From Jerash, we “backtracked” northwest into the very tip of the Jordanian map. The site to be visited: Umm Quais. Umm Quais used to go by the name Gedara, and it was one of the ten cities comprising the Decapolis. From the peak of these ruins, some Roman but more Byzantine built on top of the Roman, one could see the east side of the Sea of Galilee, the northern stretch of the Jordan Valley, and the peaks and plateaus of the Golan Heights. Biblical connections aside, it was a lovely landscape. It is also one of the areas that gets plenty of mention in any present-day discussion on the Palestine-Israel conflict.
After our Jordanian guide Rami showed us around, we sat down in a shady corner of the outdoor museum as Dr. Paul shared some thoughts. On an aside, our guide Rami’s middle name is Issa, which is the Arabic name for Jesus. He is a Christian, as well as a very charismatic young man, skilled in English and well-trained as a guide. Charles says that he’s apparently “a rising star” in Jordanian guide circles, and I wouldn’t doubt that it’s true.
On a further aside, let me return to our Syrian guide, Hanna. We were also quite impressed with him. As we moved along our itinerary, he was warmly greeted everywhere we went. This pattern really isn’t unusual to observe on a tour, as you assume that guides have circles of connections and what-not. Then one day, another guide told us that Hanna was the “king of the guides”. His more accurate meaning was that Hanna was the teacher of the guides. Literally. Hanna teaches at a university as one of the key instructors that upcoming tour guides study under. He is essentially one of Syria’s tourism forefathers! And once again, I was reminded that Charles’ itineraries are first-rate and excellent in every way. We nearly always get the best, or as close to it as possible!
So back to the shade in Gedara. The place most interestingly shows up in Matthew 8, when the locals greet Jesus as he arrives on their shore. Also “greeting” Jesus is a man possessed by a demon. He lived among the tombs as a “madman”. And we learn that he wasn’t merely demon-possessed. More accurately, he was many-demon-possessed. There was a legion of evil within him. As a result of a bizarre negotiation between the demons and the Christ, the legion is sent into a nearby herd of pigs, which are driven mad and to their deaths as they plunged over a cliff and into the water.
For the record, I did not see any pig-prints or fossilized curly tails. Not even a floating ham! But it never fails to strike me as wonderfully wild to hear the story with my ears while I see the place with my eyes! I could have likely sat and lingered for a while. But as the locals asked Jesus to leave, Rami gave us the word that it was time to board the bus. There were ten cities in the Decapolis, and we had two more of them waiting for us.
The second was Pella, which my map indicated as shockingly close to Beit She’an, one of the most unforgettable sites we visited in Israel two years ago. It was just across the Jordan Valley from where we sat today. From a hilltop café balcony, we sipped a local treat of freshly squeezed lemon juice with mint leaves. Below, a few Roman ruins, modest by some standards, had been excavated. Pella gets no explicit biblical mention as far as I can tell, but it certainly would have been within the realm of Jesus’ ministry. Beyond that, Dr. Paul shared some post-biblical history that is, at the least, intriguing.
From 66-70 AD, the Jews revolted against Rome. Initially, they tasted of victory, and optimism about independence grew. But it was not to be. In 70 AD, Jerusalem was taken, the Temple was destroyed, and the Jews were banished. Devastation is not a strong enough word.
In the 4th century, an historian named Eusebius was looking back on those events. In speaking of the Christians in Jerusalem, he referred to an oracle that they received. It was a warning before the Roman siege that warned them of the impending disaster. In response to this oracle, a group of Jewish Christians fled from Jerusalem, taking refuge in Pella. Many wonder if “the oracle” isn’t a reference to Jesus’ warnings, now recorded in Mark 13 (also in Matthew and Luke). At that point in time, the written gospels wouldn’t have existed. But, no doubt, Jesus’ teachings were circulating orally. Oracle? That’s what he said. Possible? Maybe. Strange? Yeah, a bit. The flip-side of the coin is that most of our Bible’s text comes as a result of events like visions, revelations, or “oracles”. There’s an irony that we who love and trust our leather-bound books struggle so greatly to accept many of the means by which they came to us. I know, we might say that times have changed. God doesn’t speak in those ways anymore. But four words have rooted themselves in my mind over the past decade or so: “I’m not so sure.” But that might be a post for another day, for we weren’t finished with the Decapolis just yet.
Jerash was described by Charles as “a mega-site”. I say that it qualifies for that title. Located right within the modern city of Jerash, the ruins of this impressive ancient centre can provide hours of exploration.
Known in Greco-Roman times as Gerasa, it may have been home to 20 000 citizens in its heyday, fuelled more by great agriculture than trade routes. The city goes all the way back to 333 BC, when it was founded by Alexander the Great, but the later Roman era was when the city really hit its stride. It established great trade with the Nabateans (based out of Petra) and grew very wealthy.
The highlights of our visit included:
1) Hadrian’s Arch: It was built to honour the visiting Emperor in 129 AD. It’s imposting today at 13 metres, though it was originally twice that high.
2) Hippodrome: Right inside the arch is the hippodrome. What’s a hippodrome? If you’ve seen Ben-Hur, then you know. It’s those long stadium-type structures where horses or chariots would race around a wall located in the middle of the “oval”. Such buildings also hosted gladiator battles. This hippodrome apparently seated 15 000 spectators in back in the day, making it the smallest hippodrome in the Roman Empire.
3) Lunch: A delicious spread of salads, rice, and chicken. It also featured Jordanian bread fresh from the stove (I was watching the fellow make it) with the best hummus I’ve had so far on this trip. Throw in a cold Pepsi and shade from the noonday sun, and it was truly a treat.
4) Forum: This circular column-surrounded area would have been the centre of down for Jerash’s social and political life. For all the Roman ruins I’ve seen, I’d never seen a Forum like this. Quite beautiful—and it took me back to my younger years of computer gaming as I build my digital empire on “Caesar II”.
5) Temples: The primary temple in town was dedicated to Artemis, and it was gigantic! Zeus had a temple too, but it hardly garnered a look compared to Artemis’. Build between 150-170 AD, Artemis’ temple was flanked by twelve enormous columns—eleven of which are still standing. As impressive as one can tell that this temple ONCE was, it was largely dismantled in 386 AD in an effort to promote Christianity in what had just become the “Holy Roman Empire”. Later, in the 12th century, it acted a base for both Arabs and Crusaders at different points in the Crusades.
An hour-long bus ride placed us at our hotel in Amman, Jordan’s capital city of nearly two million residents. Our hotel for the next two nights is one of the nicest we’ve been in thus far, and our early arrival allowed me time to find a nearby supermarket (I’m drinking mango juice right now) and catch up on my journal before supper (now in ten minutes’ time).
Internet here is fairly costly, but once supper has finished, I’m going to pony up the dough and make the most of it for some emailing, blogging, and HOPEFULLY some conversation with my two lovely girls back home!
As I closed that paragraph, the Muslim prayer call began outside my window. I will take that as my cue to pray… and head to dinner gratefully.