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Volume 36, Number 6November/December 1985

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The Decapolis of Jordan

Written and photographed by Rami G. Khouri

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.


Fifteen minutes by car north of Irbid are the scattered and largely buried remains of another Roman city, Abila, which may have formed part of the Decapolis at one time, the ruins of the city are spread over two large hills, with a massive but now hollow semi-circle in a hillside perhaps marking the spot of Abila's ancient theater. An American team excavating the site during the past three years has started to piece together its history, which seems to have started 5,000 years ago with a small, walled Bronze Age town.

Abila was a splendid Greco-Roman city for at least 300 years, from the first to third centuries, but continued its life as a Byzantine city with several churches. Its ancient necropolis, recently studied in detail by a French team, includes hundreds of beautifully painted Roman and Byzantine tombs.

Large Corinthian capitals and column drums lie on the surface of the ground, alongside stretches of ancient wall lines and roads that pass among the collapsed stones of once monumental buildings. Like so many other ancient cities in Jordan, Abila is well sited on open hilltops surrounded by lush valleys. It makes an ideal picnic spot today, and can be combined with an all-day trip that also takes in Jerash, Umm Qais and Pella.


Visitors to Jordan and the Decapolis cities usually start their trip in Amman, Jordan's modern capital and the ancient Rabbath-Ammon, capital city of the Ammonite Kingdom. Traces of the Iron Age city wall still ring Citadel Hill (in Arabic, Al Qal'a) in downtown Amman - the same spot the Greeks, Romans and Umayyad Muslims used for their monumental buildings during the next 1,000 years. But Amman has a much older history. At 'Ain Ghazal, in north Amman, recent excavations by an American team have uncovered a Stone Age (Neolithic era) village from around 6000 B.C., and traces of an Early Bronze Age village from around 3000 B.C.

The Greco-Roman city at Amman, known as Philadelphia, was founded by the Hellenistic Ptolemies, and named after the ruler of Egypt Ptolemy Philadelphos (285-246 B.C.). It became a member city of the Decapolis, and its territory marked the southern limits of the region of the Decapolis. The ruins of the Roman city include the great 5,000-seat theater and its adjacent odeon (a small, covered theater) in downtown Amman; parts of the forum, the nymphaeum (public fountain dedicated to the Nymphs) and the colonnaded main street of the city; the temple of Hercules on the summit of Citadel Hill; and a large mausoleum some five kilometers east of the modern Sports City towards Zerqa, known as Qasr Nuweijis. In the first century of the Islamic era, Amman continued to serve as a capital city and seat of the local Umayyad governor. Excavations on Citadel Hill, near the archeological museum and Roman ruins, have revealed a large Umayyad complex that includes a governor's palace, residential areas, public buildings and a fortification wall - all built over earlier Roman structures.


The most dramatically sited Decapolis city is ancient Gadara, at the modern village of Umm Qais, a 90-minute drive from Amman. Perched majestically on a long promontory overlooking the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights and Lake Tiberias, Gadara was also founded by Hellenistic soldier-settlers and joined the Roman Decapolis after 63 B.C. It was renowned for its artists, poets, philosophers and learned men.

Since part of the modern village has been built over the ancient citadel, Jordanian, German and Danish teams have excavated other parts of the city during the past 20 years. Their discoveries include the ancient forum in front of the North Theater, a colonnaded main street, with chariot wheel marks still visible in its paving stones, and a better preserved West Theater, with its white-marble-goddess statue contrasting vividly with the black basalt stones. Above the North Theater was a major Roman temple, later turned into a Byzantine church. There are also a multi-story baths complex built by the Romans and a fine subterranean mausoleum with a colonnaded forecourt.


Jerash, the Roman Gerasa, is one of the best preserved Roman provincial cities in the world. Archeological and literary evidence shows it was founded in the early second century B.C., most likely under the Hellenistic Seleucid kings. It fell under Roman rule when Pompey conquered Syria and created the Decapolis in 63 B.C. Its Roman name, Gerasa, was derived from its earlier Semitic name "Garshu."

Jerash is particularly valuable for both its many splendid monuments and its intact city plan. This is based on an 800-meter-long colonnaded main greet (2625 feet) called the cardo, which is intersected by lateral streets. The Roman ruins include, most notably, three theaters, a hippodrome, two principal temples dedicated to the god Zeus and the goddess Artemis, a triumphal arch built to commemorate the visit of the Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 129/130, an ornate nymphaeum, the odd-shaped Oval Plaza, the ruins of three baths, and several tombs/ mausolea - all enclosed within the thick town wall with its four gates and dozens of towers.

Between the fourth and seventh centuries, Gerasha was an important Byzantine religious center too, as evidenced by the discovery of 15 churches to date. Some of these featured magnificent mosaic floors that can still be appreciated. When the forces of Islam defeated the armies of Byzantium in the early seventh century and soon after established the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus, Jerash continued to flourish as an important regional city, based on trading links with other cities in Jordan, Syria and Palestine. Umayyad ruins excavated at Jerash include a mosque, several pottery kilns and an impressive housing quarter.

History buffs will find a visit to Jerash particularly valuable for the opportunity to wander among the ruins of structures that were built by successive Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic civilizations - spanning a period of over 1,000 years.


The extensive ruins of Pella lie near the modern village of Tabaqat Fahl in the northern foothills of the Jordan Valley, 85 kilometers (53 miles), or a 90-minute drive, from Amman. Like Amman and Jerash, this site has been occupied for thousands of years, with the earliest evidence of permanent settlement at Pella going back to the Chalcolithic era (4500-3000 B.C.). People were always attracted to the site by the year-round water of the Wadi firm, the warm climate and the rich agricultural land. In Roman times, the city also flourished because of its strategic location astride a key road that linked the Via Nova with the Palestinian coastal port cities.

One of the mysteries of Pella, which has been excavated by American and Australian teams for nearly 20 years, has been the very few Roman structures that have been revealed. It is thought that when the Byzantine inhabitants of Pella rebuilt it, perhaps after serious earthquake damage, they razed the Roman structures and started anew.

Pella, like Jerash and Amman, was a thriving city in the early Islamic Umayyad era. An extensive Umayyad residential area has been unearthed on the summit of the main north mound. The summit of the south mound, Tell el Husn, is thought to have been the site of the main Roman temple of Pella.

This article appeared on pages 28-35 of the November/December 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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