Tucked away in the northern corner of Jordan lies the impressive ruins of Umm Qais. Once a member of the same Decapolis League as Jerash, the less intact ruins of Umm Qais are still well worth a visit. The sweeping views the hilltop provides along with the black colored pillars and arches prove to be worth the long drive up from Amman for the handful of visitors that visit the site.
A Place of Biblical Proportions?
Umm Qais sits on some pretty legendary ground. The hilltop here is one of the two competing believed locations (The other in Israel) where Jesus is said to have cast demons from two men into pigs, which then in turn drowned themselves in the Sea of Galilee. Whether Umm Qaiss truly inspired this famous parable or not, the eye popping views the hill top provides cannot be denied. The site sits a mere 15 kilometers from Syria and 4 kilometers from Israel. From the main viewpoint, one gazes out into three countries (Jordan, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian Territories) with the Golan Heights and Sea of Galilee also in view. Unfortunately, weather wasn’t on our side as a rare winter time storm was bringing record amounts of rainfall to Syria and Iraq with Umm Qais caught along the edges of the storm. With storm clouds and fog gathering, we sprinted from the parking lot to the view point just in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of Galilee, Golan Heights, and Syria before it became shrouded in a blanket of rain. This didn’t leave us with anytime to take good pictures at the viewpoint.
Quite the Eerie Atmosphere
With an endless line of dark clouds blanketing the sky, the rain seemed like it would not be leaving anytime soon, so Claire and I decided to brave the cold rain and explore what remained of this rather unique ancient city. Today, the site is a mixture of mostly Roman monuments and Ottoman settlements. What makes the area unique is the local black stone which was used in the building process. The rather gloomy weather created an eerie atmosphere as we walked through the abandoned Ottoman houses and shops, wondering who had lived here and trying to imagine what life must have been like on the hilltop. The dark sky and rain falling onto the black stone cast the monuments in an even darker shade, making it seem eminent that a ghost would appear through the next doorway at any moment.
Highlights of Umm Qais
The most impressive monument left intact in Umm Qais is without a doubt the Theater. Well preserved and built entirely of black stone, the theater here stands out when compared to other Roman Theaters. Walking into the dark corridors and climbing up the steep seating is the most atmospheric site in the archeological park. The dark interior could contain up to 3,000 people, but today the seats are almost always empty, helping to contribute to the structure’s eerie and intimidating presence today.
Just a stone throw away from the theater lies what remains of an early Byzantine church. Not much is left of what was once a grand structure, but the basalt columns that remain standing here today offer a nice contrast to the sandstone columns seen in Jerash. The hill top also offers a nice view point of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Unmissable from most points of the ruined city, the wide Documanus Maximus once served as the main road into town and the surrounding area. At its height, the road extended all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Today, much of what surrounded the road is yet to excavated, with only the original paving stones still in their original places.
Most of the other Roman sites are in a poor state and are of little interest to all but professional archeologists. In contrast, the well intact remains of the Ottoman settlement that covers much of the site today make for an interesting wander. Passing through the now quiet streets lined with what are now just the shells of family homes and shops, seem to whisper their stories to the stray passerby that traverses the streets today. Walking into the thresholds of the dark interior rooms left us feeling like we were not alone here. Whether superstition got the best of us or there truly was some sort of presence within the empty rooms, Claire and I couldn’t deny the feeling of being watched while roaming this area.
Getting There and Away
Umm Qais is only 115 km (71 miles) from Amman but expect it to take you at least 3 hours to get here using your own wheels. The route passes through several towns, which seem to be endlessly plagued with terrible traffic. Getting through the towns and tackling the many roundabouts can be quite nerve racking but is part of the experience that is driving in Jordan.
Much of the highway offers vast views of the Northern Jordanian countryside soaked in the green vegetation that covers the region. Remember what you see here as most of the country to the south of Amman is rather stark, seemingly to be a lifeless stretch of sand into the horizon.
Heading Back Via the Jordan Valley
Rather than venturing back the way you came, heading back to Amman via the Jordan Valley is worth the extra mileage. Straddling the border between Jordan and Israel, this is one of the most heavily guarded borders of the world. From Umm Qais, there are a few military checkpoints where you simply just need to show your passport and explain where you are going. They usually don’t give tourists a hard time, as long as you smile and answer all of their questions.
Past the checkpoints, the road switchbacks its way down to the base of the valley, providing expansive views of the Promised Land along the way. With the Jordan river at its base, the Jordan Valley provides the region with much needed water and farmland. It has been the lifeline for this part of the world for thousands of years, but has become stressed recently due to over usage by a constantly growing population that remains dependent on the river.
Once on the valley floor, the road leads you through dusty one road towns until it is time to make the climb up to the hilltops where Amman is perched on top of. The climb, like most roads in Jordan, offer views out into the valley below. If you have the time, don’t miss this drive back to Amman.
Umm Qais: A Stark Contrast from Jerash
While much smaller, and less impressive than Jerash, the uniqueness of Umm Qais and the backdrop that surrounds make it worth the long drive up to this little corner of Jordan. Be sure to enjoy the ride up and back as it offers wonderful glimpses into life here in Northern Jordan. While Jerash will most certainly be the more memorable of the sites, Umm Qais and its eerie black ruins will be hard to ever forget no matter how much you have traveled.