Middle East

Early Byzantine mosaics in the Middle East Early Byzantine mosaics in the Middle East are a group of Christian mosaics created between the 4th and the 8th centuries in ancient Syria, Palestine, and Egypt when the area belonged to the Byzantine Empire. The eastern provinces of the Eastern Roman and later the Byzantine Empires inherited a strong artistic tradition from Late Antiquity. The tradition of making mosaics was carried on in the Umayyad era until the end of the 8th century. The great majority of these works of art were later destroyed but archeological excavations unearthed many surviving examples. The Arab conquest of the Middle East in the 7th century did not break off the art of mosaic making. Arabs learned and accepted the craft as their own and carried on the classical tradition. During the Umayyad era, Christianity retained its importance, churches were built and repaired and some of the most important mosaics of the Christian East were made during the 8th century when the region was under Islamic rule. The mosaics of the Church of St Stephen in ancient Kastron Mefaa (now Umm ar-Rasas) were made in 785 (discovered after 1986). The perfectly preserved mosaic floor is the largest one in Jordan. On the central panel hunting and fishing, scenes are depicted while another panel illustrates the most important cities of the region (including Kastron Mefaa, Philadelphia, Madaba, Esbounta, Belemounta, Areopolis, Charac Moaba, Jerusalem, Nablus, Caesarea, and Gaza). The frame of the mosaic is especially decorative. Six mosaic masters signed the work: Staurachios from Esbus, Euremios, Elias, Constantinus, Germanus, and Abdela. It overlays another, damaged, mosaic floor of the earlier (587) “Church of Bishop Sergius.” Another four churches were excavated nearby with traces of mosaic decoration.

The single most important piece of Byzantine Christian mosaic art in the East is the Madaba Map, made between 542 and 570 as the floor of the church of Saint George at MadabaJordan. It was rediscovered in 1894. The Madaba Map is the oldest surviving cartographic depiction of the Holy Land. It depicts an area from Lebanon in the north to the Nile Delta in the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Eastern Desert. The largest and most detailed element of the topographic depiction is Jerusalem, at the center of the map. The map is enriched with many naturalistic features, like animals, fishing boats, bridges and palm trees.

One of the earliest examples of Byzantine mosaic art in the region can be found on Mount Nebo, a place of pilgrimage in the Byzantine era where Moses died. Among the many 6th century mosaics in the church complex in an area known as Siyagha (discovered after 1933) the most interesting one is located in the baptistery. The intact floor mosaic in the Byzantine monastery, built on the foundations of an even earlier chapel from the third or fourth century CE, was laid down in circa 530. It covers an area of 9 x 3 m and depicts the monastic pastime of wine-making, as well as hunters, with a rich assortment of Middle Eastern flora and fauna.[1]

The Church of Sts. Lot and Procopius was founded in 567 in Nebo village under Mount Nebo (now Khirbet Mukhayyat). Its floor mosaic depicts everyday activities like grape harvest. Another two spectacular mosaics were discovered in the ruined Church of Preacher John nearby. One of the mosaics was placed above the other one which was completely covered and unknown until the modern restoration. The figures on the older mosaic have thus escaped the iconoclasts.

The town of Madaba remained an important center of mosaic making during the 5-8th centuries. In the Church of the Apostles even the name of the master mosaicist, Salomios was also recorded (from 568). In the middle of the main panel Thalassa, goddess of the sea, can be seen surrounded by fishes and other sea creatures. Native Middle Eastern birds, mammals, plants and fruits were also added. The Church of Prophet Elijah was built in 607. Its carpet-like central panel in the nave framed by a row of medaillons depicting native animals. Mosaic was used as a decoration not only for churches but for rich private residences like the Hippolytos Hall and the Burnt Palace (both from the early 6th century). They follow the classical Greco-Roman tradition with mythological and allegorical scenes like the Four Seasons, Phaedra and Hippolytos, Venus and Adonis, the Three Graces and the city goddesses of Madaba, Rome and Gregoria (in the Hippolytos Hall); hunting scenes, fight of a bull and a lion (in the Burnt Palace).

Middle East