Some 2,000 years ago, a handful of handsome cities flourished on the southeastern flank of the Roman Empire. Known collectively as the Decapolis, or "ten cities," in Greek, they are now emerging from both the earth and the haze of history.
The best preserved Decapolis dry is Jerash, 35 kilometers (22 miles) north of the Jordanian capital Amman - itself a Decapolis city known to the Greeks and Romans as Philadelphia. Umm Qais - the Roman Gadara - overlooking the Jordan Rift Valley, the Golan Heights and Lake Tiberias, and Tabaqat Fahl - ancient Pella - in the foothills of the north Jordan Valley, are two other Decapolis cities that are being systematically investigated today in their beautiful natural settings.
But for all the information that has been dug from the ground, gleaned from ancient literary sources and maps, or deciphered from coins and inscription fragments, the Decapolis remains an enigma - its precise nature, role, composition and extent a perplexing riddle. Even the very word Decapolis may be a cruel teaser; several Roman writers have left us slightly conflicting evidence of how many - and which - cities formed the Decapolis.
Nineteenth and early 20th-century scholars viewed the Decapolis as a "confederation" or "league" of free or autonomous Greco-Roman cities, thought to have been formed when Roman General Pompey conquered Syria in 64/63 B.C.
Most of the Decapolis cities were originally established much earlier, however, by the Macedonian settler-soldiers of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms - in the third century B.C. following the conquest of the Middle East by Alexander the Great. Pompey's annexation of Syria, following the collapse of the Seleucid kingdom in the first century B.C., brought some of these dries under Roman control. Others Pompey freed from the control of the Hasmoneans in Jerusalem, and coin evidence indicates that most of the cities showed their gratitude by adopting a new calendar that started with the year of their liberation in 64/63 B.C.
The Decapolis may have existed as a formal unit for 170 years - until the Roman Emperor Trajan annexed Petra and the Nabatean kingdom in south Jordan and northern Arabia in A.D. 106; the rities of the Decapolis were then divided among the newly-created Roman province of Arabia and the province of Syria. And though recent scholarship has tended to see the Decapolis as less of a formal league or confederation and more an arrangement among like-minded, probably autonomous Greco-roman cities - whose contiguous territories formed a single geographic unit - only new evidence can verify what the Decapolis was and why it was formed.
Extremely puzzling is the fact that not a single reference to the Decapolis has come from inscriptions or other historical sources from within the area of the Decapolis itself; and though the Decapolis cities all minted their own coins, none mentions the Decapolis.
On the other hand,there are early references to the Decapolis in the Bible and Roman history; Matthew and Mark mention crowds of people "from Galilee and Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from the other side of the Jordan." The first-century Roman historian Josephus mentions the Decapolis four times in his works. He talks about "the inhabitants of the Decapolis," and mentions Scythopolis-modern Beisan - as "the largest dry of the Decapolis." In both these early references, the Decapolis has the ring of a purely geographic designation.
A late first-century inscription, found in Turkey a century ago and recently reinter equestrian officer who once served in "the Decapolis of Syria." Some scholars interpret this to designate an administrative unit within the province of Syria.
The Roman writer Pliny has left us the longest passage about the Decapolis, in his Natural History completed in A.D. 77. He writes: "Adjoining Judea on the side of Syria is the region of the Decapolis, so called from the number of its towns, though not all writers keep to the same list ..." He lists the Decapolis cities as Damascus, Philadelphia, Raphana, Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippos, Dion, Pella, Gerasa (which he misspelled as "Galasa") and Canatha.
The second-century Egyptian-Roman geographer Ptolemy, in his Geography, lists 18 cities of the Decapolis and Coele-Syria. Along with Pliny's 10 cities, he adds Abila, Capitolias, Heliopolis, Saana, Ina, Samoulis, Adra and Abila Lysanios, but recent scholarship and excavations identify the 10 Decapolis cities as: Philadelphia (modern Amman), Gerasa (Jerash), Pella (Tabaqat Fahl), Scythopolis (Beisan), Gadara (Umm Qais), Damascus, Hippos (Qal'at al-Husn, in the Golan Heights), Canatha (Kanawat, in southern Syria), Dium and Raphana.
Scythopolis is the only Decapolis city west of the Jordan River. The sites of ancient Dium and Raphana have not been conclusively identified. The four leading candidates for Dium are Tell al-Husn and Edun, both near Irbid, in north Jordan, Kufr Abil, near Pella, and Tell al-Ash'ari, near the Syrian border town of Der'a. Raphana may be the same city as Capitolias, modern Beit Ras, just north of Irbid, which may have been rebuilt and renamed Capitolias in A.D. 97/98.
After the Decapolis cities were incorporated into the Roman provinces of Syria and Arabia in the year 106, the term Decapolis continued in use for some time. Seventh-century Byzantine writers, such as Eusebius, Epiphanius and Stephanus of Byzantium, seem to use the term Decapolis purely as a geographical designation for the area of north Jordan and south Syria.
The scattered evidence suggests, therefore, that the Decapolis may have been a first-century administrative unit within the Roman province of Syria. There may well have been formal ties among the 10 like-minded Greco-Roman cities of the Decapolis, and indeed, the number of member cities may have changed over time, as the territory of the Decapolis perhaps contracted and expanded. Another theory suggests the Decapolis was a loose association of city-states, their territories intended to be a buffer zone separating the Roman province of Syria to the north from the Nabatean kingdom and the Arab desert tribes to the south.
What is certain is that the cities of the Decapolis flourished during the first three centuries because of the security provided by the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. Their wealth derived from abundant local agricultural resources and their location astride one of the greatest international trade routes of the ancient world. They were strategically located near or along the Via Nova Traiana, a new road built by the Emperor Trajan in A.D. 111-114 to link the port of Aila, modern Aqaba, with Bosra, capital of the province of Arabia. Extending nearly 500 kilometers (311 miles), the Via Nova Traiana has been called "the greatest piece of Roman road-making in the Orient." Portions of it are still well preserved and can be seen throughout Jordan, particularly at Khirbet Samra, northeast of the city of Zerqa.
The record of peace and prosperity along the southeastern flank of the Roman Empire in that era is preserved today in the stones and stately urbanism of the former Decapolis cities, but recent excavations at several of the cities have further revealed their history well before and after the Roman era. Though most of them were established as Hellenistic cities in the third century B.C., several Decapolis cities, such as Jerash, Pella and Amman, show evidence of human occupation going back to the Stone Age, between 10,000-6000 B.C. All continued as Byzantine cities in the fourth to seventh centuries and excavations at Amman, Jerash and Pella have revealed flourishing early Islamic cities from the Umayyad era, in the seventh and eighth centuries.
Thus a visit to some of the Decapolis cities provides an extraordinarily rich journey back through the past 5,000 years of human urbanism. The same city sites were continually used and reused by successive generations and civilizations for the same reasons: strategic locations astride natural travel and trade routes, mild climates, plentiful water supplies and rich agricultural lands. When political and military circumstances brought security to the land, the cities flourished and expanded, but when regional or international powers clashed there trade dried up, income dropped, and the cities declined. The same development equation still defines the land of Jordan today, as internal security and a dynamic regional aid and trade picture fuel the development of modern towns or large cities at almost all the sites of the former Decapolis cities.
Rami Khouri is an Aramco World correspondent based in Jordan.