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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.


city of the Decapolis, located about 15 km (9 mi.) north-northeast of Irbid in northern Jordan. Abila has an occupational history that extends from the fourth millennium to 1500 CE. It is identified in numerous ancient sources: Polybius (second century BCE) mentions that Antiochus III (218 BCE) conquered Abila along with Pella and Gadara/Umm Qeis (Historiae 5.69–70). It is later conquered by Alexander Jannaeus (first century BCE), as reported by Georgios Synkellos (Chronographia, 294 D–295 A). An inscription (133/144 CE) at Tayibeh, northeast of Palmyra, Syria, speaks of an agathangelos Abilenos tēs Dekapoleōs (“good messenger, or well-heralded Abila of the Decapolis;” CIG 4501 or LeBas-Waddington, Inscriptiones III, 2, no. 2631=OGIS 631). In the second century CE, Ptolemy (Geography 5.14) identifies this Abila separately from the Abila of Lysanias just north of Damascus, Syria. Hierokles (sixth century CE) in Synekdemos (pp. 720–721) lists this Abila as part of the Provincia Secunda, along with the nearby sites of Scythopolis, Sella (Pella), Gadara, and Capitolias. Jerome identifies an Abila 12 Roman miles from Gadara (Carl Ritter, Erdkunde, Berlin, 1832–1858, vol. 15, p. 1060), the same city (Abel) Eusebius had earlier located 12 Roman miles east of Gadara (Onomasticon, 32.16; Spijkerman, 1978, pp. 48–49, n. 5; cf. Johann L. Burckhardt, Travels in Syria and the Holy Land, rpt. New York, 1983, vol. 1, p. 537, note to p. 425). In 1888 Gottlieb Schumacher (1889, pp. 18, 21) found that the nationals at this site still called the north tell Tell Abil. The 1984 excavation on Tell Abila produced an inscription in Greek with the name cut in the second line; in the fourth line Emma[tha] (Ḥammath-Gader), a site 18 km (11 mi.) west of Abila (Michael Avi-Yonah, The Holy Land, Grand Rapids, Mich, 1977, pp. 166, 170) is mentioned, further verifying that this is Abila of the Decapolis. In the Bronze and Iron Ages the site's name may have carried the prefixed noun, 'ābēl (Heb., “meadow”; Ar., “green”). It is similar to the Semitic noun used in several other sites in the Jordan River system: Abel Beth-Maacah (2 Kings 15:29); Abel Meḥolah (Jgs. 7:22); Abel Shittim (Nm. 33:49); and Abel Keramim (Jgs. 11:33). Matthew 4:25 and Mark 5:20 and 7:31 mention the Decapolis but without specifying Abila or any other individual city.

In the modern period, In 1806, Ulrich Jasper Seetzen (Reisen durch Syrien, ed. Fr. Kruse, Berlin, 1854–1859, vol. 1, p. 371, vol. 4, pp. 190–191) rediscovered Abila. He was followed by Schumacher (see above) who described the ruins and drew a map of the site, today called Quailibah. In 1978 W. Harold Mare of Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, revisited the site; he began excavating there In 1980, with subsequent seasons In 1982, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, and 1995.

Abila of the Decapolis is about one mile north–south and a half-mile east–west in area. The site consists of Tell Abila to the north and Tell Umm el-῾Amad to the south. It is protected by deep wadis on the north, east, and south and by a saddle depression between the two tells. The site is surrounded by rich farmlands and has a generous water supply. Ancient building remains are visible over the entire site. Its occupational history begins in the Neolithic period and goes through the Early Bronze, Middle Bronze, Late Bronze, and Iron Ages and the Hellenistic period, concentrated particularly on the acropolis of Tell Abila. Occupation in the Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods (especially Umayyad and ῾Abbasid, a bit of Fatimid, and some Ayyubid/Mamluk) is evident throughout the site. Occasional Ottoman sherds are also found, indicating more recent Turkish hegemony.

Excavations (1982–1990) on the acropolis of Tell Abila uncovered a large sixth-century triapsidal Christian basilica (19 × 34.5 m) in area A. It shows evidence of two rows of twelve columns dividing the nave from the side aisles. The nave is paved with an opus sectile floor and the atrium in the west with mosaics. The church was built on the foundations of an earlier possibly fourth–fifth-century Christian basilica or Greco-Roman temple. Just to the northeast of the basilica, in deep trenches (area AA), pottery and walls point to Roman, Hellenistic, and Iron and Bronze Age occupations. EB and MB pottery appeared extensively in area AA.


ABILA. Figure 1. Restored seventh-century basilica. The basilica, partially restored in 1988, is located on Umm el-῾Amad, the southern tell at Abila. (Courtesy W. H. Mare)

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Excavation on Tell Umm el-῾Amad revealed a seventh-century triapsidal Christian basilica (20 × 41 m), with two rows of twelve columns each. It, too, was paved with an opus sectile floor and had mosaics in its auxiliary rooms, colonnaded porch, and atrium. The excavated remains of this basilica were restored In 1988 (see figure 1).

In the terraced depression between the two tells a large civic center existed in the Roman and Byzantine periods. It included what seems to have been a theater built into the northeast slope of Umm el-῾Amad. Most of the theater's remains were reused both recently and in antiquity. Schumacher (1889, p. 30) saw some of the seats In 1888. In the Umayyad period a large building (palace?) was constructed within the theater's cavea. Part of the cavea was used in the ῾Abbasid and Ayyubid/Mamluk periods. An extended Byzantine basalt street existed just in front (north) of the Islamic building. Its eastern segment at least lay over an earlier limestone street or plaza with an entranceway. North of this plaza excavation was begun In 1990 in what seems to have been a bath/nymphaeum complex; a channel cut into a vault at the east end of the complex indicates that water was brought there from springs (῾Ain Quailibah at the southern foot of Umm el-῾Amad and Khuraybah, farther south) through an intricate system of underground aqueducts. These aqueducts, which have been excavated, studied, and mapped, were used to bring water to the site to provide for the needs of industry, civic installations, and private citizens. In the civic center farther to the northeast, near the Roman bridge, excavation was begun In 1990, and has continued, on another large Christian basilica, cruciform in design (32 m × 29.25 m); at the extremities of the arms of the central apse, large basalt piers with Ionic capitals were found, as well as another north row and also a south row of basalt columns.

Extensive burial sites were cut into the wadis. Between 1982 and 1994, eighty-five burial sites (mostly tombs, but some graves) were excavated. The burials date mainly from the Late Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods, but a few Iron Age and MB/LB period tombs were also excavated. The grave goods, the embellishment of the tombs and their architectural style, food offerings, and religious iconography indicate three levels of society: the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor.

Excavation thus far of the Iron and Bronze Age levels has produced evidence of a fairly well-developed society, with a variety of pottery types and buildings with small rooms. Excavation of the Roman and Byzantine levels points to a considerably well-developed city of seven thousand-eight thousand inhabitants, with a strong agricultural base, thriving commercial activity, and a strong emphasis on cultural and religious activities.


  • Corpus Inscriptionem Graecarum (CIG). 5 VOLS., 13 faces. Berlin, 1828–1877, no. 450.
  • Dittenberger, W. Orientis Graecae Inscriptiones Selectae (OGIS). Leipzig, 1903–1905.
  • Le Bas, Philippe, and William Henry Waddington. Inscriptiones grecques et latines recueilles en Asie Mineure. Hildesheim and New York, 1972. III, 2, no. 2631.
  • Mare, W. Harold, et al. Preliminary Reports. Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin 17 (1980): 5–25; 21 (1983): 5–68; 22 (1983): 5–64; 24 (1985): 7–108; 25 (1985): 35–90; 26 (1985): 5–70; 27 (1985): 25–60; 28 (1987): 35–76; 29 (1987): 31–88; 30 (1987): 27–106; 31 (1988): 19–66; 32–33 (1988): 2–64; 34 (1991): 2–41; 35 (1991): 2–41.
  • Mare, W. Harold, et al. “The Decapolis Survey Project: Abila 1980.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 26 (1982): 37–65.
  • Mare, W. Harold, et al. “The 1982 Season at Abila of the Decapolis.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 28 (1984): 39–54.
  • Mare, W. Harold, et al. “The 1984 Season at Abila of the Decapolis.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 29 (1985): 221–237.
  • Mare, W. Harold, “Quwailiba: Abila of the Decapolis.” Archiv für Orientforschung 33 (1986): 206–209.
  • Mare, W. Harold, et al. “The 1986 Season at Abila of the Decapolis.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 31 (1987): 205–219.
  • Mare, W. Harold, “Quweilbeh (Abila).” In Archaeology of Jordan, vol. 2, Field Reports, edited by Denyse Homès-Fredericq and J. Basil Hennessy, pp. 472–486. Louvain, 1989.
  • Mare, W. Harold, “The 1988 Season of Excavation at Abila of the Decapolis.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 35 (1991): 203–220.
  • Mare, W. Harold, “Abila.” In The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 1, pp. 1–3. Jerusalem and New York, 1993.
  • Schumacher, Gottlieb. Abila of the Decapolis. London, 1889.
  • Smith, Robert Houston, and Leslie P. Day. Final Report on the College of Wooster Excavations in Area IX, the Civic Complex, 1979–1985. Pella of the Decapolis, vol. 2. Wooster, Ohio, 1989.
  • Spijkerman, Augusto. The Coins of the Decapolis and Provincia Arabia. Jerusalem, 1978.

W. Harold Mare

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