Samaher Khammes is describing the jumble of confusing history around her as she stands on a preserved section of Roman road in the middle of an archaeological park. Next to her is a church, built on the foundations of a Byzantine villa. And inside is something she is keen for her visitor to see.
This is Madaba, south of Jordan’s capital, Amman. It’s the home of the Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration and Khammes is the supervisor of the workshop where students learn how to maintain and protect the country’s thousands of ancient mosaics.
She leads us inside the Church of the Virgin and across a walkway to a platform, where she stands above the Mosaic of Hippolytus. She waits patiently while we absorb the scene.
On the floor are panels made from thousands of small stones, known as tesserae. There are images of animals and hunters and a series of sitting women who represent the cities of Rome and Madaba, and possibly Constantinople. The scenes depict life in a busy city, as well as characters in the Greek tragedy of Hippolytus by Euripides.
Khammes describes it as “more than beautiful”.
"Sometimes you use micro stones to make eyes and to make details in the faces. When you do, you feel you know every detail in the face of these people, maybe more than them.”
In her early days as a student at the Institute she learnt about the mosaic. After further studies in Italy, she returned and worked as a technician on its restoration.
“You know,” she tells SBS, “I have a relationship with this mosaic for twenty years.”
“When you learn this craft you have sensitivity,” she says. “You need patience to make it because you use small stones. Sometimes you use micro stones to make eyes and to make details in the faces. When you do, you feel you know every detail in the face of these people, maybe more than them.”
“It is a very great feeling,” she says. “You imagine how these people live, the kinds of textiles they have, how they eat.”
Outside, we can hear the sound of hammering so we follow it down an alley to a courtyard where two women are standing on chairs, chipping away at a wall as blue shards fall to the ground between them.
“Sometimes the students make mosaics with glass,” says Khammes, “but we don’t like it really because it’s very ugly.” So, she explains, the women are removing the mosaic with chisels, in readiness for a new one to be made with stones.
The Institute has a challenging task. Since 1992 it has been teaching young Jordanians about the country’s tradition of mosaic making and how to restore and protect the thousands of sites across the country. It receives some international funding and has around 100 students.
“Here in Madaba, how to make restoration is a very very important thing because we have a lot of mosaics,” says Khammes.
The school is surrounded by sites, many of them of international significance. Just up the street, in the Church of St George, is one of the most important maps of the Holy Land. The floor mosaic dates from the 6th century and comprises over a million tiles. It illustrates the Dead Sea, the Jordan River and over a hundred towns, and includes a beautiful representation of the walled city of Jerusalem.
Mosaic expert Catreena Hamarneh says it is “one of the most important” and the “earliest known geographical maps that we have in the world”. She says the map of Jerusalem is so accurate that if you compared it to a modern map you would “see how very detailed and correct everything is”.
Students must learn how to create mosaics from nothing.
In the Institute’s workshop Khammes explains that sometimes mosaics must be removed to be preserved. To do this, students must learn how to create mosaics from nothing.
Student Hikmat Al Raham is working on a panel about the size of an A4 piece of paper.
She flips the tiles on a special wooden tray. Then she begins peeling off the cloth on which she had drawn her original pattern in reverse. Slowly the colourful image of a tree emerges. It is a popular motif with the small number of tourists who visit and help support the Institute’s work.
“To make a mosaic is very easy,” says Khammes. “To make a restoration is more difficult, because you work with something ancient and you must be very careful with the stone.”
“The stone is from 1500 years ago so you work with something that is very sensitive,” she says. “Because of that it is very difficult.”
Many of the area’s ancient mosaics are incomplete. There are large gaps where sections have been damaged or removed. Khammes explains that filling in the gaps is not allowed.
“We cannot make the original one like new. It’s forbidden.”
Sometimes the rules can be bent when the original stones are still available and the design is a geometric pattern. “Maybe then we can put in these stones,” she says. But even then, the restorers must ensure that these sections look new.
Hamarneh says the biggest challenge for mosaics is finding the funds for preservation. She is evidence of this. Although she is a leading expert, and has published an important study on the conservation of mosaics at the Roman ruins at Jarash, the only related employment she can find is as a secretary at the German Protestant Institute of Archeaology.
Another problem is vandalism. She tells SBS the sites are vulnerable to thieves, some of whom believe that messages are encrypted in the mosaics and that treasures may be buried beneath them.
“But what can you do?” she asks. “You can’t have a guard at 100,000 sites.”