Jordan’s Umm Qais an attraction off the beaten track
Amman - Off the beaten track, in the north-western tip of Jordan’s borders with Israel and Syria, are the ruins of the Decapolis city of Gadara, which has been known as Umm Qais since the Middle Ages.
Situated on a ridge in a defensible position, naturally protected by steep inclines on three sides and only accessible on its eastern side, Gadara is378 metres above sea level on hills above the Jordan valley, overlooking Lake Tiberias, the Golan Heights and the Yarmouk river gorge.
In 218BC, the Greek historian Polybius described Gadara as being the “strongest of all places in the region” but it nonetheless fell shortly thereafter to Seleucid King Antiochus III of Syria.
Gadara’s main draw is its spectacular panoramic view of Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Syria. Its long and rich history adds to its charm.
“Oh my God, Umm Qais has a wonderful feel to it,” said Svetlana Bourenskaya, a Russian tour leader. “It has the most magnificent grand view that I have seen in this whole region. It makes one imagine the days gone by and one truly feels uplifted from the experience.”
Russian groups visiting the site “just loved it” though the place needed better facilities, such as more washrooms, restaurants and coffee shops, Bourenskaya added.
Umm Qais is divided into two parts: a new village inhabited by 7,000 people and an historic part with remarkable Roman ruins standing together with the striking houses of black basalt and white limestone of an abandoned Ottoman village.
Outside the tourist area, Jordan retrieved lands — mostly plantations — in Umm Qais from Israel under a 1994 peace treaty. The accord ended Israel’s occupation of the area that began following the 1967 Middle East War.
“It was a rightful step that restored our sovereignty over Jordanian territory that had been occupied,” said Abdelsalam Majali, a former Jordanian prime minister whose government negotiated the accord with Israel.
“Peace allowed us to open the area for tourism,” Majali said.
Umm Qais has been a Christian pilgrimage destination. It is, tradition says, where Jesus cast out the devil from two people into a herd of pigs (Matthew 8:28-34) “in the country of the Gadarenes”, which has often been associated with Gadara.
A series of earthquakes around the year 747 destroyed much of Gadara’s infrastructure. Ultimately, the city was abandoned. In 1806, German explorer Ulrich Seetzen identified the ruins as those of Gadara.
Excavations began in 1974 and uncovered many remains, including a colonnaded street, a theatre, a mausoleum and a Byzantine church. In 2004 Gadara was found to have had a 170-km Roman aqueduct.
During Ottoman rule in the 1890s, a village began to flourish on the Roman ruins, with inhabitants reusing the already cut stones in the area to build their homes around the courtyards.
In 1986, the 1,500 inhabitants accepted payment from the Ministry of Tourism to leave their homes so archaeologists could excavate the site. Since then not a single centimetre of village land has been cleared due to budget constraints.
Instead the Ministry of Tourism backed a project to convert the Ottoman cottages into a tourist village and chalet-style hotel in the mid- 1990s, starting with a rest house and museum but once again only a handful of houses were renovated.
Tour guide Mohammad Abdo said the site deserves more tourists, noting that “the numbers have dropped due to all the tension in the region”.
Tourism Ministry data show a drop in the number of tourists to the site from 132,884 to 119,736 between January and July 2015, compared with the same period in 2014.
As visitors approach the ancient site at the western edge of the modern village of Umm Qais, two Roman tombs in a hollow lead the way to the grounds.
At the site, the main paved Roman street runs from east to west leading into the abandoned Ottoman village, where one can wander freely in and out of the many courtyards and alleys. Furrows in the paved road were made by wheels of ancient vehicles.
The street leads to the haunting West Theatre, built entirely of basalt, which has essentially survived the test of time. In the theatre’s centre used to be a large headless white marble statue of Tyche, the goddess of fortune and prosperity of a city in Greek mythology. The figure is on display at the site’s museum.
North of the theatre is the village’s most striking area, the Basilica Terrace, cut into the bedrock on one side and from the other side supported by vaulted shops, which hosts a courtyard, a square Byzantine fifth- or sixth-century church and a basilica.
The site’s museum, which is the former residence of the Ottoman governor, rests on the top of the hill in an elegant two-storey building, with an internal courtyard. With its hippodrome and partly reconstructed monumental gateway, the site is designed to impress.
“We are sure to bring more people to this delightful site and to Jordan as a whole but I hope the country and the site realise that bringing in more tourists entails upgrading services,” Bourenskaya said.
The daunting fact is that what one sees above ground is only a small part of Gadara, which in ancient times extended for a kilometre westward from the Basilica Terrace, yet remains largely unexcavated and unrestored.