Umm Qais

Perched on a splendid hilltop with a 360-degree view over the hills of Syria, the Jordan Valley, and the Sea of Galilee, Umm Qais boasts impressive ancient remains. Such as the stunning black basalt theatre, the basilica and adjacent courtyard strewn with nicely carved black sarcophagi, the colonnaded main street and a side street lined with shops, an underground mausoleum, two baths, a nymphaeum, a city gate and the outlines of what was a massive hippodrome. It lies two hours away from Amman to the northwest.

A bit of History

The strategic position of Umm Qais made it a favourable spot for the settlement of various important ancient kingdoms, including the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, and the Jews. During the Roman period, which started in 63 DC, the city assumed the name of Gedara and grew in importance as one of the Decapolis, the league of ten semi-autonomous cities guarding the eastern border of the Roman Empire. Among the Decapolis, Gedara was considered one the most Hellenized, due to the strong influence of Greek culture, which is still evident in the architectonic elements and inscriptions in its ruins. It was also recognized for its cultural vitality, as it grew to a centre for philosophy, poetry and the performing arts. Famous ancient inhabitants of Gedara are the Greek poet Meleager (1st century BC) and the satirist Menippus (3rd century BC).

Like the other strongholds in the area, with the end of the Decapolis in the 4th century AD and, later, with the decline of the Umayyad Caliphate in 7th century AD, Gedara was forgotten for centuries and only rebuilt in the 18th century, during the Ottoman period. It is during this period that probably the name Um Qais, a derivation from the Arabic Mkes (frontier station) or maqass (junction), come about.

The old inhabitants under the Ottoman rule built their homes on the Roman ruins reusing the conveniently pre-cut Roman stones. The presence of this village become a problem when archaeological excavations had to start in 1980. Initially, the ministry of Tourism established subsidies for inhabitants to relocate elsewhere. Later, however, this project was abandoned for a project which focussed instead on the renovation of the Ottoman buildings with the purpose of converting them into tourist residences. At the present, some buildings have been renovated, including the Resthouse and the museum, but most of the Ottoman era town remains dilapidated and vacated, giving the site an unusually beautiful suspended look.

What to do

Beyond exploring the historical landmarks, Umm Qais offers a wide range of activities that are perfect for a weekend getaway. Start by exploring the renovated Ottoman cottages, which have been converted to rest-houses. At the heart of the village is Romero Rest-house, a quaint restaurant that serves wholesome, freshly-prepared meals. Afterwards amble over to the ruins site where one can preview Roman tombs through the village, and straight to the West Theater, which is built entirely of basalt. Next visit the Museum that boasts a calming terrace, a picturesque courtyard, and a marvelous collection.

Umm Qais highlights:

  • The Tourist Village
  • The Ruins
  • The West Theater
  • The Basilica Terrace
  • Decumanus Maximus
  • The North Theater
  • The Museum
  • The Western Quarters


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