Umm Qais, situated 110 km (68 miles) north of Amman on a broad promontory 378 meters above sea level with a magnificent view over the Yarmouk River, the Golan Heights, and Lake Tiberias, this town was known as Gadara, one of the most brilliant ancient Greco-Roman cities of the Decapolis; and according to the Bible, the spot where Jesus (pbuh) cast out the Devil from two demoniacs (mad men) into a herd of pigs (Mathew 8:28-34).
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.
Soon after, the fortunes of Gadara improved rapidly and building was undertaken on a large scale, carried out for the love of Pompey’s freed man Demetrius, who had been born there.
During these early years of Roman rule, the Nabataeans (with their capital in Petra), controlled the trade routes as far north as Damascus. Unhappy with the competition, Mark Anthony dispatched King Herod the Great to weaken the Nabataeans, who finally gave up their northern interest in 31 BC. In appreciation for his efforts, Rome rewarded Herod with Gadara.
The city reached its peak of prosperity in the 2nd century AD. New colonnaded streets, temples, theaters, and public baths sprouted. Meleagros compared Gadara with Athens, which testifies to the city’s status as a creative center of Hellenism in ancient Near East.
Christianity spread slowly among the inhabitants of Gadara. Starting from the 4th century, its bishop attended the ecclesiastical councils of Nicaea, Chaleedon and Ephesos. Despite his attendance, the city was no longer a seat of learning. During the 6th century, decline set in, and in 636 AD a decisive military clash between Byzantines and Arab Muslims took place not far from Gadara. There is no evidence, however, of widespread destruction in the city.
Umm Qais’s charm still lingers today. A large portion of the western Roman Theater has survived history’s upheavals. Vaulted passageway supports its rows of seats, built of hard basalt stones. A row of elaborately carved seats for dignitaries stand near the orchestra, and in the center was a large headless white marble statue of Tyche, goddess of fortune and of the city, now displayed at the local museum.
Across from the theater is the main colonnaded street (cardo), which was in all likelihood the town’s commercial center. Also, near the black basalt theater is the Terrace, which hosts a courtyard, a church and a basilica. Further west of the Terrace and along the east-west colonnaded street (decumanus), ruins of the Nymphaeum, a bath complex and a well-preserved Roman Mausoleum can be seen. After a few hundred meters one can barely make out remains of what was once a Hippodrome.