Set in a fold of the hills that overlook the Jordan Valley, Pella was perfectly situated, not least because of its perennial springs. Their lack of abundance today is due to the modern pump house, which has blemished one of the loveliest sites in Jordan.
Excavations (by Americans in 1958 and 1967; since 1979 by Australians) are stripping back the complex layers of Pella’s story. The main tell, inhabited since Neolithic times, includes Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age settlements; but by far the most significant early monument is on the south side of the tell – a large Middle Bronze Age temple with massive stone walls, built over an earlier mud brick version. This was again rebuilt, but in a smaller form, perhaps after an earthquake. More destruction in the Iron Age, in both the 10th and 9th centuries BC, led to more rebuilding, each smaller than the one before.
The first literary reference to the site is also Middle Bronze Age, in the 19th century BC, when it is referred to in Egyptian texts as Pihilum, or Pehel. It was an active trade centre, which had links with Syria and Cyprus as well as with Egypt, for whom it supplied wood for making chariot spokes.
On the division of Alexander’s Empire its name was changed to Pella – either to honour Alexander’s birthplace, or as a Hellenisation of Pehel, or both. Its Arabic name too, Tabaqat Fahl, comes from this ancient name, for ‘f’ in Arabic derives from Aramaic p’
Pella changed hands recurrently between the Ptolemies and Seleucids, and in 83 BC was sacked by Alexander Jannaeus. After liberation by Pompey in 63 BC, its fortunes improved as a city of the Decapolis. Its only surviving Roman monuments are the scant remains of a small theatre, a bathhouse and a nymphaeum, and a fine wall of a temple of Serapis on the south side of the main church.
In AD 67 Pella provided a refuge for some Christians fleeing the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Later it became an episcopal see, and its bishops attended the Ecumenical Councils of the church. Prosperity continued in the Byzantine period when the settlement expanded and several churches were built.
In 635 the first victory of the new Islamic army over the Byzantines occurred near Pella, followed a year later by another victory near the Yarmouk River further north. Pella was a thriving Umayyad town for just over 100 years, with an attractive residential area on the tell. Some fine Umayyad pottery has been found here, made in the Jarash kilns. But the city was virtually destroyed in the massive earthquake of 749 – in one of the houses, excavators found the entwined skeletons of a man and woman, who clung together in fear when the earthquake struck. The woman was wearing a gown of Chinese silk.
The site continued to be occupied in the Abbasid and Mamluk periods, but it was now a smaller and more rural community. A mudbrick village still stood on the tell until 1967-68, when the villagers moved further down the hill to avoid Israeli air raids.
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