Lesson #134: Decapolis Cities

The colonnaded street in Beit She'an

We took a trip up to Beit She’an today on our way to the Jordan River Crossing. My friend in Tel Aviv told me it was a must see and then my friend in Jerusalem said the same thing completely independently, so off we went. After an incident 10 miles south of Beit She’an in which we got yanked off the bus at a security checkpoint by people with very large guns on account of my friend in Amman’s Jordanian visas and a very nice man whose name means “luck” in Hebrew picking us up and giving us a ride the rest of the way, we got to the ruins in time for lunch.

Beit She’an is actually the first of our two planned Decapolis stops (unless you count Amman*). Jerash, the largest Decapolis city, is on the agenda for tomorrow, but since I won’t write about a second one, this will just be an overview of Decapolis cities, not necessarily specific to either.**

The Decapolis cities were a group of ten*** cities on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire in Judea and Syria. Only one of the cities (Beit She’an) lies east of the Jordan River. They were built up after Pompey the Great’s conquest of the area around 64-63 BCE and were key trading and defensive centres along the eastern part of Judea. The cities were already in existence, having been built between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and the Roman conquest of Judea, they were just further developed after Pompey ascended to power in the region. The Romans, in order for the cities to flourish, allowed some margin of autonomy; all of the Decapolis cities functioned as city-states under the umbrella of Rome and minted their own coins.

The Decapolis region is mentioned by name in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and flourished until the rule of the Emperor Trajan in the second century CE. Many of the cities were taken over and continued to be used by the Byzantines, during which time the cities served as the seats of bishops. Later, the Muslims also made use of the some of the Decapolis cities while others were abandoned after the Umayyad Caliphate conquest of Palestine in 641.****

*Which I don’t even though technically speaking it was one of the Decapolis cities…it’s just that most of its ruins aren’t available to be seen anymore so the effect is somewhat lost.

**Except for the part where we learned that philosophizing was done in the bathhouses in Beit Shean, which made us laugh pretty hard. I love that the men of the city would go to the baths for lessons. Then again, it was REALLY hot there (and it’s just April) so I can’t say I blame them.

***One would think this would be self-evident if you have any understanding of language at all, but when I look up what the ten cities are, I get Pliny the Elder’s list of 9 first, followed by a list of 10, a list of 12 and finally the acknowledgment that Ptolemy enumerated 18 cities, so take that as you will.

****More about the Decapolis Cities here, here and here.

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