It's so rare you'd think it would be in a glass case or, at the very least, in a part of the church where tourists can't step on it. It's not. There's just a dinky little chain between you and a 1,400-year jump back in time.
The ancient Jordanian city of Madaba, about a half-hour's ride south of the country's capital at Amman has a bit of history. Moses may have first looked at The Promised Land from atop nearby Mount Nebo, and Jesus may have been baptized nearby before the crusader forts were built in the desert.
Tourists check out the famous map of Madaba. Image: Bob Schulman
In Madaba, history comes alive right under your feet thanks to a mosaic map of The Holy Land on the floor of the Byzantine church of Saint George. Dating back to the 6th century, the vivid artwork -- crafted with as many as 2 million tiny tiles -- is said to be the oldest surviving map of the heartland of the bible.
Covering an area of about the size of a garage floor, the map stretches from Lebanon south to the Nile delta and from the Mediterranean to the eastern Jordanian desert. It shows the locations of well over 100 hills, valleys, villages and towns, some with details such as the gates and churches of Jerusalem and a ring of palm trees around Jericho.
Map was made with 2 million tiny tiles. Image: iStockphoto
When it was discovered in the late 1800s, the map was an historical bombshell. Many of its locations (tagged in Greek) easily translated to biblical names, but one sent historians and archaeologists into a frenzy of joy. That was the site of the city of Zoar.
Why get excited about Zoar?
Tour guide Mahmoud Aballah explains: "Because [Zoar] is mentioned several times in the Bible as a neighbor to the two evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. We still don't know for sure where they were -- other than some likely spots at the southern end of the Dead Sea -- but now we know where Zoar was."
The map shows Zoar at the southern end of the Dead Sea.
And what was the purpose of the map? Again from Aballah: "That's still a mystery, too, but there's a good chance it was a road map for pilgrims heading to The Holy Land."
Besides checking out the map, you could spend a lot more time in Madaba at other historic churches, many of which also had sprawling mosaics (but not maps of the area). Also packing in tourists around the town are the remains of sites where the flags of everyone from Israelite kings to Islamic caliphs once flew.
Visitors browse Madaba's souvenir shops. Image: Bob Schulman
After all that, and maybe picking up a few scarfs, water pipes, camel's hair purses, silverware and "I (heart) Madaba" t-shirts in the city's wall-to-wall souvenir shops, you're ready to get back on the highway for a short ride to the Dead Sea. Perhaps you'll spend the night at a luxury resort there, maybe even treat yourself to a mud-covered dip in the sea. Get a good rest, because you'll need it the next day for your tour of the cliffside ruins at Petra 130 or so miles down the highway.
Along the way, at the southern tip of the Dead Sea, keep an eye out for likely locations of Sodom and Gomorrah, rumors is that they have an exciting nightlife.