Umm Qais or Qays “Mother of Qais” is a town in northern Jordan principally known for its proximity to the ruins of the ancient Gadara. It lies in the extreme northwest of the country, near Jordan’s borders with Israel and Syria. It is perched on a hilltop 378 metres (1,240 ft) above sea level overlooking the Sea of Tiberias, the Golan Heights, and the Yarmouk River gorge.
Umm Qais has another claim to fame as the site where, according to the Bible, Jesus performed one of his greatest miracles: casting demons from two men into a herd of pigs. Since the first millennium, Gadara has resultantly been a Christian place of pilgrimage, though an alternative Israeli site on the eastern shore of Lake Galilee also claims to mark the spot.
The site boasts spectacular views of three countries (Jordan, Syria, and Israel and the Palestinian Territories), encompassing the Golan Heights, Mt Hermon and the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias). Over the past decade or more, Umm Qais has become a rallying point for homesick Palestinians (many of whom are now Jordanian nationals), yearning for a glimpse of their former homeland. The Rest house, a popular restaurant located amid the ruins, is a particular favourite with families congregating to swap stories of the Holy Land.
In ancient times, Gadara was strategically situated, laced by a number of key trading routes connecting Syria and Palestine. It was blessed with fertile soil and abundant rainwater. This town also flourished intellectually in the reign of Augustus and became distinguished for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, university’s scholars, attracting writers, artists, philosophers and poets, the likes of satirist Menippos (2nd half of the 3rd century BC), the epigrammist Meleagros, and the rhetorician Theodoros (14-37 AD). Gadara was also the resort of choice for Romans vacationing in the nearby Himmet Gader Springs.
Archaeological surveys indicate that Gadara was occupied as early as the 7th century BC. The Greek historian, Polybius, described the region as being under Ptolemaic control at the time. The Seleucid ruler Antiochus III conquered it in 218 BC, naming the city Antiochia and Seleucia. In 63 BC, Pompey liberated Gadara and joined it to the Roman league of ten cities, the Decapolis.
During Roman times, Umm Qais was known as Gadara. It reached its peak of prosperity in the 2nd century AD. New colonnaded streets, temples, theaters and baths sprouted. Meleagros compared Gadara with Athens, which testifies to the city’s status as a creative center of Hellenism in the ancient Near East.
Umm Qais was a city of the Decapolis, a loose confederation of cities in the Roman province of Syria. Other members included Philadelphia (Amman), Gerash, and Damascus. Gadara thrived under the Romans, but quickly declined after their empire fell. It was a small village when Islam arrived in the seventh century, and abandoned soon after. Archaeological excavations did not begin until 1982.
The ruins here are not quite as well preserved as those at Jerash. There are two amphitheaters. The Temple of Zeus and a Byzantine church are also fairly intact. The remains of an eighteenth century Ottoman village is located in the southeast corner of the site. Umm Qais’ signature is the unique dark coloring of the stones, a mix of limestone, marble, and basalt. There’s also a visitor’s center and souvenir shop where you can get more information about the ruins.
Entering Umm Qais from the south, the first structure of interest is the well-restored and brooding West Theatre. Constructed from black basalt, it once seated about 3000 people. This is one of two such theatres – the North Theatre is overgrown and missing the original black basalt rocks which were recycled by villagers in other constructions.
The decumanus maximus continues west of the main site for 1km or so, leading to some ruins of limited interest, including baths, mausoleums and gates. Japanese and Iraqi archaeologists are currently excavating here. Most interesting is the basilica built above one of the Roman mausoleums. You can peer down into the subterranean tomb through a hole in the basilica floor. The sarcophagus of Helladis that once lay here can be seen in the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Irbid.
Housed in Beit Russan, a former residence of an Ottoman governor, this modest museum is set around an elegant and tranquil courtyard of fig trees. The main mosaic on display (dating from the 4th century and found in one of the tombs) illustrates the names of early Christian notables. Another highlight is the headless white marble statue of the Hellenic goddess Tyche, which was found sitting in the front row of the West Theatre.
Surrounding the museum are the comprehensive ruins of an Ottoman village dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Two houses, Beit Malkawi (now used as an office for archaeological groups) and the nearby Beit Heshboni, are still intact. An Ottoman mosque and the remains of a girls’ school are also worth a cursory visit if you choose to amble around the derelict lanes.
The remains of this 6th-century church, with an unusual octagonal interior sanctum, are marked today by the remaining basalt columns. The church was destroyed by earthquakes in the 8th century. A bit of imagination is needed to reconstruct the colonnaded courtyard opposite, the western section of which housed a row of shops (the shells of which remain).
West along the decumanus maximus are the overgrown public baths. Built in the 4th century, this would once have been an impressive complex of fountains (like the nearby nymphaeum), statues and baths, though little remains today after various earthquakes.
The main road passing through the site, and still paved to this day, once linked Gadara with other nearby ancient cities such as Abila and Pella. In its heyday, the road extended as far as the Mediterranean coast.
A bit of imagination is needed to reconstruct the colonnaded courtyard opposite the ruins of the Byzantine church. The western section of the courtyard housed a row of shops (the shells of which remain).
Reaching Umm Qais can be a difficult task. It’s located about 110km north of Amman and there is no easy way to get there. You can catch a bus from Irbid, which in turn can be reached from Amman. It’s easiest to hire a taxi, or drive. Umm Qais is definitely worth the trouble, though. The views of the Golan Heights are amazing, and few tourists visit, so there’s a good chance you’ll have the place to yourself.
25km northwest of Irbid.
Open daily 08:00-17:00
m Qays) Site of the famous miracle of the Gadarene swine, Gadara was renowned in its time as a cultural centre. It was the home of several classical poets and philosophers, including Theodorus, founder of a rhetorical school in Rome, and was once called “a new Athens” by a poet. Perched on a splendid hilltop overlooking the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee, Gadara is known today as Umm Qays, and boasts an impressive colonnaded street, a vaulted terrace, and the ruins of two theatres. You can take in the sights and then dine on the terrace of a fine restaurant with a breathtaking view.