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The Madaba Map and the Baptism of Jesus

The Madaba Map at the Church of St George in Madaba, Jordan.

The oldest known map of the Holy Land can be found at the St George Church in Madaba, Jordan. On the floor of this church is a beautiful mosaic which dates back to the 6th Century AD.

The mosaic is known as the Madaba Map. It is the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land. The section depicting Jerusalem is especially detailed and accurate.

During our short visit to Jordan in 2018 we spent a few hours in the town of Madaba. It’s streets were busy and there were interesting small shops, fascinating smells, and the unique atmosphere of the Middle East. The town is famous for its weaving and many carpet sellers were busy selling their wares.

Climbing the bell tower of the Church of John the Baptist gave us an impressive view of the skyline of Madaba. And, of course a visit to Madaba is not complete without seeing the ancient mosaic on the floor of the St George Church.

This mosaic floor of the St George Church dates from the 6th Century AD, the Byzantine period. The intricate mosaic, whilst partly destroyed, is amazing to see and vibrant in colour.

The riddle of the two fish

Whilst viewing the mosaic my eyes were particularly drawn to the scene of two fish swimming in the Jordan River just to the north of the Dead Sea.

What could be the meaning that the creators of this mosaic were attempting to convey?

A close up of part of the Madaba Map showing the two fish in the Jordan River.

A common explanation is that one fish is swimming away from the Dead Sea because of the highly saline water, as no fish could survive in such salty water. This sounds like quite a plausible explanation. However there is a much more meaningful explanation to this scene.

Since the 2nd Century the symbol of the fish has been associated with Christianity. It is a symbol of Christ Himself.

The scene of the two fish is just north of the Dead Sea. This is the location of Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site where John was baptising and where our Saviour was baptised.

The two fish represent the baptism. The fish swimming down stream, in the direction of the Dead Sea, represents death. The resurrection, the life received from baptism, is represented by the fish swimming away from the Dead Sea.

Just as a fish is not able to survive outside of the water, so the Christian is unable to survive without the life giving waters of baptism.