THE DECAPOLIS OF JORDAN
Some 2,000 years ago, a confederation of trade centres flourished on the southeastern flank of the Roman Empire. Known collectively as the Decapolis, or "ten cities," in Greek, they emerged from both the earth and the mirage of history. Jerash, lying 35 kilometers (22 miles) north of the Jordanian capital Amman, is one of the best preserved Decapolis. It was known to the Greeks and Romans as Philadelphia. Umm Qais - the Roman Gadara - overlooking the Jordan Rift Valley, the Golan Heights and Lake Tiberias, and Tabaqat Fahl - ancient Pella - in the foothills of the north Jordan Valley, are two other Decapolis cities that are attracting interest because of their beautiful natural settings. But Roman historians have left us with little evidence of how many, and which, cities formed the Decapolis. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scholars viewed the Decapolis as a "confederation" or "league" of free or autonomous Greco-Roman cities, thought to have been formed when Roman General Pompey conquered Syria in 64 B.C. Most of the Decapolis cities were originally established much earlier, however, by the Macedonian settler-soldiers of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms - in the third century B.C. following the conquest of the Middle-East by Alexander the Great. Pliny, the ancient Roman writer, has left us the longest passage about the Decapolis, in his Natural History completed in A.D. 77. He writes: "Adjoining Judea on the side of Syria is the region of the Decapolis, so called from the number of its towns, though not all writers keep to the same list." He lists the Decapolis cities as Damascus, Philadelphia, Raphana, Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippos, Dion, Pella, Gerasa (or as he wrote "Galasa"), and Canatha. The scattered evidence suggests, therefore, that the Decapolis may have been a first-century administrative coalition within the Roman province of Syria. There may well have been formal ties among the 10 like-minded Greco-Roman cities of the Decapolis, and indeed, the number of member cities may have changed over time, as the territory of the Decapolis perhaps expanded. Another theory suggests the Decapolis was a loose association of city-states, their territories intended to be a buffer zone separating the Roman province of Syria to the north, from the Nabatean kingdom and the Arab desert tribes to the south.
What is certain is that the cities of the Decapolis flourished during the first three centuries because of the security provided by the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. Their wealth derived from abundant local agricultural resources, and their strategic locations along one of the most dynamic ancient trade routes. They were scattered near or along the Via Nova Traiana, a new highway built by the Emperor Trajan in A.D. 111-114 to link the port of Aila, modern Aqaba, with Bosra, capital of the province of Arabia. Extending nearly 500 kilometers (311 miles), the Via Nova Traiana has been called "the greatest piece of Roman road-making in the Orient." Portions of it are still well preserved and can be seen throughout Jordan, particularly at Khirbet Samra, northeast of the city of Zerqa. Hence, the magnitude of prosperity along the southeastern flank of the Roman Empire in that era is documented today in the preserved stones and sophisticated urbanism of the former Decapolis cities. But recent excavations at several of the cities have further revealed their history well before and after the Roman era. Though most of them were established as Hellenistic cities in the third century B.C., several Decapolis cities, such as Jerash, Pella and Amman, show evidence of human occupation going back to the Stone Age, between 10,000-6000 B.C. All continued as Byzantine cities in the fourth to seventh centuries and excavations at Amman, Jerash and Pella have revealed flourishing early Islamic cities from the Umayyad era, in the seventh and eighth centuries. Thus, a visit to some of the Decapolis cities provides a satisfactory intellectual journey back through the past 5,000 years of human urban development. Sadly, when regional powers clashed, the route was interrupted, trade dried up, income plummeted, and the cities declined. The same development equation still defines the land of the Decapolis today, as internal issues mixed with the dynamics of regional politics, shape the future social fabric and urban landscapes of modern towns or large cities at almost all the sites of the former Decapolis cities along the Via Nova Traiana.
[Painting Credits: Scenes From the ancient city of Petra, Jordan | Artist: David Roberts, Scottish (1796-1864) ...