BibArch Home Up Abila Bet She'an Jerash Madaba Pella



Search Site
Concepts & Theory
Levantine Fieldwork
Travel & Touring
The Levant
Biblical Chronology
Marking Time
Music and The Bible
Helps & Aids
Words & Phrases
Photo Gallery
Useful Links
Works Cited
Article Submissions

© 1997-2008
High Top Media

All Rights Reserved.

Legal Notices

Official PayPal Seal


BibArch Home Up

A city in the Decapolis prominent in Roman times. The venue of the ancient city, mostly not excavated, is a major archaeological site in the Transjordan. The modern village is Khirbet Fahil.


Nestled within the lower foothills of eastern slope of the Jordan Valley, approximately 100 km to the northwest of Amman, lies the site of the ancient city of Pella. It stands about eighteen miles south of the Sea of Galilee (Lake K) and about seven miles southeast of Bet She'an. The 80-minute drive to Pella and its modern-day companion village of Tabaqat Fahl is one of the most scenic in Jordan. After winding through the mountains and forest terrain of Salt, Zai, Ajlun and Kanja into the green, rolling hills of the Jordan Valley it is easy to see why Pella was so successful. The valley has some of the region’s most fertile land and the topography provides a natural shield from winds and harsh winters. In addition, the area has an unusually ample supply of water due to moderate rainfalls and a number of perennial springs.

Shepherds water their sheep at the large spring at the base of the tell. A BIBARCH™ Photo.


There are two tells on the site.

Pella reached its greatest splendor under Roman rule, especially during the Pax Romana, and many of its visible ruins date from this time including:

  • The Odeon, a 400-seat covered theatre located just below the Civic Center Complex. The Odeon, built during the first Century CE,  had inlaid yellow and pink stones on its facing walls.

  • The public baths, located just north of the Odeon. Pella was famed for her healing, warm-water baths.

  • A number of tombs and family mausolea.

The Area IX Civic Complex includes a Byzantine basilica from the Sixth Century CE. The structure is known as the Byzantine Cathedral Church. A massive earthquake, at the end of the Umayyad period, destroyed Pella in CE 749/750. The city was never rebuilt.

The remnants of the Byzantine Cathedral Church, constructed ca. 500/600 CE,  with a view of the present day visitor's center  on the hill to the upper right. A BIBARCH™ Photo.

Since 1978, the University of Sydney, Australia, has an annual expedition to Pella under the oversight of Professor Emeritus J. B. Hennessy. More information is available at The Australian Expedition to Pella In Jordan web site. The web site provides an excavation history, excavation news, a bibliography, and volunteer information.


In Roman times Pella, now known as Tabaqat Fahil, was a city in the Decapolis. Although the visible ruins at Pella are not as breathtaking, or as extensive, as those in Jerash (ancient Gerasa) or Bet She'an (ancient Scythopolis), the site is an important one. When fully excavated and restored the site may be as extensive as Bet She'an and Jerash. What makes this ancient site fascinating are the artifacts and ruins testifying to the diverse groups who settled, conquered, and resettled the area in the last eight thousand years. The archaeological evidence suggests continuous occupation of the site from Neolithic times with some evidence suggesting human activity for about 500 thousand years.

Egyptian scrolls from approximately 1900 BCE. record a pharaoh’s curse on the city of Phillum, an Egyptian corruption of Fihl, the city’s original name. Located at the crossroads of trade routes, Fihl would have been the site of active trade between regions as distant as Egypt, Cyprus and Babylon. There is also evidence that Fihl was known for its agriculture and production of chariot wheel spokes. Hence, the citizens probably enjoyed relative comfort and prosperity through most of the time of ancient Israel. Although there are no specific references about the people of Fihl in the Hebrew Scriptures artifacts reveal that they worshipped Astarte and presumably participated in the pagan rituals common to the Canaanite peoples of that time. Like many others in the region, the citizens of Fihl saw their city conquered and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

After remaining uninhabited for nearly three-hundred years, Seleucus I, or perhaps Antiochus III, rebuilt the city giving it the name it Pella after the birthplace of Alexander the Great. During the Hellenistic period the city again became a center of international trade and commerce, as well as a strategic military holding. Today, the main mound of the civic center complex and the fortress atop Jabal Sartaba (located one mile to the southeast) testify to the growth of Pella at this time. Jabal Sartaba is of special note because of the commanding view it provides of the Jordan Valley, the castle at Ajlun (10 miles to the southeast), Mt. Carmel, and on clear days Mt. Hermon (located 70 miles away in Syria).

Pella's trade and population continued to grow until about 82 BCE. when the Hasmonean ruler of Israel, Alexander Jannaeus, sacked the city. Pella, according to Josephus, "they utterly destroyed, because its inhabitants would not bear to change their religious rites for those peculiar to the Jews" (Josephus, Ant., bk. XII, ch. xv, sec. 4; Whiston, 1957:405). The Hasmonean practice was to compel conquered peoples to repudiate their idolatrous religions and to embrace the Law of Moses, as proselytes, or face banishment. For punishment, Jannaeus had the city set afire which burned so hot that it scorched the ground.

With Pompey’s crushing of the Hasmoneans in 63 BCE, Pella once again received a new chance at life. Pompey organized it, along with nine other cities in the region including Damascus, Gerasa (Jerash), Philadelphia (Amman), and Scythopolis (Bet She'an), into a federation known as the Decapolis for trade and a mutual defense capable of resisting any military intrusions of the Jews, Nabatians, or other indigenous peoples.

Christian Refuge

Children at play in the ruins of Pella. A BIBARCH™ Photo.

In early Christian tradition it was to Pella that Judeo-Christians from Jerusalem, known in Judea and Galilee as the Nazarenes and outside the Jewish homeland as the Church of God (Hebrew: qehal'el; Greek: ekklesia tou Theou), fled to escape the onslaught of the Roman army against Judea and Jerusalem during the First Jewish Revolt (CE 66-70).

Archaeologist Bargil Pixner argues that some of them returned to Jerusalem after CE 73 where they built a small synagogue on Mount Zion (Pixner 1990, 1991) near the remains of the House of the High Priest Caiaphas. This synagogue, now known as David’s Tomb, later became known as the Church of the Apostles and, if authentic, it is the oldest building of the ancient Church still extant.

If indeed Pella, with a predominantly Greek population, pro-Roman alliances and loyalty, and an east of the Jordan river location, managed to remain out of harm's way during the First Jewish Revolt, then refugees would presumably be in the region. The Jerusalem Christians, known as the Nazarenes, may have been part of such a contingent. For them, members of a revitalization movement which had dropped the Mosaic covenant, rejected halakah, and integrated uncircumcised Gentiles into their fellowship, to seek refuge among the Greeks of the Decapolis would be consistent with their religious ideology. Moreover, as pacifists early Judeo-Christians would not have been a threat to Rome but rather viewed as nonpartisans. If Pixner is correct, about CE 73 some of these Judeo-Christians returned to Jerusalem and build a small synagogue on Mt. Sion. This would suggest Rome's sanction or at least its acquiescence. For the time being these matters will have to remain working hypotheses based upon historical material.

Eusebius, writing 250 years after the fact believed the church of Jerusalem fled before the war which is likely an anti-Judaic invention, writes:

The whole body, however, of the church at Jerusalem, having been commanded by a divine revelation, given to men of approved piety there before the war, removed from the city, and dwelt at a certain town beyond the Jordan, called Pella. Here those that believed in Christ, having removed from Jerusalem, as if holy men had entirely abandoned the royal city itself, and the whole land of Judea; the divine justice, for their crimes against Christ and his apostles finally overtook them, totally destroying the whole generation of these evildoers form the earth. (Eusebius, bk. 3, ch. 5.)

Eusebius apparently based his opinion on Ariston of Pella (Lüdemann 1980:165-166 following A. Schlatter; Koester 1989:92) although most writers credit the Memoirs of Hegesippus. The apologist Ariston was a Judeo-Christian writer, ca. CE 150, belonging to the congregation of Pella (Baus 1990:208; Quasten 1950:195f; Koester 1989:92). Hegesippus was an orthodox writer, ca. CE 180, who traveled about collecting evidence and recording traditions with an orthodox spin thereby linking “‘correct’ tradition and succession with order and unanimity” (Johnson 1976:53).

The conditions described by Josephus suggest a gradual migration starting in CE 64. The Greek verb used by Eusebius is metokismenon, meaning migrated, and so translated in the Loeb (Lake 1959:200-201) and Penguin (Williamson 1965:68) editions. The popular perception that the mother congregation “fled” is a hermeneutic based upon Jesus’ prophecy about the end of the age in Matthew 24.

While direct evidence of the presence of Judeo-Christian refugees at Pella is wanting, Bellarmino Bagatti, in his The Church from the Circumcision, unconvincing argues the probative value of the circumstantial evidence of a coin minted at Pella with the inscription Judaea capta (Jewish captives) as a record of the advent of these refugee Jews in Pella (Bagatti 1971a:8).

Gerd Lüdemann, in a thoughtful analysis of the flight to Pella tradition, attempted to falsify it suggesting that the tradition was an invention of Jewish Christians at Pella aiming to link their origins back to an apostle and the original Jerusalem congregation in order to legitimate their form of Jewish Christianity (Lüdemann 1980). Craig Koester carefully reconsidered Lüdemann’s contentions and argued that the Pella tradition probably recalls first-century events based upon independent traditions preserved in Epiphanius (see Panarion 29.7.7-8; 30.2.7) and in the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions (see Recognitions 1.37 and 1.39; Roberts and Donaldson 1985-1987:8:87-88; Koester 1989:97-103). The historicity of the matter remains unresolved.

John A. T. Robinson summarizes the matter as:

Moreover, the only tradition we have as to what Christians actually did, or were told to do, is that preserved by Eusebius apparently on the basis of the Memoirs of Hegesippus used also by Epiphanius. This says that they had been commanded by an oracle given "before the war" to depart from the city, and that so far from taking to the mountains of Judea, as Mark’s instruction implies, they were to make for Pella, a Greek city of the Decapolis, which lay below sea level on the east side of the Jordan valley. (Robinson 1976:16.)

In any case, some Christian scholars speculate that the flight of the last remaining members of the church at Jerusalem on the Feast of Pentecost in CE 69, may have been recorded by Flavius Josephus who writes:

Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost as the priests were going by night into the inner court of the temple...they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking and heard a sound as of a multitude saying, ‘Let us remove hence.’ (Josephus, Wars, bk. VI, ch. v, sec. 3; Whiston 1957:825.)

In all fairness, this earthquake may have led many in the city to say "Let’s get out of here!" without their being members of the Jerusalem mother church. The evidence is certainly not conclusive.

Firm archaeological evidence of the refuge in Pella and return to Jerusalem remain inconclusive. The literary accounts are of limited value because of the speculative and highly redacted nature of Josephus, and the remote and hearsay nature of Eusebius and Epiphanius. Moreover, there is no hard evidence suggesting that they reported any more than the unsubstantiated traditions they encountered in the highly superstitious context of Byzantine Christianity.

Due to the influx of refugees to the area, Christianity began to take on a new importance in Pella during the decline of the Roman empire. As a result, the transition from Roman to Byzantine eras saw little change in the prosperity of the city. Pella sent bishops to the Councils in Ephesus, Chalcedon and Jerusalem to represent a population that had grown to over 25,000 by the 6th century CE. The East, West and Civic Center churches all date from this time period, as do a number of houses and shops and a cavalry barracks located on the east summit of Tell Husn.

Although the transition from Byzantine to Muslim rule occurred by a peaceful means -- a covenant agreeing to pay poll and land taxes in CE 635, Pella was already in decline. The late Byzantine period had seen a decrease in water supply, an invasion by the Persians, a devastating earthquake and an epidemic of bubonic plague. Once under Islamic rule, Fihl was once again established as the city’s official name and its influence in trade reduced to a modest regional role. Although the city was still inhabited as late as the tenth Century CE, it was the deadly earthquake of CE 747 that ended its long history as a city of major influence in the region.

Page last edited: 04/06/06 09:18 PM


Thank you for visiting BIBARCH
Please Visit Our Site Often