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Celebrating the 30th anniversary of an important discovery


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Aug. 31--MOUNT NEBO -- It was 30 years ago, in August 1976, that a handful of experts from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum discovered one of the most beautiful mosaics of Jordan -- the mosaic of the Old Baptistery Chapel in the Memorial Church of Moses at Mount Nebo.

The Franciscan Fathers, who have since 1932 been the custodians of this most revered site -- holy to the three monotheistic religions -- could hardly believe their eyes.

"We were working on the restoration of a more recent mosaic," recalls Father Michele Piccirillo, a pioneer of archaeological work and conservation efforts in and around Madaba.

"As archaeologists, we knew there had to be something underneath. But we didn't expect anything this beautiful."

"Beautiful" is in fact the first word that comes to mind from the first glance at this exceptional artwork of the beginning of the 6th century.

The mosaic shows four panels of scenes of hunting and husbandry on a white background elegantly interrupted by small fruit trees, bushes and flower branches.

In two hunting scenes, the first register shows a black man -- perhaps representing the African continent -- holding an ostrich, and a young man in seemingly Persian clothing -- perhaps representing the Asian continent -- holding a zebra and a curious creature resembling both a dromedary and a giraffe.

In the second register, a shepherd sits on a rock under the shade of a tree, watching his goats and sheep graze on the leaves of four small trees. Cunningly breaking an otherwise perfect, almost monotonous, sequence, the top of the second tree -- absolutely identical in both design and execution to the other three -- is upside down. After all these years, Father Piccirillo remains as puzzled as the first time he noticed it: "Perhaps the author simply misplaced the carton with the reference design!"

The third register is perhaps the most dramatic, with two hunters on horses, accompanied by their dogs, spearing a bear and a boar.

The dramatic action continues in the fourth panel, with a young shepherd defending a calf from a lion, and a soldier with spear and shield attacking a lioness, which bleeds bright red blood from her wound.

Deep attention to details is obvious in the clothes and accessories of the protagonists, but most remarkably in their faces. There, explains Father Piccirillo, a new technique, which will later become the hallmark of the ancient Madaba Mosaic School, appears for the first time: The tesserae (or cubes) are cut smaller and smaller until they are almost reduced to tiny fragments in order to obtain as naturalistic an effect as possible.

"We are before the work of innovators, artists who set a trend that will eventually characterise all mosaics in the Madaba region."

And these "innovators" have names: Soel (Suheil), Kaium (Khayam) and Elia (Elias).

"Certainly Arabs, certainly from Madaba, they signed the splendid work that we were lucky to discover almost intact."

Unfortunately, other mosaics of similar importance were not found intact. Or, even if they were, they did not remain intact for long.

In this like in many other cases involving artworks, authorities had to strike a fine balance between the need to preserve these relatively new-found treasures and the need to show them around the world.

Between 1986 and 1993, some of the most precious Madaba mosaics were taken on a tour across Europe.

It was a necessary step to showcase an important part of Jordan's heritage and give a much needed boost to archaeological and cultural tourism. But it was also a move that took its toll on some fragile masterpieces.

"It was a necessary evil, to make the world aware of Jordan's mosaics," comments Father Piccirillo.

Today, the restoration efforts directed by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum have returned most of these mosaics -- including, for example, the mosaic of the Priest John Chapel -- to their original splendour.

Other restoration efforts, namely on the mosaics of St. George and those in the Church of St. Lot and Procopius are under way.

Central to the conservation of these riches is also the Madaba Mosaic School, whose students and experts help revive this ancient artistic tradition in the very city that was once one of the capitals of the finest mosaics in the entire Mediterranean region.

A strategy to upgrade the Madaba Mosaic School was launched earlier this month to reposition Madaba as a leading regional centre for the study, restoration, conservation, and production of mosaic art. According to the USAID, which is funding the strategy, the aim would also be to bring real benefits and opportunities to the people of the Madaba area, with the support of the public and private sectors in capacity building, training, and entrepreneurial activities.

By September 2007, the Madaba Mosaic School, established in 1992, should become the "Institute of Mosaic Art and Restoration" under the aegis of the Ministry of Higher Education and management of the Department of Antiquities, in cooperation with the private sector. The college is expected to offer four educational and training streams for post-Tawjihi students, postgraduates, and professionals employed in the sector in Jordan and throughout the region. It will also become a "centre of excellence," with all programmes accredited by a Jordanian university in partnership with the college, and further international accreditation to be sought from institutions in Italy -- a traditional donor both at Mount Nebo and in Madaba in general.

The upgrading of the mosaic school represents the latest commitment to both protecting this important part of Jordan's heritage and keeping alive an art that could serve as a significant revenue source for the local communities.

Many things in and around Madaba, and at Mount Nebo have changed a lot since that faraway August of 1976.

The area had been a military zone until 1974.

There was no archaeological park, very little had been discovered, and tourist guides hardly mentioned Madaba at all.

Many more things promise to change in the near future.

But Father Piccirillo and the Franciscan archaeologists of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum are still there, in the small monastery on Mount Nebo, with the same enthusiasm and dedication.

Ready for the next restoration work.

Preparing for the next digging campaign.

Looking for more beautiful things to hand over to future generations.

And waiting for the good news of the declaration of Mount Nebo as a special protected area with its artistic and spiritual treasure.

His Majesty the late King Hussein was thinking of conferring a special status on Mount Nebo until his very last days, something he wrote about to "Abuna" Father Piccirillo from his hospital bed in the US, leaving behind another precious, and in this case very spiritual, part of his immensely rich legacy.

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To see more of the Jordan Times or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.jordantimes.com/.

Copyright (c) 2006, Jordan Times, Amman

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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