Gadara PDF Print E-mail
Written by Micah Key and Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Water from afar
"Athens of the East"
Demons into Swine
Perched 1800 feet above the Lake of Galilee, six miles south of its southern shore, is a collection of tumbled ruins known to locals as Umm Qais. Here was the city of Gadara. The name is probably related to the Semitic root for “fence” or “border.” The site does indeed mark a natural border. While linking the two international highways, the King's Highway and the Great Trunk Road, it also has 1800-foot slopes for defense on the west (the Jordan Valley) and the north (the Yarmuk River), as well as the slope down to Wadi al-'Arab on the south. In peacetime, ascent and descent were no great problem on horseback, so Gadara possessed extensions below: a harbor on the lake and, from the 2nd century BC, hot mineral baths on the Yarmuk at a place now known as Hamat Gader. Today, in addition to its monuments, the site offers grand panoramas over Israel, Jordan and Syria.

Gadara and Lake of Galilee

Here you can see its strategic position linking the highways:

The Roman North (map)

And here is a tilted view, closer in:

Gadara: tilted satellite view

And now still closer. Note the steep slopes on the north and south. On the west there is a fertile plateau, followed by a steep descent to the Jordan Valley.

A satellite close-up, tilted. This may take a minute.

Attracted by the strategic position, the Ptolemies established the first settlement here, which received a wall around 200 BC. This may have been built as preparation for war with the Seleucids, who, with the help of battle elephants, took both sides of the Jordan from the Ptolemies at about that time. Much of the wall can be traced today for about two miles. The original fortress-settlement continued to determine the basic shape of the city center.

In 167 BC, the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes offended Jewish religious sensibilities, provoking the Maccabean revolt. Gadara held out for decades. Only around 100 BC did the Hasmonean Alexander Jannaeus take the city after a siege of ten months.    

When the Roman general Pompey conquered the region in 64 BC, he restored Gadara to local rule. The grateful citizens adopted a new calendar dating from his edict. Independence did not last long, however. In 30 BC Augustus awarded the region to Herod. After chafing under his rule for a decade, the Gadarenes complained to the emperor. Their petition was denied. Expecting a dose of Herodian wrath, some slit their throats or jumped from one of the precipices. After Herod's death in 4 BC, however, the city was again awarded its independence, becoming part of the Decapolis.

Aerial of Gadara from NNW

The Achilles' heel of Gadara was water. The first inhabitants dug and plastered cisterns. There are at least 70 within the city center, ranging in capacity from 6 cubic meters to 450. (The Kingdom of Jordan plans to create a shaded panoramic walk among some of them, with opportunities to get wet.) Assuming an average yearly rainfall of 19 inches, archaeologists estimate that the cisterns would have supplied enough for 2100 people. There were also three modest springs nearby. (Source)

The concept must have changed radically when Gadara hitched its destiny to Rome. Any self-respecting Roman metropolis had to have public baths and fountains. An average Roman urbanite used 400 liters daily, according to engineer Matthias Döring (for comparison, the average German urbanite today uses 150). It was probably after Pompey, therefore, that the Gadarenes tunneled through limestone to a spring called 'Ain Turab 7 miles away. Dependent on gravity, the tunnel twisted and turned to avoid intervening valleys, so that its actual length was 13 miles.

That much tunneling through limestone is incredible. But even this was not enough, apparently, to meet Gadara's Roman ambitions. The city was to become the goal of an underground water tunnel 58 miles long.

This second tunnel, by far the longest known in the ancient world, could have had its start during any of several building surges among the Decapolis cities. The first post-Pompeian surge came under Vespasian (69-79 AD), whose trusted officer Traianus paved a road from Palmyra to the Euphrates, enabling better commerce with Mesopotamia and India . His son Trajan, emperor from 98 until 117, continued this effort; after annexing the Nabataean kingdom in 106, he built the famous Via Nova Traiana from the Red Sea to Bostra. His successor, Hadrian, wintered in the Decapolis around 130 AD, granting privileges to its cities. Much of the monumental construction stems from this time.

After Christianity established itself in the region under the Byzantines, Gadara became a bishopric. As such it had a part in the councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon and Ephesus. The Byzantine church and the baths date from this time (see the next section).

When the Muslims won the Battle of the Yarmuk in 636, driving the Byzantines out of the land for ever, Gadara continued to prosper. It was brought down by the  earthquake of 749, which destroyed many other cities in the Jordan Valley and beyond, including Tiberias and Scythopolis . The survivors abandoned the fallen structures for less distinguished but safer localities. Weeds took over the city of philosophers.

In 1806, Ulrich Seetzen, a German explorer, identified the ruins as ancient Gadara.