The modern town of Umm Qais is the site of the ancient Greco-Roman town of Gadara, one of the cities of the Decapolis and, according to the Bible, the place where Jesus cast out the devil from two men into a herd of pigs (Matthew 8: 28-34). Rising 518 meters above sea level with views of Lake Tiberias and the Golan Heights, there is no better vantage point in northern Jordan than Umm Qais.
Gadara was renowned for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, attracting an array of writers, artists, philosophers and poets. It also served as a resort for Romans vacationing in the nearby al-Hemma hot springs. Like Pella, its sister Decapolis city, Gadara was blessed with fertile soil, abundant water, and a location astride a number of key trading routes connecting Asia and Europe.
The city was probably founded by the Greeks during the fourth century BCE. Gadara was overrun by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III in 218 BCE. When the Romans under Pompey conquered the East and formed the Decapolis, the fortunes of Gadara, taken in 63 BCE, improved rapidly and building was undertaken on a large scale. During the early part of Roman rule, the Nabateans (with their capital at Petra) controlled the trade routes as far north as Damascus. Aiming to put an end to this competition, Mark Antony sent King Herod the Great to weaken the Nabateans, who finally gave up their northern interests in 31 BCE. In appreciation for his efforts, Rome rewarded Herod with Gadara. The city remained under Herod’s rule until his death, and then reverted to semi-autonomy as part of the Roman province of Syria.
The Byzantine era witnessed the decline of Gadara into relative obscurity. Earthquakes destroyed many buildings, and by the dawn of the Islamic era Gadara had become just another village. The town became known by the Arabic Umm Qais during the Middle Ages.
Today, a considerable portion of the original Roman amphitheater has survived. The seats face west, and are brought to life at sunset. Covered passageways stand in the back, and until recently, a six-foot headless white marble goddess sat at the foot of one of the amphitheater’s internal staircases. The statue—thought to be of Tyche, the patron goddess of Gadara—can now be seen in Umm Qais’ archeological museum. The museum, which also houses a Byzantine mosaic frieze and a marble sarcophagus, is open from 08:00-17:00 in summer, and in winter from 08:00-16:00, every day except Tuesday. No charge is required.
Next to the theater is a colonnaded street that was once probably the town’s commercial center. Also near the black basalt theater are the columns of the great Basilica of Gadara. Further west along the colonnaded street are a mausoleum and public baths. After a few hundred meters you can barely make out the remains of what once was a hippodrome.
Meals are available in Umm Qais, but as yet there is no overnight accommodation. This should not present a problem, however, as the city is only 30 kilometers orthwest of Irbid and 120 kilometers from Amman.