Sitting on a high promontory overlooking Lake Tiberias, the Jolan Heights and the Jordan Valley, Umm Qais is the most dramatically situated of Jordan's Roman era towns. It also is perhaps the most dramatic to look at, as its location in the northwest corner of the kingdom provided both white stone and black basalt as natural building materials. A former member of the Decapolis, its name in during the Roman era was Gadara, which means a stronghold. Umm Qais, its more recent name, and the name of the nearby village, is derived from the Arabic word for junction or border station. Both are apt, one for its strategic height and the other for its position on the trade routes, connected to sites everywhere.
Gadara was originally built by the Greeks in the 4th century BC. In 218 BC, it was besieged by Antiochus III, the Seleucid ruler, who forded the Jordan River and overran Pella on his way. When Pompey formed the Decapolis in 63 BC, Gadara saw an economic upturn and a building surge. Mark Antony sent Herod the Great to deal with the Nabataeans, who at this time controlled the trade routes up to Damascus. This high-handed interference with local events did not sit well with the people of Gadara, and they protested vehemently. Gadara became known as an arts city, with writers, philosophers and playwrights flourishing there. Two of the most famous were Menippos, a former slave turned satirist, and Oinomaos, the philosopher. This may be the biblical location where Jesus cast devils into swine, which then drowned themselves in the waters of Lake Tiberias.
Many experts believe that a popular pastime was to take the baths at Al-Himma in the village of Mukheiba, and then to relax in Gadara. Many people from all over the Roman Empire visited the area, based on evidence unearthed during excavations. Strabo, the Roman historian, also discusses Gadara and the baths. This relaxing option is still possible today.
Gadara continued to grow and in the 7th century received a bishopric. However, after several destructive earthquakes, the site was deserted, until the Ottoman Turks substantially rebuilt it. The proximity of the Roman ruins to the Ottoman town is intriguing. Local legend has it that Umm Qais is where the first agreement with the British was signed in1920, as they had the first Jordanian government.
Major sites to see include the original Roman amphitheater and the archeological museum, which is housed in a restored home of an Ottoman governor, Bait Rousan. Strolling along the colonnaded street, wandering in the basilica and viewing the nymphaeum are all pleasant, as are the baths, the 16th century octagonal church and the underground mausoleum. A memorable ending to a visit to Umm Qais and Al-Himma is a meal on the terrace of the guesthouse, enjoying the view and reminiscing about your day.