Umm Qais

Margaret stands amid columns of the incredible hilltop city of Gadara in northern Jordan.

A two-hour drive from Amman to the north is Umm Qais (also Umm Qays), an old village at the site of the ancient city of Gadara (also known as Mkes). The site contains evidence of human settlement for 4000 years, but Gadara was founded in 323 BCE. It soon became known as a Greek city of significance, but struggled under a succession of captures and sieges. It came under Roman rule in 64 BCE and through the 4th century CE had stability and prosperity, which continued under Byzantine rule. Those Romans…everything had to be built of stone. That’s why today we have so much Roman construction to marvel at. In the 1890s, an Ottoman village grew on the site, using the Roman pre-cut stones to build their own lovely site with cottages and courtyards.

In 1986 the remaining residents of the cottages agreed to take payment from the Ministry of Tourism to leave the area so that archaeologists could begin excavations. Interestingly, determination faltered and goals changed. None of the village area has ever been excavated, and instead, some of the village buildings have been restored, forming a museum.

A courtyard in the Ottoman city of Umm Qais.
Courtyards and gardens brighten up the old village of Umm Qais.
Playing around with the ruins in the courtyard. {Photo by Margaret Campbell}
An attractive alcove off the side of one of the courtyards. The seated goddess of Gadara is likely a statue of Tyche.
Some of the village homes have been restored, with educational information about construction. We liked these cross vaults.
A small but beautiful museum on site showcases some exceptional statues.
Statue of the seated god Zeus was found at Gadara.
One of the on-site attendants checks her phone when no tourists are around.

A short walk out of the village brings you to a phenomenal overlook site, where one can see the Sea of Galilee, bordering Israel, the Golan Heights, and Syria. Ezat said that at night we could see the lights of Damascus from here, and the Israeli cities of Tiberias and Nazareth. Ezat has a friend who works at the site, and his friend came out to meet us. He was able to provide a lot of great information about the site.

Ezat and his friend look out over the valley. You can see the Sea of Galilee, called here the Lake of Tiberias. The ridge in the center is the Golan Heights.
Other people take advantage of this elevated lookout point. Check out dad carrying the little pink backpack.

To my eyes, not enough of Gadara has been excavated, and it looks like someone hasn’t pulled weeds for a couple years. There is certainly enough exposed today to astound a visiting tourist. I believe that the place could be almost as spectacular as Jerash if more money and time were spent there. Since Jordan has one of the smallest and most dependent economies in the Middle East, and since tourism is one of their few income generators, I assume Gadara and Umm Qais will be developed more to make it more attractive to tourists in the future. While there, however, I saw no active projects.

The site is humongous, with long streets and wide courtyards, a theatre, and evidence of what used to be massive waterworks. Ezat’s friend explained, but I didn’t quite understand how it all worked. He did point out cisterns and canals visible on the surface. He explained that Gadara was the end point of a 100-mile (170 km) long water supply system that includes underground sections. I think he said that soon an underground portion of the water tunnel will be available for visitors to see.

Looking down the main street, Decumanus Maximus, of Gadara.
I’m always delighted to find chariot ruts in the stones of ancient cities.
Looking across Gadara toward the Golan Heights and to Israel.
Black columns are unusual. I’m used to the white marble typically used by Roman builders.
Detailed stone work. What skilled artists were here.
Remains of a water channel and holding area.
The weeds have grown high in some places. Some of them, like this bush, should stay. 🙂
Columns line the main street in Gadara.
One of the large open spaces in an attractive shape I haven’t seen in Roman cities before.
This was a wading pool of some kind, or a kind of public bath area you could clean your feet in.

Ezat’s friend was eager to show us a part of Gadara that was usually locked to visitors, but today was open. It is the site of a basilica that was built on top of a Roman mausoleum and a byzantine crypt. Signs at the site indicate that it is possible that during the Byzantine era, the site was famous because of an association of the mausoleum with the miracle of when Jesus cast demons out of two men who had been living in some tombs in Gadara. {Matt 8:28-34} Iron gates were unlocked and open, and steps led into pitch blackness. With cell phone lights we tricked my camera into taking a couple of flash shots in there and it’s in surprisingly sound condition for its age. It takes no stretch of the imagination to visualize each vaulted cubby filled with a sarcophagus. In fact, a few are still here. I can even see why the Byzantines thought two demon-possessed men could live here.

The Roman masouleum with some open sarcophagi.
The vaulted ceiling of the mausoleum remains intact.

We walked the street still lined with stone shops. What would they have sold here – not vegetables in such nice buildings, maybe cloth, or jewelry or things to help with worship like beads or figurines or engravings? Farther down the street we came to the theatre. It is smaller than the theatres in Jerash, but still wonderful.

Commerce district, with stone shops lining the street. There were originally twenty, now eleven of them can be seen. Of those, some of the vaulted ceilings are intact.
Looking back toward a side entrance into the theatre. The long narrow pit behind the stage was unusual to me, but I realize it would have been beneath the stage and could have been a way for actors to move from one side to the other while unseen.
Check out these fancy seats in the top row!
Margaret and me, goofing around. This theatre was one of 3 in Gadara, and could seat around 3000. It was not only for tragedies and dramas, but also for religious and political events, and for jumping tourists. {Photo by Margaret Campbell}

We were ready for a rest from touring, and headed back into the nearby city of Irbid. Ezat explained that this is his home city, and where his mother and brother still live. He asked hesitantly if we would be interested in visiting his home. Of course we would! Then we ran into town and picked up his mother who was laden with bundles, and then picked up his brother, and then went to their large, beautiful apartment where the Haddad family again started laying out a table for us, serving drinks, and entertaining us. It was the second time we had been so honored in Jordan.

The brothers explained that, while they do not drink, they make an exceptional wine that is aged, and only gets better with age. They asked if we would like to try it, and we did. It tastes like a port wine, and I loved it. I bought a bottle to take home with me. It was expensive, but they cut me a deal, and again explained that it had been aged over a decade. Then we sat and chatted and told stories and asked questions of each other. We ate these savory tarts that were filled with onions and something, flavoured with tumeric and something… I don’t remember the details but they were SO GOOD! Ezat’s mother pushed them on us till we were about to burst. After we finished, we said goodbye and Ezat took us back to our hotel in Amman.

Handmade savory tarts, and the always-present olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes.

3 thoughts on “Umm Qais

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