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Shards - Out of Eden Walk

Author: Paul Salopek for National Geographic

Lot's Cave Monastery, Ghor al Safi, Jordan, 31°2'49" N, 35°30'10" E

We walk to the lowest point in the world: 1,378 feet below sea level.

The site is occupied by a museum. Outside the museum, near the top of a cliff, slump the ruins of an ancient Christian monastery. Inside the museum, behind a large pane of glass, work three or four mosaic conservators. They are Greeks. One Australian. They peer intently at a table littered with countless bits of stone. They labor over a vast puzzle. A chaotic rubble. A colorful mess.

“I can look at this for 10 hours and find no connections,” saysStefania Chlouveraki, the senior archaeologist working at the museum. “Then, I’ll come in one morning and find three links between pieces. It is the images of all the pieces that are stuck in my mind. They come together subconsciously.”

A researcher and a Byzantine puzzle: fragments of a monastery floor at Ghor al Safi, Jordan. Photograph by Kim Hubbard

A researcher and a Byzantine puzzle: fragments of a monastery floor. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Chlouveraki and her team are busy rebuilding the dazzling mosaic floor of the nearby Byzantine monastery, erected at the alleged site of Lot’s Cave. What is Lot’s Cave? It is where Lot and his family—the only righteous citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah—took refuge after God destroyed the twin Biblical cities because of their incorrigible wickedness. (Lot’s two daughters gave the Old Testament patriarch wine in the cave, then committed incest with him. Why? It is a question that remains the topic of obscure theological debate.)

Saint Lot’s monastery was built in the fifth-century A.D. The flooring that preoccupies Chlouveraki is 44 yards square and comprised of 900 large chunks of tesserae. There are thousands of smaller pieces. Tesserae: a word as beautiful as the objects it describes. It refers to the tiny stone cubes—mined from as far away as the Black Sea—that form the colors of a mosaic.

Lot's cave monastery, Jordan: My first shards of green in 3,000 kilometers. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Lot’s cave monastery, Jordan: My first shards of green in nearly 2,000 miles. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Byzantine master artisans used these fragments to “paint” lions, pomegranates, grape vines, inscriptions, ornate vases. The monastery floor contains 360,000 such tesserae in hues of red, brown, yellow, olive green, and white. Chlouveraki has been piecing it together since 2003. Assembling it completely will take many more years.

This is what Chlouveraki has to say about her lonesome, painstaking, patient task:

“Some guy in London has tried to create a computer program to help archaeologists rebuild mosaics. But it can’t replace people. You need a human eye to do this well. You need a sense of color, design, and space. You are looking at wear patterns, scratches on the surface. Your eyes and hands work together to make ‘families’ of fragments that no computers can match. Besides, there is just so much data to input into a computer, so you may as well just do it all by hand. When you succeed, there is nothing that can compare to the satisfaction of a hand-fit—two unexpected pieces that couple together. They go click.”

This description could serve as general advice for rebuilding so many things in life.

Like the maddening peace process in the Middle East. Or fading memory. (It is how our brains, by strengthening the links between neurons, consolidate our remembrances.) Or the construction of a good poem or sentence. Or the reassembly of a broken heart.

By feel.

One shard at a time.

Listening for a soft click.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

The loneliness of the mosaic restorer: Anna Tsoupra at work in Ghor al Safi, Jordan.

DMU Timestamp: February 19, 2015 14:07

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