Jordan’s ‘City of Mosaics’ struggling to preserve its heritage
For years, handicrafts and antiquities shops in Madaba provided a wide selection of handmade gifts and souvenirs. Today, shops lining the city’s most popular street face challenges that threaten the existence of the mosaics artwork for which the area is famous.
“Madaba has so many things to offer and tourists enjoy visiting the city and admiring its (sixth-century) Mosaic Map, which covers the floor of the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George but lately we don’t see many visitors,” said antiquities shop owner Salem Twal.
The number of visitors to Madaba, known as the “City of Mosaics” 30km south-west of Amman, fluctuated in recent years. In 2014, it received 208,959 visitors, a figure that dropped to 129,485 in 2015 and picked up to about 147,900 visitors in 2016, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said.
“We depend on monthly loans from private financial institutions, banks and government funds, and due to the increase in the cost of licensing and lack of tourists who are willing to spend money here, we have been plagued by debts,” Twal said.
Artists in Madaba used 3.5 million mosaic pieces to produce The King’s Way, at 30 metres long and 6 metres wide, the largest mosaic portrait in the world. The work displayed the famous ancient caravan route from the southern port of Aqaba to Bosra Sham. The portrait is at Mount Nebo’s new La Storia Museum, which is the largest one in the city.
In 2016, Madaba won the World Crafts City competition for mosaics organised by the World Crafts Council, a non-profit non-governmental organisation that seeks to strengthen the status of crafts as a vital part of cultural and economic life.
However, despite its unique attractions, Madaba, the fifth most populous town in Jordan, is struggling to survive.
“Winning the competition was great news for us and for the city and we really hoped that we will be able to present more of our mosaic work but slow tourism had a negative effect on the industry. That forced many artisans to close down and find something else to do,” said Anas Bani Hani, owner of a mosaic handicraft centre.
“There is no doubt that this sector is suffering and things are not the same anymore due to the political situation in the region. I used to have 40 to 50 employees in 2010 but now I have half that number.”
The city once had 60 handicraft workshops but more than half have closed or stopped producing in the past few years, he said.
Bani Hani said he survived the crisis thanks to a strong financial situation but many others did not have that kind of support.
Yahya Ammar closed his mosaic shop after ten years in the business due to high costs and weak sales.
“I used to hire more hands to accommodate the rush of tourists to the shop but lately I had to do the work myself after my employees quit because I could not afford paying their salaries,” he said.
While some tourists still head to Madaba, Ammar said they spend very little time in the shopping area.
“They come in buses for short visits, led by greedy tourist guides who take around 30% in commission to bring them into your shop. In the past, we could afford that but now it is a different story,” Ammar said.
Khaled Hourani, who has placed his handicraft shop up for sale, called on the government to promote internal tourism to compensate for the drop in the number of foreign visitors.
“There are few programmes for internal tourism that attract Jordanians to certain touristic sites and we believe that due to the political situation around us Jordanians will focus more on visiting their country rather than travelling abroad but I fear it is not enough to have a reversible impact on our business,” said Hourani.
Mosaic portraits in Madaba vary in price from $15 to $15,000 depending on the size, complexity and sophistication of the work.
Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration (MIMAR) trains Jordanians in the production and restoration of mosaics and offers the only diploma programme specialised in scientific methods of restoration and conservation to prepare students to open their shops and work in the field.
Madaba resident Naheda Horani said she feels sad about the situation in the city.
“We used to sit on the porch of the house and watch buses filled with tourists passing by and even tourists walking in the streets but nowadays we rarely see any, which means things are not going well,” Horani said.