemed to have two aims: to place the past of the Scriptures in the geographic space of the land, and to conceptualize that land as a sacred space.

The original, which was more than 20 meters in length, and had been created for a church, depicted the entire Holy Land, with Jerusalem at its center.

When the inscriptions are categorized by content, one finds that they describe four types of locations: places linked to the divine presence; places where miracles happened; sites where biblical figures operated; and the tombs of biblical figures and martyrs.

All of this hints that the country depicted in the map is a land in which God revealed his presence and power, a land that is holy by virtue of the fact that biblical figures acted there in the past, and is still holy to this day due to the presence of their remains.

The appearance of tombs of two types – of biblical figures and of martyrs – elaborate the message because these two types of tombs are indicative of two formative periods in the country’s Christian past: the distant past of Scripture and the more recent past of the martyrs, during which people sacrificed their lives for their faith in Jesus. The inscriptions highlight the importance of the sites in the events of the past. Since the map doesn’t provide a figurative description of these events, the inscriptions are the key to the country’s sacred past.

Through his research, Prof. Avi-Yonah established the connection between the map’s inscriptions and an onomasticon – a lexicon of place names mentioned in the Scriptures that was compiled in about 293 C.E. by Eusebius, who later became the bishop of Caesarea.

The onomasticon, which was compiled at a time when local holy sites had not yet been identified and before Christian pilgrims began visiting the country, includes little in the way of Christian tradition. As a practical matter, it was written to aid in the reading of the Scriptures. It’s worth noting that the onomasticon included a kind of a representation of Judea demarcated by means of tribal domains. The question of whether this representation was graphic or textual remains open, as Eusebius referred to this representation in a term that can be interpreted in both senses. Significantly, even if it was a kind of a graphic map, it was only meant to illustrate the division of the land among the tribes, and nothing more.

A reproduction of the full mosaic. The entire Holy Land, with Jerusalem at its center. Credit: The Eran Laor Collection of the National Library of Israel

It seems to me that the creator of the Madaba map selectively chose inscriptions from the onomasticon that together reflected the Christian notion of the Holy Land that had been formulated by the sixth century, and that created a narrative that expressed a certain Christian message – the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the Passion of Christ.

Understanding this message requires focusing on the way the map depicts Jerusalem. Its portrayal reflects the appearance of the city in the sixth century, with the two streets of the main thoroughfare, the cardo, running through it from north to south, and with a large number of churches. The depiction is not precise, however, because it is the product of a deliberate manipulation of the urban area. The archaeologist Yoram Tsafrir demonstrated that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the site of the crucifixion and burial of Christ) and the main cardo (cardo maximus) were shifted toward the middle of the city emblem to make the church the central core of the city. By contrast, the Temple Mount, Jerusalem’s most prominent topographical feature, doesn’t appear at all.

As a result, Jerusalem is depicted as the city of Christ’s Passion and without a hint of its Jewish past. According to the reconstruction of the Byzantine church building around the surviving part of the map, it appears that the symbol of Jerusalem was deliberately placed at the center of the map. Therefore, in presenting Jerusalem as a Christian city – with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in its center but with no hint to the city’s Jewish past – at the center of a land that is full of church buildings but is also divided among the Tribes of Israel and dotted with events from both Testaments, the map essentially conveys the notion of fulfillment: fulfillment of the Old Testament in the New Testament and in the Passion of Christ.

In this context, what is particularly interesting and prominent is the depiction of the Dead Sea, on which two boats can be seen containing four figures, which were defaced during the period of iconoclasm (8th century). If the figures are meant to be fishermen, it would portray Ezekiel’s prophecy (47: 1-12) that the day would come when fresh water would issue out from under the platform of the Temple and flow to the desert, turning it into a paradise and filling the Dead Sea with fresh water, fish and fishermen. Ezekiel’s prophecy may seem relevant to the map not simply because of its reference to the land’s topography, but also because during the early Christian period, it was interpreted in the context of the revelation of Jesus.

Now we reach the question regarding the non-depiction of roads on the Madaba map. Avi-Yonah, who was the first to draw attention to this, also noticed that many of the places appearing on the map were situated along what were the main roads at the time of its creation. So, for example, Bethel, Gophnah, Ramah and Sychar in the area of Mount Ephraim were all on the main road that continued along the length of the watershed. West of Jerusalem, only the places along the road to Beit Horon are noted, including two written references to the fourth and ninth miles.

Jerusalem is depicted as the city of Christ’s Passion and without a hint of its Jewish past.

Therefore, although the roads are not explicitly delineated, their presence is reflected in the selection of places that appear on the map. That realization led Avi-Yonah to conclude that the map’s creator apparently relied on a Roman road map, although that still leaves the question of why the roads themselves were omitted.

It seems to me that the answer is simple: There are no roads on the map because there was no need to show them. That’s because, as we have seen, the map was designed to create a narrative for the land and reflect a religious message. It was certainly not designed for practical navigational purposes or to help one find one’s location. It’s important to note that in the Byzantine Roman world, maps were not used for navigational purposes. The accepted tool at the time was the use of lists of places and waystations along a road, noting the distances between them. The famous account from a traveler known as the Pilgrim of Bordeaux provides an example of such lists, which sometimes also included a bit of information about the places themselves.

The Madaba map was another kind of instrument. It was an innovative visual image that depicted an image of a sacred landscape. This image was meant to represent the religious significance of the landscape and to conceptualize the narrative of the Scriptures in topographical terms.

And now to the question: Why was the map produced in the sixth century? In my opinion, it’s because it was during that century that the territory of Palestine had become a sacred space for Christians, and pilgrimages to it had become an accepted and common practice. By that time, a distinct genre of “Holy Land” art had been created. It appeared on vessels that contained stones and oil collected at the holy places, and that were sold to pilgrims. With the sacred materials that they contained, these vessels served as “extensions” of the holy places themselves.

The connection between the Madaba map and these painted vessels is reflected in both date and concept. Both the map and the images that adorned the vessels conceptualized the Holy Land and its holy places through sacred events from the past.

The sanctity of the land was therefore the impulse behind the creation of the Madaba map in the sixth century and in general of a new visual medium – a map of a land. This medium was designed not for practical purposes of navigation, but to reflect religious notions, to convey a religious message, and to reinforce Christian identity.

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