By W. Harold Mare, Ph.D.
Director, Abila Excavations
Professor, Covenant Theological Seminary
St. Louis, Missouri
Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the
Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis (Mark 7:31).
Abila (Quailibah, the modern name) in northern Jordan, just east of the
southern end of the Sea of Galilee, is located about 13 kilometers north
and slightly northeast of the modern city of Irbid. The site is composed
of two hills (known as “tells,” mounds built up largely of ancient human
remains over a period of 5500 years, from about 4000 B.C. to A.D.
1500)—a northern one named Tell Abila and a southern tell named Khirbet
Umm el ‘Amad (“Mother of the Columns” in Arabic)—with a lower saddle
area between them. Beginning with a survey in 1980 and continuing
usually every other year (sometimes every year) from 1982 to 2000, Dr.
W. Harold Mare, Professor at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis,
Missouri and Director of the Abila Archaeological Project and his teams
have excavated at Abila, uncovering many fascinating objects, artifacts,
and structural remains that have added considerably to our understanding
of life in the ancient Near East from before the Old Testament period
and beyond New Testament times.
When the survey and excavation started in 1980 and 1982, Dr. Mare and
his staff saw on a part of Umm el ‘Amad the scattered columns of what
was thought to be an ancient temple, but which, on excavation, turned
out to be a seventh- to eighth-century A.D. Christian church. On the
northern edge of this sector the excavators saw the cavea of the Graeco-Roman
“theater” which bordered the south edge of the central saddle. Part of a
wall ran north across this central saddle toward Tell Abila; building
ruins were also seen in the saddle area. To the west of the “theater,”
north of the seventh-/eighth-century church ruins, was an olive orchard,
on the north edge of which were ruins of the west “bridge” or vault over
a gate that was part of the north-south road which, in Roman times, was
called the Cardo Maximus.
Along the south crest of Tell Abila were the
remains of an ancient wall which, when excavated, turned out to be the
acropolis wall of the city, originally constructed in the Iron Age
(1200-586 B.C.) and added to in the Hellenistic/Greek and Roman periods.
On the top of Tell Abila in its south sector were seen ruins of what at
first was designated as a “public building,” but on excavation turned
out to be a three-apsed sixth-century A.D. Christian basilica. Over
toward the northeast slope of the tell was found a small semi-circular
cavea that may be the remains of an ancient music hall (called in Greek
an “Odeon”) similar to the one in the marketplace of ancient Athens.
Numerous other ruins on the top of Tell Abila, when finally excavated
from 1982 to 2000, included walls, buildings, and other structures going
back to 3000 B.C. through the Islamic, Byzantine, Roman, Greek, Iron,
and Bronze ages. In addition, the excavation of tombs and tomb complexes
in Abila’s extensive cemetery has brought to light much cultural
information about the lives of the people who inhabited the site from
the Bronze Age through the Byzantine period.
||“Abila” in Greek, is inscribed on
the second line of this stone excavated on Tell Abila in 1984.
Tell Abila is bordered on the north by Wadi (Valley) Abila, and both
Tell Abila and Khirbet Umm el ‘Amad are bordered on the east by Wadi
Quailibah. The cemetery areas for the site of Abila (probably including
as many as 1000 tombs and tomb complexes; we have excavated over 100 of
these so far) run along the slopes of Wadi Quailibah, extending to the
south of Khirbet Umm el ‘Amad about three-fourths of a kilometer, then
southwest around the wadi to a perennial spring, Ain Quailibah. The
waters of this spring run north in Wadi Quailibah to Abila where the
excess has helped water a large grove of pomegranate trees. The water
continues to flow north in Wadi Quailibah under the ancient stone bridge
which connected Abila with its eastern extremity and also with cities
and communities to the east and then flows on to the Yarmouk River about
5.3 kilometers north of Abila. The Yarmouk River flows west to empty
into the Jordan River just below the Sea of Galilee. Further cemetery
areas are found east and northeast of Tell Abila along the slopes of
Wadi Quailibah and along the slope of Wadi Abila on the north of Tell
In addition to the discoveries described above, over the course of
surveying and excavation from 1980 to 2000, the Abila teams have
excavated five Christian churches, a Byzantine shrine, an Islamic
fortress-palace, an extensive underground aqueduct system that brought
water to the center of Abila and to its Roman bath house and nymphaeum,
an ancient olive press, a Roman villa, and other structures.
Although the evidence from the 1980 survey and subsequent excavations
have clearly shown that the archaeological history of Abila extends from
Islamic and Byzantine times at least as far back as the Early Bronze
period, the ancient written sources focus attention particularly on one
part of that history—the site’s importance in the Hellenistic/Greek,
Roman, and later periods, but especially on its connection with the
cities of the Decapolis.
What is the Decapolis?
The meaning and significance of the term “Decapolis” and the cities
associated with it have long intrigued scholars. Linguistically and
etymologically the term Decapolis (Δεκάπολις) means “ten cities,” but
according to ancient sources the number of cities in the group known as
the Decapolis varied from ten to eighteen or nineteen. Pliny, in his
Natural History (5, 74) under the heading “Decapolis,” lists Damascus,
Philadelphia, Raphana, Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippos, Dion, Pella, Galasa
(i.e., Gerasa), and Canatha; he then mentions what he calls Tetrarchies
(kingdoms), listing among them Trachonitis, Panias (“in which is
Caesarea with the aforesaid spring”), Abila, etc. Inasmuch as this Abila
is mentioned in connection with Trachonitis and Paias-Caesarea, both
located in the north of the Palestine area near the Sea of Galilee, it
is likely that Pliny is referring to the Abila near Gadara and
Capitolias and not the Abila located farther south in Peraea near Livias,
nor the Abila of Lysanias located west and north of Damascus.
Pliny then goes on to suggest (Natural History 5, 74) that not all
writers include the same cities in their lists when referring to the Decapolis. Evidence of this is seen in the list given in the second
century A.D. by the geographer Ptolemy (Geography, 5, 14, 22) who, while
omitting Raphana, includes the other nine cities mentioned by Pliny and
adds nine more of his own, as follows: Heliopolis (presumably Baalbek),
Abila (Quailibah; our Abila), Saana (Sanamyn), Ina, Abila of Lysanias
(near Damascus), Capitolias (Beit Ras), Adra (Edrei, Der’a), Gadora, and
Samoulis. This makes a total of nineteen cities, counting Raphana; but
if Raphana is the same as Capitolias, as some have argued, then there
are at least eighteen cities that were regarded as being part of the Decapolis. In light of these lists, we posit that the Decapolis group
was located geographically east of the Jordan River and the Sea of
Galilee (except for Nysa-Scythopolis at Beth-Shan on the West Bank) in
Transjordan and ancient Syria.
Proposed Plan of Ancient Abila
Chronologically, the Decapolis cities seem to have come into existence
as such during the time of Hellenization following the conquests of
Alexander the Great. Spijkerman comments:
Both the more ancient cities, and the newer ones founded in the Persian
period (such as Gadara, Hippos, Gerasa, Abila, Dium, Capitolias) revived
as political centers of the region at the time when Hellenism appeared
and attempted, through its policy of urbanization, to deeply permeate
the century-old oriental milieu, so radically different both culturally
and religiously. From that time on the history of the cities became the
history of the region. They became πόλεις ‘Ελληνίδες, that is,
city-states with a republic constitution patterned on the Greek model:
though theoretically they were autonomous and territorially independent,
within the general framework of the Seleucid or Ptolemaic empire.
This Hellenistic urbanization of the region began in the north where we
find certain cities like Gerasa, Pella, Capitolias and Dium claiming to
have had Alexander the Great as their founder! In reality the first
foundations which can be documented are of the Ptolemaic epoch like
Philadelphia-Amman and Nysa-Scythopolis.
Those Decapolis cities other than the ones mentioned above seem to have
been founded as such a little later, following the Battle of Panias in
198 B.C., when the Seleucids of Antioch finally conquered the Ptolemaic
empire of Egypt and the Decapolis region passed into Seleucid control.
Yet despite this control, the Decapolis cities seem to have had some
sort of autonomy similar to other small autonomous states such as Iturea,
Nabatea, and Judea, which appear to have arisen at least partly as units
of political opposition to an area that was considered to be a center of
foreign influence and power. Further evidence for this autonomy is seen
in the fact that Judea, under the Hasmonean priest-kings, apparently
perceiving the Decapolis cities as a political threat, conquered many of
Though the existence and significance of the Decapolis region is well
attested, the nature of this group of cities is largely unknown. Was it
some kind of a confederation tied together by political, military,
economic, social, and religious bonds or some combination thereof?
Certainty on this is not possible. What we do know for sure is that by
the time of the Roman conquest in 64/63 B.C. the Decapolis cities
constituted a distinct unity as far as their geographical area was
concerned. And by New Testament times this region seems to have been
flourishing, as evidenced by the references to the group (but not to
individual cities within the group) in the Gospels (that is,
specifically Matthew 4:25, Mark 5:20, and Mark 7:31)
History Waiting to be Uncovered
In the light of the literary and archaeological history of Abila and the
other cities of the Decapolis region—a history that covers the pre-Old
Testament, Old Testament, New Testament, Early Church, and Islamic
periods—continued excavation in this region is essential for a fuller
understanding of these cities and the roles they played in each of these
We invite anyone with an interest in such an endeavor to join us for our
Abila 2004 Excavation, set for June 19-August 7. Professors at colleges,
universities, and seminaries, and other professionals with expertise in
excavation, geology, anthropology, architecture, mosaics, etc.; student
volunteers, both graduate and undergraduate; and interested, dedicated
lay people from all walks of life have a wonderful opportunity to work
side by side with such renowned scholars as Dr. David Chapman, Covenant
Seminary; Dr. Jack Lee, St. John Fisher College; Dr. Reuben Bullard,
University of Cincinnati; Dr. Robert Smith, Roanoke Bible College; Dr.
Susan Ellis, Wayne State College; and many others in helping to uncover
more of the fascinating history of this important Bible lands city.
Abila, Area D, Christian church, threshold into a side room.
Excavation Goals for 2004
Even though much of value for our understanding of Middle Eastern life
during biblical times has been uncovered at Abila, much more work
remains to be done. Our goals for the upcoming excavation season are
ambitious. We plan to
1. Excavate further to the east and north of the partially reconstructed
(in 2000) sixth-century A.D. church basilica on Tell Abila (the north
tell) to discover additional evidence of the many archaeological periods
represented there. These range from the Late Islamic back through the
Early Bronze periods.
2. Excavate along the outside of the south side of the seventh- to
eighth-century A.D. basilica on the south tell, Tell Umm el ‘Amad, to
uncover additional side rooms of the Area D church there.
3. Excavate down to bedrock in the area of the proposed theater in the
civic center. Also in this area, we will work on restoring the Umayyad
palace/fortress built within the theater cavea; probe into the internal
structure of the nearby bath house ruins; excavate the areas to the west
and south of the sixth-century cruciform cathedral; and continue
excavating the single-apse church on the hilltop east of the theater.
4. Expand the tomb excavations all along Wadi Quailibah on the east side
of Abila, looking for and excavating tombs from the Bronze Age through
the Byzantine period.
With so much work to be done, many helping hands are needed.
Abila, Area B, theater area, excavating down into the Roman period.
An Exciting Educational Experience
Excavation team members not only contribute to an important work and
experience the thrill of reaching back into history and touching it in
person but also are privileged to interact closely with the contemporary
people and culture of the area. There are many other benefits of joining
the Abila 2004 Excavation team:
Students can earn four (4) hours of academic credit, either through
Covenant Theological Seminary or through his or her own college,
university, or seminary.
All participants will have access to an essential reading list of
archaeological and technical articles and of Abila’s field reports to
help them prepare for and engage in the excavation season.
All participants receive intensive training in camp and in the field
on the essential principles of archaeological excavation. You’ll then
practice these techniques as you work in the field assisting experienced
archaeologists in actual excavations.
You will acquire valuable experience through working in the camp
laboratory and registry, assisting with pottery identification and
labeling, drawing, etc.
You will increase your knowledge and understanding of the work you are
doing in the field with scholarly lectures on archaeological and
multi-disciplinary subjects. These lectures take place in camp during
the week. Subjects include the history of Jordan, ceramic typology,
epigraphy, osteology, geology, etc.
Carefully planned weekend educational trips to other important
archaeological sites in Jordan are offered at minimum, shared cost.
Following the dig, participants can elect to visit (at their own
expense) other sites in Israel, Egypt, Greece, Europe, etc.
Approximate Expenses to Participate in the Abila Excavation, June
19-August 7, 2004
Round-trip airfare costs, New York to Amman, Jordan—approximately
$1400 per person.
Board and room/general fee for seven weeks at the Staff Headquarters
(near Abila)—$1400 per person.
Weekend expenses, pre- and post-season expenses, and incidental
expenses are to be borne personally by each participant.
For further information and an application, contact:
Dr. W. Harold Mare,
President, Abila Archaeological Project, and Director, Abila Excavations
Covenant Theological Seminary, 12330 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO 63141,
Phone: (314) 434-4044, ext. 339; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, visit our Abila website for more information and
The Abila 2004 Excavation is sponsored by the Abila Archaeological
Project and Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, and
endorsed by the Near East Archaeological Society.
Look for academic tools and books for biblical studies at Dove Books.
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