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9-11. The Decapolis

Decapolis is an ancient term used to describe a group of supposedly ten cities that co-existed during the Roman period. Eight were located on the eastern side of the River Jordan, one was in northern Israel and one in Syria. Despite the term “Decapolis” (Greek: deka, ten; polis, city), the number of cities in this treaty is actually uncertain.

The Roman historian Pliny the Elder (Natural History 5, 16, 74), lists the ten cities as: Gerasa (Jerash); Nyse-Scythopolis (Beit-Shean); Hippos-Sussita; Gadara (UmmQays); Pella (Pahal); Philadelphia (modern Amman); Dion; Canatha; Raphana (Abila); and Damascus.

Map of the Decapolis

Map of the Decapolis © Nichalp, Wikimedia Creative Commons

However, Ptolemy, a later Roman geographer, lists 18 cities as members of the Decapolis. Perhaps the league began with ten cities, and other cities joined it later. It was probably the conquest of the region by the Roman general Pompey, in 63 BCE that led to the founding of the Decapolis. Some of these cities based their calendar on this event and used 63 BCE as their foundation year. This calendar is also known as the Pompeian era. The Roman motivation is clear: wanting to spread Roman culture in their provinces, the Roman legions encouraged the growth and prosperity of pro-Roman pagan cities. They sponsored buildings in the Roman style, including numerous temples and public buildings. They probably also granted the cities some political autonomy and various financial incentives. Each city functioned as a polis(city-state), with jurisdiction over an area of its surrounding countryside. All the Decapolis cities also minted their own coins. The cities may also have enjoyed strong commercial ties, fostered by a network of new Roman roads. This led to the common idea today that they formed a federation or league. But the Decapolis was probably never an official political or economic union; But it not really attested in any historical records. Most likely it signified the collection of city-states that enjoyed special autonomy during early Roman rule.

Two cities of the Decapolis are within the boundaries of the modern State of Israel – Hyppos-Sussita, and Nyse-Scythopolis (Beth-Shean).

Hippos-Sussita

Ancient Hippos-Sussita is on top of an elliptic-shaped hill, 350 m above the Sea of Galilee. The Greeks called the city “Hippos”, which means “Horse”, perhaps because its top resembles a head of horse. That is also the meaning of its Aramaic name – “Sussita”.

The site was identified in 1883, and since 2000 large scale excavations are carried at the site by a joint expedition of Israeli, Polish, and an American team.

The city was founded in 200 BC when the Seleucids seized the area from the Ptolemies. It became a member of the Decapolis during the Roman era and was always a center of Greko-Roman culture. Although close to Jewish areas, the city was never popular with Jews and by the 5th cent CE Hippos was largely a Christian city, with five churches.

The city was destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 749 CE and never rebuilt. Excavations so far have uncovered the full 650-metre-length of the main street (Decumanos). In its center was the forum, where a temple dedicated to the worship of the emperor was placed. The city was surrounded by a massive fortification wall, still visible today, and entered through two gates, one on the east, the other on the west.

Nyse-Scythopolis (Beth-Shean)

Nyse-Scythopolis was the Greek name of Biblical Beth-Shean, which was inhabited continuously since the Neolithic period (8th millennia BCE).

The ruins of Biblical Beth-shean are on top of a prominent tell overlooking the Greek and Roman ruins. In the Roman city archaeologists have uncovered a large theatre seating 5,000 and nearby a Byzantine bath-house covering 1.5 acres. The colonnaded Byzantine street, paved with black basalt slabs, runs from the theatre to the base of the tell. The street was lined with shops and flanked by 6m wide footpaths. Temples stood at the end of the street, and close by a nymphaeum and a Basilica were constructed. South of the city center the Romans built a Hippodrome, later transformed to an oval amphitheatre for gladiatorial and hunting contests. Scythopolis too was devastated by the 749 CE earth quake, and later settled only periodically. Today the exposed impressive remains of the city are a popular tourist destination.

Philadeliphia (Amman).

The most famous city of the Decapolis is perhaps Philadelphia, Today’s Amman, capital of Jordan. The city was named after Ptolemy II Philadelphus (281-246 BCE). Roman period remains can still be seen in the various parts of the city. A street of Roman columns leads to a large theatre while above is the Citadel, bearing remains of a Roman Temple, a Byzantine church, an Ummayad palace, and an archaeological museum.

A colonnaded street in Amman, Jordan, dating from Roman times when the city was known as Philadelphia

A colonnaded street in Amman, Jordan, dating from Roman times when the city was known as Philadelphia

Gadara and Gerasa.

The term “Decapolis” is mentioned three times in the New Testament (Matt 4:25; Mark 5:20; Mark 7:31). Only the last mentions Jesus, recording that he went “through … the region of the Decapolis.” Only two of the cities are named in the Gospels. According to Matthew, the miracle of the swine took place, “in the region of theGadarenes” (Matt 8:28), referring to the city of Gadara, a member of the Decapolis. But in the parallel description by Mark, the event took place in “the region of theGerasenes” (Mark 5:1; cf Luke 8:26, 37 “Gergesenes”). This was probably Gerasa, also a member of the Decapolis.

Gadara is identified as Umm Qays, in northern Jordan, close to the border with Israel and Syria. It developed during the Greco-Roman period and the remains include two theatres, a temple, a basilica, a nymphaeum (a public fountain), a mausoleum, a hippodrome and a double colonnaded street. The city was a cultural center and the home town of philosophers, rhetoricians, scientists and poets.

Hamat Gader

Gadara was also the resort of choice for Romans vacationing in the nearby Hammat Gader Hot springs, which is today in Israel. The impressive remains of the Roman-Byzantine spa complex were excavated by Y. Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University, and are were partially restored.

A view of the central pool of Hamar Gader, the Spa of ancient Gadara

A view of the central pool of Hamar Gader, the Spa of ancient Gadara

Gerasa, now known as Jerash, is 45 km north of Amman and about 30 km from the Jordan River. The site was inhabited in the Canannite period but most of its visible remains today are of Roman construction. Archaeologists have excavated the well-preserved intersecting streets, a unique oval forum, two theatres, two immense temples (one to Zeus, the other to Artemis), a basilica, a nymphaeum, baths and a Christian cathedral.

The first-century AD south theatre of Jerash, the ancient city of Gerasa

The first-century AD south theatre of Jerash, the ancient city of Gerasa

Damascus

The northern most city of the Decapolis was Damascus, which is also documented in the Book of Acts. Paul, a violent persecutor of early Christians, received a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, which lead to his conversion to the Christian faith (Acts 9:1-24). Blinded, he was led by the hand into Damascus where he lodged in the “house of Judas, on Straight Street” (Acts 9:11). Ananias, a Christian believer residing in Damascus, was directed in a vision to heal Paul, and so he regained sight.Damascus has been continuously inhabited since Prehistoric times and today is the capital of Syria, with approximately 4.5 million residents. In the Roman period it was a major caravan city, with trade routes from southern Arabia, Palmyra and Petra. Since the city is still inhabited, it is very difficult to excavate in it. Although the remains from the Roman period lie about 5 meters below the current street level, the ancient street plan is preserved. The “Straight Street” was most likely the decumanos, the main street of the Roman city on a west-east axis.

Its alignment can still be seen in the street of Bab Sharqi and the Souk Medhat Pasha. Indeed a few remains from the Roman period have been found along the street, as well as at the gate at the eastern end of the street.  Christian tradition also identifies the cellar of the house of Ananias at a site close to the gate.

The “Straight Street” was the main street of the Roman city of Damascus

The “Straight Street” was the main street of the Roman city of Damascus. It still runs in a straight line through the oldest part of the city. (C) Archaeological Diggings.

Pella

Pella, another city of the Decapolis, is not mentioned in the New Testament but plays an important role in early Christian history. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, the late 3rd cent CE Christian scholar and historian, Pella was the refuge for Christians who fled the Great Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE). Pella is identified at Tabakat Pahal,65 km north of Amman, and 5 km from the Jordan River. The site has been excavated since 1978 by the University of Sydney. The remains show that the site was inhabited continuously since prehistory. The remains from the Roman and Byzantine periods include a small theatre (Odeon) and two churches.

The excavated and partially restored Byzantine church in Pella.

The excavated and partially restored Byzantine church in Pella.

Canatha

The other cities of the Decapolis include Canatha, near the village of El-Qanawat. Built at an elevation of 1250 m (4100 feet) near a river, the magnificent ruins cover an area over a square kilometer. They include a Roman bridge and a rock-hewn theatre with nine tiers of seats. The city also had a beautiful nymphaeum, an aqueduct and a large temple to Helios the sun-god, decorated with portico and colonnades. Another 4th century temple was later converted into a Christian church.

Raphana – Abila

The next city, Raphana (also known as Abila), is believed to lie north of Umm Qays. Excavations indicate the site was inhabited in the Early Bronze age and has been continuously occupied ever since. Several ancient structures have been excavated including an aqueduct, several tombs, a gate and public buildings. However most of the city remains unexcavated. The city was the base camp of the Roman legions Legio III Gallica and of Legio XII Fulminata.

Dion

The exact location of the city of Dion  is still disputed, but is thought to be at the site of Beit Ras, in northern Jordan. Scattered ruins mark the presumed site, including some tombs, vaults, cisterns and traces of foundation walls.