زيارة مادبا -- Madaba visit

This weekend, my friend Emily and I decided to adventure off to the town of Madaba, Jordan, about 30 km southwest of Amman. Though our original intention was to take the bus, a 3.5 JD cab ride ended up taking us to the wrong station. We asked a taxi driver at the station where to find the bus to Madaba, and between our broken Arabic and his broken English, we ascertained that he would take us all the way to Madaba for about 10 JD. In hindsight, I probably could've bargained him down to 8, but I was grateful for the help and not in the mood to haggle. Plus, it was nice having the taxi all to ourselves, windows down, feeling the warm wind rush through as we sped past the farms and villas outside Amman.

Madaba's a small town, so we just had our driver drop us off in the center of town and figured we'd make our own way from there. The tiny city is best known for its mosaics, of which there are TONS -- mostly from the Byzantine era in the 6th century AD. It also has a small but thriving Christian community (about 10% of the local population), mostly Catholics and Greek Orthodox, who have built some seriously beautiful churches. For example, Emily and I started our Madaba adventure at St. George's Greek Orthodox church, which boasts an exquisite, ancient mosaic floor map of the Dead Sea and surrounding areas of Jordan and Palestine. This was also where one of the locals laughed at me when I asked how much tickets inside cost in the local dialect. Apparently blonde American chicks speaking Jordanian amiyya aren't that common or something?

After wandering around the church and into the crypt for a bit, we started off towards the south. Passing by a souvenir shop, I saw some scarves that caught my fancy. As I was browsing, the shop owner approached me, an extremely kind-looking woman in a black hijab and abaya, and started showing me the selection of colors. I asked her "'iddeish?" ("How much?") and she replied, "dinarein" (2 JD). I realised I only had a 50 JD bill with me, which I was intending to break at lunchtime. When I informed her of this, she started insisting that I take the scarf with me anyway, and come back to pay her once I had change. Jordanian hospitality (and trust) truly never fails to amaze.

But after digging in my purse, I located enough spare change to cover the cost, so with my new scarf in tow, we continued towards the Madaba Archaeological Park. This is essentially an archaeological dig, left in its original location, with walking platforms around the mosaics so visitors can enjoy them. It cost only 2 JD to get in -- and we were definitely not expecting that to include a complete guided tour from the supervisor at the site, an extremely nice man named Amjad, but that's exactly what we got. He was so excited that we were Arabic students that he even gave the entire tour in both English and Arabic, which was amazingly helpful. We saw a fabulously mosaiced private residence, a 2nd-century Roman road, still beautifully intact, and even a piece of King Herod's palace from the 1st century B.C. Also, the word for "mosaic," which is fuseifusa' (فسيفساء), is now my favorite Arabic word ever.

Later, we ate lunch in this ambient and wonderfully air-conditioned restaurant near the Park. The owner asked where we were from in impeccable English -- and when I replied "Chicago," he looked at me in total disbelief and said "you're kidding me!" Apparently he just moved back to Jordan from there only seven months ago. When I asked where in the city he had been living, he told me Lawrence and Elston. That's only blocks away from North Park and my old stomping grounds! The tiny town of Madaba was definitely not the sort of place I'd have ever expected to find someone from Albany Park, but once again, this world finds fun ways to prove to me how small it really is. :)

After stuffing our faces full of fattoush salad, chicken marinated with balsamic vinegar, hummus, bread and fresh juice (mine was strawberry, Emily's was lemon-mint), we ventured further off into the city to look for the Madaba museum. After getting slightly lost, we found the museum, and an extremely eccentric jokester of a tour guide named Tariq. He spoke very little English, so he gave us the tour in Arabic. He was congenial, slightly creepy, and extremely fond of taking artistic photographs of us on Emily's camera. We were thoroughly entertained, if slightly confused. Let's suffice it to say that it was one of the most random and goofily memorable two-hour museum tours of my life.

After the museum, we decided to check out some of the souvenir shops still open on one of the main roads. Emily was looking for carpets, so we chanced upon a little shop, owned and operated by a nice, if slightly gruff gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair and excellent laugh lines. He patiently led us through his impressive selection of carpets -- and naturally, we gravitated towards the exorbitantly expensive silk Persian ones before settling on very nice, if more rustic, Bedouin ones. I also found a lovely traditional necklace made of silver and local precious stones, which he kindly sold to me for about 15 JD, as well as a gorgeous antique Bedouin dagger, also 15 JD.

As we completed our purchases, he insisted on making us tea and we made conversation. Despite missing his two front teeth, he spoke in beautiful and enthusiastic English. I was starting to sense an incredibly spiritual presence, and my suspicions were confirmed when he started sharing with us some of his thoughts on life. He told us about how he had never been able to marry, having been struck by financial hardship every time he had saved enough to afford it. He also told us about his faith, and the strength he received from the Holy Spirit to overcome obstacles. He then proceeded to read me like an open book, offer advice and pray over us. I love spiritual people, so I sat open as a water jar while he pontificated about life and kept insisting "don't blame me, this is all Jesus." As if we hadn't already met enough fascinating people in Madaba.

So after a day of beautiful weather, mosaics galore, incredibly kind people, crazy tour guides, and of course our tea time with the toothless Arab Christian mystical man, we decided it was high time to head back to Amman. I somehow managed to completely own our cab ride back with bargaining skills I didn't even know existed -- prompting the cab driver to charge us 3 JD less and still tell me "btehhki arabiyy kweis!" ("you speak Arabic well!").

It was one of the rare moments when I actually felt accomplished, confident that I had in fact learned some Arabic since coming here, a feeling which was definitely a welcome break from the frustrating process of language immersion. In fact, my day in Madaba may have been one of my favorite days this entire summer. I think I'll have to go back for another visit before I leave. :)


  1. Yeah, Albany Park is the World's intersection - when I was in Kosovo I met guys from Lawrence and Kedzie! The only problem is I wasn't yet at North Park so I didn't really actually know how close they were (or how to contact them again).

    Anyway, glad to see you're having some fantastic experiences!

  2. It really is amazing how that happens! Makes me appreciate the neighborhood even more. :)


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