Lonely columns that once supported three open-air theatres, a basilica and a temple dotted the hilltop. From Alomariâs home, I took in the dramatic view of the Sea of Galilee and Israel. A little further east, Syriaâs south-western corner spread out before me.
Forty-five years ago, Alomari was born in this very place â a humble house built from ancient stones left behind by Roman-era inhabitants.
But the site of Alomariâs childhood home has a history dating back to the 7th Century BC; the Ptolemies and then the Seleucids occupied the city before the Romans arrived in the 1st Century BC. Strategically positioned along trade routes, Gadara enjoyed a golden age of economic and cultural growth, with artists and scholars flocking to the city. But after several centuries, Gadaraâs popularity and influence began to decline. Changes in trade routes and a series of earthquakes that destroyed the cityâs infrastructure in the 8th Century likely contributed to Gadaraâs ultimate abandonment. What was left of the Roman-era structures lay empty for a millennium.
In the late 19th Century, new life came to the ancient acropolis. âAt that time, the people here were nomadic, pastoral and farmers,â Alomari explained. When one group â including some of Alomariâs ancestors â discovered the skeleton of the former hilltop city, complete with water wells and building materials, and in close proximity to farmable land and the Yarmouk River, they decided to put down roots. Alomariâs great-grandfather was likely one of the first people to take up residence in the ruins and help build a new village on the foundation of the ancient city.
âThese are 2,000 years old,â Alomari said, running his hand along the rocks that form the walls of his former home. âBut my father built this house less than 100 years ago.â
In the 1960s, Jordanâs Department of Antiquities declared Gadara an archaeological site; itâs now awaiting consideration for Unesco World Heritage status. Stoves and other elements not considered to be of cultural and historic value were removed, and the homes built by Alomariâs community fell into disrepair. âThe Department of Antiquities forbade us from doing maintenance on our homes,â he said.
âThe first excavation I saw was in the late 1970s,â Alomari recalled. Shortly thereafter, Gadaraâs 1,500 residents were told to relocate.
Some families moved out almost immediately, purchasing modern homes in nearby Jordanian cities like Um Qais. âLife wasnât easy in the village,â Alomari explained. âWe had to bring water from the well, wash clothes by hand. It was dusty. There were snakes and scorpions. And we only had electricity for a few hours each evening, provided by a generator.â
But even as a child, Alomari recognised that the heart of a place is its people. âWithout the families, the village became a body without a soul.â
Without the families, the village became a body without a soul
Growing up in the archaeological site, Alomari loved sharing village life with visitors; Gadara has long been a site of Christian pilgrimage, with many believing it to be the place where Jesus Christ cast the demons from two men into a drove of pigs. Alomariâs interactions with foreigners remain some of his first and favourite memories.
âWhen we lived here, travellers visiting Gadara would come to our house,â he said. âTheyâd sit here on our terrace, drink tea and eat with us.â
He stood up from the stone window sill and I followed, stepping down over the derelict rectangular stones piled in front of his former home. âThe first time I spoke to a tourist, I was about eight years old,â he recalled. âIt was in here,â he said as we approached the entrance to the restored Roman theatre on the western side of the site. âMy friends and I also played hide-and-seek here,â he added, his voice bouncing off the curved basalt seats surrounding us.
We continued our walk through the ancient city, making our way past the abandoned trader stalls along the paved Roman road, and up the hill towards the cluster of free-standing columns that mark where the basilica once stood. âWe used to play football here,â Alomari said. âThese were our goal posts.â On this day, there were no children running or playing; in fact, there wasnât another person in sight.
âAnd that,â he added, glancing at an upper terrace dotted with modern tables and chairs, âis a restaurant now. But it used to be my school.â Alomariâs voice dropped and I detected a distinct sadness.
âWhen my family moved to the new house in Um Qais in 1987, I refused to leave my village,â Alomari said. He was just 14 years old at that time. âI stayed three days by myself. I slept in a tent on our roof in the old village, with just my donkey and bicycle below.â
A few years after his family relocated, Alomari heard the archaeologists were seeking English-speaking assistants to help with excavations. Although his language skills were extremely limited, his determination was boundless. âThey called me in and asked if I could speak English. I knew if I said no, they wouldnât give me the job.â So he stretched the truth and they hired him. Although he struggled to communicate, Alomari devoted his time to assisting with the excavations and improving his English over the course of the six-week assignment.
His hard work paid off: he was offered a job as a live-in guard in the small antiquities museum located inside the archaeological site. âI didnât even ask about a contract or payment,â Alomari said. âThe only thing I cared about was that I could finally live in my village again.â
The only thing I cared about was that I could finally live in my village again
He made the most of the opportunity â working with archaeologists and interacting with tourists by day, and studying everything from English to archaeology by night. âI was in the museum alone at night, so I read everything I could,â he said. âMy first salary was about 100 dinars. And I used a quarter of it to buy my first Arabic-English dictionary.â
That dictionary came in handy in his conversations with colleagues, tourists and even a special someone. âI fell in love with a German girl who visited Um Qais,â Alomari confessed. The two spent much of her holiday together, communicating in English as neither could speak the otherâs native tongue. âWhen she returned home, I wrote her a letter in English â only about 10 lines that took me three or four hours to write!â When she replied with her own 14-page letter, he had to pull out his dictionary and his romantic side. âI started to read and write poetry,â Alomari said, smiling.
Although the young lovers never met again, Alomari found happiness living and working at Gadara. While he no longer lives within the archaeological site, he continues to assist the Department of Antiquities in its preservation efforts and guide visitors around the ruins. But the absence of life at his old village still haunts him.
Alomariâs dream is for the former villagers to once again inhabit their homes inside the site, but he knows this is not possible. So heâs found the next best option: partnering with community-based tourism initiatives like Baraka Destinations and The Jordan Trail to facilitate engaging experiences such as homestays and cooking workshops. Alomari also hopes to one day host his own guests at a countryside homestay he is developing.
Without the people and the stories, Gadara is simply stones
âI already have the name,â he said, his smile wide once again. âIt will be called, âPhilodemosâ.â Philodemus was a 1st Century BC philosopher and poet of Gadara â not entirely unlike Alomari himself.
âAnd do you know what his name means?â Alomari asked. âPhilos is âfriendâ or âloverâ, and demos is âthe peopleâ.â
âFriend… of the people,â I said aloud. As Alomari described his vision of welcoming visitors into his countryside home to share stories and break bread, I couldnât help but nod enthusiastically. Without the people and the stories, the archaeological site â stunning as it may be â is simply stones.