We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result


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.

Related Content


site located in the lower foothills of the eastern Jordan Valley, 28 km (17 mi.) south of the Sea of Galilee and 4 km (2.5 mi.) east of the Jordan River (32°27′ N, 35°37′ E). The site, nestled among rugged hills and deep valleys, overlooks the north Jordan Valley and the plain of Esdraelon. Pella's principal archaeological feature is an oval mound on the north side of Wadi Jirm el-Moz, a small valley that descends from the highlands that lie to the east. On its steep, eroded southern slope the mound rises 30 m (100 ft.) above the valley floor. Beneath its deep occupational remains is a natural hillock, at whose foot a powerful spring has flowed into the valley for thousands of years. On the south side of Wadi Jirm rises a large, dome-shaped natural hill known as Tell el-Ḥusn, which was used both for interment and for occupation at various times in the past. The surrounding region reveals abundant evidence of ancient utilization.


PELLA. View of excavations from the south. A portion of the main mound is visible on the left. At center right is the Civic Complex of the Roman-Byzantine period. The Roman odeon (small theater) is visible, as well as the Civic Complex Church, which may have been the city's cathedral. (Photograph courtesy College of Wooster)

view larger image

Pella was highly desirable as a place of habitation because it commanded the resources of three ecosystems: its own and those in the ascending hills to the east and the Jordan Valley on the west. Although hot in the summer, it had, as it still does, one of the best climates in the region. Even today, after centuries of environmental degradation, it has rich soils and sufficient rainfall to make the vicinity excellent for agriculture. In ancient times it also lay near the junction of two of the major trade and military routes of the ancient Levant, one running along the eastern side of the Jordan Valley and the other descending northwest from the Central Transjordanian highlands, crossing the Jordan River near Beth-Shean and continuing through the Plain of Esdraelon to the coast.

The site has been known to Western travelers and explorers since it was visited, but not identified, by Charles Irby and James Mangles In 1818. It appeared as “Pella” on Heinrich Kiepert's 1842 map, an identification confirmed, on the basis of both research and visitation, by Edward Robinson in his Later Biblical Researches in Palestine and the Adjacent Regions (London, 1856). It was recognized by William Foxwell Albright In 1926 as the Piḥil, or Piḥir, in several Egyptian texts, a correlation that opened up a textually documented history going as far back as the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. Several dozen Greek, Latin, and Arabic texts allude briefly to Pella, as does a Talmudic passage (Smith, 1973, pp. 23–82).

Archaeological exploration of the site began with soundings made In 1958 by Robert Funk and Neil Richardson of the American Schools of Oriental Research. The first full-scale excavations were begun In 1967 by the College of Wooster, under the direction of Robert H. Smith, but were curtailed by the June war of that year. Smith returned In 1979 with J. Basil Hennessy and Anthony W. McNicoll as directors of a joint University of Sydney–College of Wooster expedition. The Wooster team had its last season In 1985; Sydney's excavations continued into the 1990s. It is only with this most recent research that the long and rich history of the area has been illuminated.

Surface surveys and excavation have demonstrated occupation in the region of Pella from the Lower Paleolithic (perhaps as many as a million years ago) to the present day. Important Early and Middle Paleolithic sequences predate the formation of the Lisan lake that dominated the region's geography and economy between 100,000 and 14,000 years ago, after which the lake began to retreat and, in its retreat, to create the deep ravines that are so prominent a feature of the existing landscape.

Six sites from the Upper Paleolithic, Kebaran, and Natufian periods have been excavated by the joint expedition; they provide a detailed picture of the environment and human activity in the vicinity of Pella between 30,000 and 12,000 years ago. Excavation of the Early Natufian settlement exposed two large, circular buildings containing deposits of thousands of domestic and agricultural stone tools, as well as carefully worked basalt bowls, pedestal mortars and pestles, small animal sculptures in both basalt and limestone, and large limestone stelae decorated with deeply carved concentric rectangles. Dietary staples included wild barley, lentils, and peas. Human burials and offerings were found beneath some of the domestic structures.

Prepottery Neolithic remains are evidenced so far only in unstratified contexts, but excavation and surface survey indicate a widespread Pottery Neolithic settlement of the Yarmukian horizon in the sixth and fifth millennia, both on the main mound and along the banks of Wadi Jirm el-Moz.

Numerous Chalcolithic settlements are attested throughout the vicinity of Pella. One of these, a large village situated southeast of the central mound on the slope of a large hill known as Jebel Ṣarṭaba, has been excavated. The plan appears to consist of broad courtyard areas between clusters of roughly rectangular stone and mud-brick houses partly cut into the hill's soft bedrock. The ceramic and lithic industries are closely related to those of the upper levels at Teleilat el-Ghassul, the basic levels of the Beersheba Chalcolithic, and some settlements in the Golan in Israel. The village had an agricultural economy based on barley, emmer wheat, lentils, chickpeas, and peas. A radiocarbon sample dates the short-lived settlement to 3480 ± 60 BCE.

Early Bronze Age remains have been found on both the mound and at Tell el-Ḥusn; where many of the areas of deep excavation have reached EB levels. A substantial EB I building has been found on the mound. It is probable that a massive defensive wall exposed in the deep excavations carried out on the southeastern part of the mound had its origin in the Early Bronze Age. An EB IIA large stone platform was discovered at Tell el-Ḥusn. There are few remains of the EB III period. An EB IV cemetery was partly excavated in Wadi Ḥammeh, near the Natufian settlement mentioned above, and there is evidence of a small settlement from the same period in that vicinity.

Piḥil was a city of some significance throughout the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, as might be expected from the Egyptian references. It was defended by a substantial mud-brick wall that continued in use, with occasional patching, into the Iron Age. Rich settlement and tomb remains attest to a continuous and widespread occupation throughout the second millennium BCE, perhaps extending beyond the city wall. Unlike the situation in much of Palestine and Trans-jordan, there does not appear to have been a reduction in the city's size or any evidence of destruction until the end of LB II, and many MB II buildings continued in use into the Late Bronze Age.

Contact with Egypt is archaeologically attested as early as the MB IIb period by the presence of alabaster and faience vessels, scarabs, and other trade items, and with Cyprus and the Aegean during the Late Bronze Age, when ceramic vessels were imported in some quantity. Fragments of cunei form tablets of LB I date suggest a literate society, as do the previously known Amarna letters from Mut-bal῾lu of Pella to pharaoh Akhenaten. One substantial building may prove to be the equivalent of the now well-attested governors' residences in contemporary Palestinian cities. There was no marked change in prosperity during LB II, although the town's area may have been more restricted in the thirteenth century BCE. There are very rich burials of LB I and II.


PELLA. Egyptian style box. Restored ebony box with ivory inlays. Late Bronze Age, fifteenth century BCE. (Photograph courtesy University of Sydney)

view larger image

The beginning of the Iron Age saw rebuilding and continuity of local ceramic and other material cultural elements, but the large, MB–LB prosperous city gave way to a some-what smaller and poorer town. Pella receives no mention in the Hebrew Bible, unless it appears there under some other name. It is possible that during the later biblical period the city was virtually unoccupied, as there is little at the site that is datable to the period from the late seventh through the fourth centuries BCE.

Following the conquests of Alexander the Great in Syria and Palestine In 332–331 BCE and the ensuing reconfigurations in government, economy, and culture, Pella began to revive. Although the late tradition of Stephanos Byzantios (Ethnica, pp. 103–104) that the city was refounded by Alexander is probably fictional, it began to rebuild its population and participate in Hellenistic commerce under Ptolemaic suzerainty.

Following the Seleucid conquest of the southern Levant In 200 BCE, Pella experienced a century of expansion and prosperity. New residences and public or military structures were built. Greek became the language of culture and commerce, although the indigenous language of the city was never completely abandoned. The ancient Semitic name of the city was hellenized to Pella, calling to mind the city of Alexander's birth. Late Hellenistic artifacts, found in abundance, include not only fine artifacts imported from Syria and elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean region, but also a new repertoire of local ceramic vessels.

Contemporary with Pella's Late Hellenistic development was the rise of the Maccabean kingdom west of the Jordan River. Having traditionally stood outside the Hebrew cultural sphere, Pella maintained an uneasy relationship with the Jewish state; nevertheless, by keeping a low profile and probably serving as a useful conduit for Seleucid commerce, the city managed to remain relatively free from Hasmonean domination for almost a century. In 83/82 BCE, however, the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus, displeased, according to Josephus, that a city so near its border would not accede to Jewish practices, overran and destroyed the city (Josephus, Antiq. 13.392–397; War 1.103–105). Evidence of extensive burning is present in the Late Hellenistic stratum on the mound.

The advance of the Roman general Pompey through Syria In 63 BCE brought an end to Seleucid and Hasmonean domination alike. Pella was one of ten hellenized cities in southern Syria and northern Transjordan that from this time on were known collectively as the Decapolis—if, indeed, that term had not already come into existence in Late Hellenistic times. Although the cities were placed within the newly created province of Syria, Pompey in fact returned to them much of the independence they had enjoyed under the Seleucid Empire. Archaeological evidence shows that while commerce was important, Pella was no more involved in international trade than many other cities outside that league.

Stratified archaeological deposition from the first three centuries CE has not been found on the mound to the extent that might be expected; nevertheless, it is clear that Pella underwent considerable development during the Roman period. In 82/83 CE the city issued its first modest bronze coinage. Excavations in the Civic Complex near the spring have exposed the remnants of public baths and a small theater constructed about this time, and a forum probably was built in Wadi Jirm. Several of the city's early third-century coins show the facade of a nymphaeum, which was undoubtedly located in the Civic Complex. There was a popular spa at Pella, probably the warm mineral spring that still flows in Wadi Ḥammeh, 3 km (2 mi.) north of the city. The road between Pella and the Decapolis city of Gerasa/Jerash was improved In 160/61 CE, as inscribed milestones found along its route indicate.

Throughout this period the city continued to have its cultural roots in an intermingling of its ancient Syro-Palestinian heritage with Hellenism. The Greco-Roman deities that appear on the coins the city issued between 177 and 222 CE include Athena, an unidentified male deity, and perhaps Heracles, while another coin depicts a large hexastyle temple. Inscriptions found during excavation mention “the elders of Zeus-Ares” and “the Arabian God.” Excavations have brought to light scattered evidence of the everyday religious practices of the city's inhabitants, such as the wearing of amulets and the inclusion of hens' eggs in the burial of a newborn child.

Although Pella is not mentioned in the New Testament, the interaction of Judaism and Christianity in the city during this period is of particular interest. Josephus states that Pella was among a number of hellenized cities and villages in Transjordan and Syria that were pillaged by Jews In 66 CE (War 2.457–465). Evidently the damage to the city was limited, for some two years later, as Roman troops were on the verge of attacking Jerusalem during the First Jewish Revolt, the Christians who lived in Jerusalem are said to have fled for safety across the Jordan River to the region of Peraea, especially to Pella (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 3.5.3–4; Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses 30.2.7–8). The choice of Pella as a city of refuge is further said to have been divinely revealed to a prophet in the Jerusalem church, but it can also be viewed on the pragmatic ground that Pella was the most easily reached of the hellenized cities of Transjordan and would have had no involvement in the insurrection against Rome. In view of the aforesaid distaste that the citizens of Hellenistic Pella had for Jewish customs and nationalism, it is likely that the majority of the Christians who took refuge in Pella came from a hellenized Jewish background. A sarcophagus excavated beneath the floor of the West Church at Pella may originally have contained the remains of a leader of that group who died during the sojourn.

Although these Christians are reported later to have returned to Jerusalem, the fact that the mid-second-century apologist Aristo came from Pella suggests that Christianity continued to exist in the city from that time onward. By the end of the fourth century CE, Pella had become a bishopric and Christianity had displaced most or all of the city's former religions. Three large churches were constructed during the Byzantine period, one of which—probably the city's cathedral—was located in the Civic Complex, another on the west side of the city, and the third on a high slope east of the city. The names of several bishops of the fifth and sixth centuries are known as participants in the church's ecumenical councils.

Pella probably reached its greatest size in the sixth century, when its international trade was extensive and its citizens were enjoying considerable prosperity. The city fell to its Islamic conquerors In 635 CE, after a major battle between the Byzantine and Islamic armies on the nearby plain of Fiḥl. Excavations have demonstrated that the city was taken peacefully into the Early Umayyad Empire, with a gradual transition from its former Byzantine culture and economy.

The city was destroyed in a violent earthquake In 746/47 CE but was not entirely deserted. Excavations to the northeast of the mound have uncovered substantial buildings from the ῾Abbasid period in the ninth and tenth centuries CE. These remains, along with those of the earlier Umayyad occupation, make Pella a type-site for the early Islamic settlement of Jordan. There was some occupation of the site during Mamluk and Early Ottoman times, supported by sugar production. During the Mamluk period a mosque was constructed on top of the mound, but the city itself was never rebuilt.


  • Hennessy, J. Basil, et al. “Pella.” In Archaeology of Jordan, vol. 2, Field Reports, edited by Denys Homès-Fredericq and J. Basil Hennessy, pp. 406–441. Louvain, 1989. Lengthy survey of the Pella excavations; the bibliography should also be consulted.
  • McNicoll, Anthony W., Robert Houston Smith, and J. Basil Hennessy. Pella in Jordan 1: An Interim Report on the Joint University of Sydney and the College of Wooster Excavations at Pella, 1979–1981. Canberra, 1982. Contains some material that will not be repeated in the final excavation report series, Pella of the Decapolis.
  • McNicoll, Anthony W., and Robert Houston Smith, et al. Pella in Jordan 2: The Second Interim Report of the Joint University of Sydney and the College of Wooster Excavations at Pella, 1982–1985. Sydney, 1992. Detailed report of excavations to the end of 1985, containing some material that will not be repeated in the final excavation report series.
  • Smith, Robert Houston. The 1967 Season of the College of Wooster Expedition to Pella. Pella of the Decapolis, vol. 1. Wooster, Ohio, 1973. First volume in a series of final excavation reports of the Wooster Expedition to Pella and the Sydney-Wooster Joint Expedition.
  • Smith, Robert Houston. “Excavations at Pella of the Decapolis, 1979–1985.” National Geographic Research 1 (1985): 470–489. Overview of the results of the first seven seasons of the Sydney-Wooster Joint Expedition to Pella.
  • Smith, Robert Houston. “Trade in the Life of Pella of the Decapolis.” In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, vol. 3, edited by Adnan Hadidi, pp. 53–58. Amman, 1987. Discusses the extent to which international commerce was a factor in Pella's history.
  • 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. Second volume in a series of final excavation reports.
  • Smith, Robert Houston. “The Southern Levant in the Hellenistic Period.” Levant 22 (1990): 123–130. Discusses the Hellenistic period in Palestine and Transjordan in light of historical and archaeological evidence, with particular reference to Pella.

J. Basil Hennessy and Robert Houston Smith

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2022. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice