Jordan’s Northen Historical Cities

Jordan’s second largest city is a bustling community with a large university. Though not as significant a city for sightseeing as other areas, Irbid houses two very worth while museums, and forms a good base from which to explore the northern Jordan Valley or to start a trip to Syria.

In addition to Jerash and Amman, Umm Qays (modern Gadara) and Pella (known locally as Tabaqit Fahl) were once Decapolis cities,(“Ten Cities”; Greek: deka, ten; polis, city) was a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Jordan and Syria, and each has its unique appeal.



Umm Qays


Graeco-Roman columns stand amidst the lush green countryside around Umm Qays.

In Umm Qays (known in biblical times as Gadara), the main sights are the remains of the Roman city, with its Western Theatre, colonnaded street, mausoleum and baths

Site of the famous miracle of the Gadarene swine, Gadara was renowned in its time as a cultural centre. It was the home of several classical poets and philosophers, including Theodorus, founder of a rhetorical school in Rome, and was once called “a new Athens” by a poet.

Perched on a splendid hilltop overlooking the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee, Gadara is known today as Umm Qays, and boasts an impressive colonnaded street, a vaulted terrace, and the ruins of two theatres. You can take in the sights and then dine on the terrace of a fine restaurant with a breathtaking view.

The Al-Himma therapeutic hot springs are located around 10km north of Umm Qays
and were once highly regarded by the Romans. There are two bathing facilities:
a privately-run complex, and a public bath complex, with separate timetables
for men and women.

Pella (Tabaqit Fahl)


Ruins at Pella

Pella is a favourite of archaeologists as it is exceptionally rich in antiquities, some of which are exceedingly old. Besides the excavated ruins from the Graeco-Roman period, including an Odeon (theatre), Pella offers visitors the opportunity to see the remains of a Chalcolithic settlement from the 4th millennium BC, the remains of Bronze and Iron Age walled cities, Byzantine churches and houses, an Early Islamic residential quarter, and a small medieval mosque. There are many interesting archaeological monuments such as  the 6th century West Church, 6th century Civic Complex Church, 1st century Odeon (Theatre), Roman Nymphaeum and East Church.


The Gerasa of Antiquity (Ancient Greek: Γέρασα), is the capital and largest city of Jerash Governorate which is situated in the north of Jordan, 48 kilometres (30 mi) north of the capital Amman towards Syria. Jerash Governorate’s geographical features vary from cold mountains to fertile valleys from 250 to 300 metres (820 to 980 ft) above sea level, suitable for growing a wide variety of crops.

In the latter Ottoman period, the city of Jerash’s name was abandoned and changed to Sakib, yet this was not a permanent development, as the name “Jerash” reappears in Ottoman tax registers by the end of 16th century.

The Arch of Hadrian

The Arch of Hadrian was built to honor the visit of Emperor Hadrian to Jerash in 129/130 AD

A strong earthquake in 749 AD destroyed large parts of Jerash, while subsequent earthquakes along with the wars and turmoil contributed to additional destruction. Its destruction and ruins remained buried in the soil for hundreds of years until they were discovered by German Orientalist Ulrich Jasper Seetzen in 1806 to begin excavation and to return life to rise to the current Jerash by inhabitants of old villages. Then followed 70 years after by the community of Muslims, Circassians, who emigrated to Jordan from the Caucasus in 1878 after the Ottoman-Russian war. And a large community of people of Syria at the beginning of the 20th century.


Jerash is the site of the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa, also referred to as Antioch on the Golden River. Ancient Greek inscriptions from the city, but also literary sources both Iamvichou and the Great Etymology, establishing the foundation of the city by Alexander the Great, or his general Perdiccas who settled there aged Macedonian soldiers (Γερασμένος-Gerasmenos means aged person in Greek). This will take place during the spring of 331 BC, when Alexander left Egypt, cross Syria and then went to Mesopotamia. It is sometimes misleadingly referred to as the “Pompeii of the Middle East or Asia”, referring to its size, extent of excavation and level of preservation (though Jerash was never buried by a volcano). Jerash is considered one of the most important and best preserved Roman cities in the Near East. It was a city of the Decapolis.

Jerash was the birthplace of the mathematician Nicomachus of Gerasa (Greek: Νικόμαχος) (c. 60 – c. 120 AD).

Recent excavations show that Jerash was already inhabited during the Bronze Age (3200 BC – 1200 BC). After the Roman conquest in 63 BC, Jerash and the land surrounding it were annexed by the Roman province of Syria, and later joined the Decapolis cities. In AD 90, Jerash was absorbed into the Roman province of Arabia, which included the city of Philadelphia (modern day Amman). The Romans ensured security and peace in this area, which enabled its people to devote their efforts and time to economic development and encouraged civic building activity.

In the second half of the 1st century AD, the city of Jerash achieved great prosperity. In AD 106, the Emperor Trajan constructed roads throughout the province and more trade came to Jerash. The Emperor Hadrian visited Jerash in AD 129-130. The triumphal arch (or Arch of Hadrian) was built to celebrate his visit. A remarkable Latin inscription records a religious dedication set up by members of the imperial mounted bodyguard wintering there.

The city finally reached a size of about 800,000 square meters within its walls. The Persian invasion in AD 614 caused the rapid decline of Jerash. However, the city continued to flourish during the Umayyad Period, as shown by recent excavations. In AD 749, a major earthquake destroyed much of Jerash and its surroundings. During the period of the Crusades, some of the monuments were converted to fortresses, including the Temple of Artemis. Small settlements continued in Jerash during the Ayyubid, Mameluk[disambiguation needed] and Ottoman periods. Excavation and restoration of Jerash has been almost continuous since the 1920s.

Ancient Jerash

ancient Jerash

Map of the Decapolis showing location of Gerasa (Jerash)

Remains in the Greco-Roman Jerash include:

  • The Corinthium column
  • Hadrian‘s Arch
  • The circus/hippodrome
  • The two large temples (dedicated to Zeus and Artemis)
  • The nearly unique oval Forum, which is surrounded by a fine colonnade,
  • The long colonnaded street or cardo
  • Two theatres (the Large South Theatre and smaller North Theatre)
  • Two baths, and a scattering of small temples
  • An almost complete circuit of city walls.

Most of these monuments were built by donations of the city’s wealthy citizens. From AD 350, a large Christian community lived in Jerash, and between AD 400-600, more than thirteen churches were built, many with superb mosaic floors. A cathedral was built in the 4th century. An ancient synagogue with detailed mosaics, including the story of Noah, was found beneath a church.

Modern Jerash

  Modern Jerash

Map of Jerash

Jerash has developed dramatically in the last century and the growing importance of the tourism industry to the city. Jerash is now the second-most popular tourist attraction in Jordan, closely behind the splendid ruins of Petra. The ruins have been carefully preserved and spared from encroachment, with the modern city sprawling to the west of ancient Jerash’s city walls.

In addition to inhabitants of old villages, Jerash became a destination for many successive waves of foreign migrants. The first wave started during the first half of the 20th century when the Syrians (Shwam) and the Circassians camped nearby the old ruins. The new immigrants have been welcomed by the local people and settled down in the city. Later, Jerash also witnessed waves of Palestinian refugees who flow to the city in 1948 and 1967.

The bridge

A Bridge connecting the ancient city of Gerasa to modern Jerash

However, recently the city of Jerash has been expanded to include many of the surrounding villages including Souf, Dairelliat, Thougretasfour, Jaba, Aljbarat and Majar. Other important villages in the governorate include: Kitteh, Sakib, Nahlé, Burma, Mustabah, Jubba, Raimoun, Kufr Khall, Balila, and Qafqafa.

Since 1981, the old city of Jerash has hosted the Jerash Festival,a three week long summer program of dance, music, and theatrical performances. The festival is frequently attended by members of the royal family of Jordan and is hailed as one of the largest cultural activities in the region.

In addition performances of the Roman Army and Chariot Experience (RACE) were started at the hippodrome in Jerash. The show runs twice daily, at 11am and at 2pm, and at 10am on Fridays, except Tuesdays. It features forty-five legionaries in full armour in a display of Roman Army drill and battle tactics, ten gladiators fighting “to the death” and several Roman chariots competing in a classical seven lap race around the ancient hippodrome.



According to “Jordan Times”, the number of tourists who visited the ancient city of Jerash reached 214,000 during 2005. Director of Jerash Antiquities Department Mohammad Balawneh said that the number of non-Jordanian tourists was 182,000 last year, adding that the sum of entry charges reached JD900, 000. The Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts is an annual celebration of Arabic and international culture during the summer months. Jerash is located 46 km north of the capital city of Amman. The festival site is located within the ancient ruins of Jerash, some of which date to the Roman age (63 BC). Jerash Festival is a festival which features poetry recitals, theatrical performances, concerts and other forms of art. In 2008, authorities launched Jordan Festival, a nationwide theme-oriented event under which Jerash Festival became a component. However the government revived the Jerash Festival as the “substitute proved to be not up to the message intended from the festival.”



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Things to do in Irbid