Pella of the Decapolis
A mountain refuge for the first century church.

Looking down at ruins of Pella. Note church ruins in valley and older ruins on upper right hill
(both are shown again in photos below)

A panorama showing about 120 degrees, taken 3 years after the photo above it.
Though sunny, a sandstorm greatly limited visibility on the horizon.
Click on this photo for a closer examination. If your browser auto resizes to keep it small,
don't forget to click on it again to zoom in and scroll (use back button on your browser to return).

Pella (now known in Arabic as Tabaqat Fahl) is located about 2 miles (3 km) east of the Jordan River and approximately 78 miles (125 km) north of Amman (Philadelphia of the Decapolis or the ancient Rabbah of the Ammonites). It has a spring-fed source of water, which flows into the small valley next to it called Wadi Jurm, making it a prime location for occupation. It was a known Canaanite city, dating back to at least the 19th century B.C., as it was mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions of that period under its early name of Pahila or Pihulum. Tomb excavations also confirm the early Canaanite culture of the area.

Following the Exodus Pella was included in the tribal region Gad. While there is archaeological evidence that the city was in use during the Iron Age, there is little evidence that the Israelites exercised full control of the city. The Bible is correspondingly silent about Pella during this time. Even less evidence has been found dating from 600 to 200 B.C. leading speculation that the city may have been reduced to a relatively uninhabited village during this time.

There was enough population by 218 B.C. to note that the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III overran Pella as well as laying siege to Gadara, having come across the Jordan. Following this, early in the second century B.C., Pella experienced substantial growth. In this period it adopted Hellenistic culture, a key feature of all the Decapolis cities, and Hellenized its name to Pella (possible in honor of Alexander the Great's birthplace).

The Roman general Pompey later capture the region in 63 B.C., and was heralded as a liberator by many of the Hellenized cities and towns, setting them free from the rule of the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus. It is as a Roman Decapolis city that Pella is indirectly mentioned, in the gospels, in association with the ministry of Jesus. This material will not be repeated here as it is covered in our main article on the Decapolis.

Moreover, he rebuilt Gadara, which had been demolished a little before, to gratify Demetrius of Gadara, who was his freedman, and restored the rest of the cities, Hippos, and Scythopolis, and Pella, and Dios, and Samaria, as also Marissa, and Ashdod, and Jamnia, and Arethusa, to their own inhabitants: these were in the inland parts. Besides those that had been demolished, and also of the maritime cities, Gaza, and Joppa, and Dora, and Strato's Tower; which last Herod rebuilt after a glorious manner, and adorned with havens and temples, and changed its name to Caesarea. All these Pompey left in a state of freedom, and joined them to the province of Syria. (Antiquities of the Jews 14.4.4)1

Ruins of a large Byzantine Church in the valley (see below for more photos)

Christianity came early to this city and its primary claim to fame, for Christians, is that it served as a place of refuge for believers who fled the coming siege and destruction of Jerusalem in the first century (circa 67 A.D.4), during the Great Jewish Revolt that led to the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.. The early church understood Jesus' words in Matthew 24 as pertaining to their day, not a far future end times event at Jesus' physical return.2

Matthew 24:15-20 "So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel - let the reader understand- 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. (NIV)


As the Christians foresaw the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the desecration of the temple, first of all by the Jewish factions in Jerusalem, which was completed by the Romans under Titus, they fled. The mountains of Gilead, near the northern edge of the region of Perea, is where Pella is located, making it a fitting destination for the call to "flee to the mountains."

Now the length of Perea is from Macherus to Pella, and its breadth from Philadelphia to Jordan; its northern parts are bounded by Pella, as we have already said, as well as its Western with Jordan; the land of Moab is its southern border, and its eastern limits reach to Arabia, and Silbonitis, and besides to Philadelphene and Gerasa. (Josephus: Wars of the Jews 3.3.3)

The region around Jerusalem, in the hill country of Judea, had many possible "mountain" refuges, but a destination outside of Judea was selected. The route to which was northward through the Jordan valley. The church historian Eusebius, writing in 325 A.D., states that their destination was "commanded by a revelation", giving credit to God for providing the time of necessary departure and their destination. Through this God spared all believers in Jerusalem from the judgment which was about to befall it.

But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men. (Eusebius: Church History 3.5.3)3

One commentary even notes that the circumstances, which allowed for the Christians to flee, were both extraordinary and necessary.

Accordingly, Cestus Gallus, when advancing on Jerusalem, unaccountably withdrew for a brief space, giving Christians the opportunity of obeying Christ's words by fleeing to Pella. (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, article on Zechariah 11:11)

Unfortunately the flight of the Christians was viewed as a sign of disloyalty by the other Jews in the region.

It is also understood that this act of foresight based on the Messiah's own warning and instruction was taken by the non-Messianic Jews as an act of disloyalty to the nation in time of war, and it became a major cause for resenting Jewish believers and taking sanctions against them. (Jewish New Testament Commentary Copyright © 1992 by David H. Stern. Article on Luke 21:20-23)

Much of the city was destroyed in A.D. 749 by earthquake and the area fell into relative obscurity, inhabited only as a small village. Only a small portion of the ruins of Pella have been excavated, beginning in 1979, with more being planned.

Excavation, includes Byzantine to pre-Roman ruins (2005)

Same as photo above, except 3 years later (2008)


Panarama collage of main excavation area (2008).
Click on photo for larger view (use browser back button to return)

View from main excavation looking upwards to lower church and (look carefully) the upper church
at the center of the photo, two-thirds up (see close up three photos below)

Lower church again

Another angle looking at the lower church

Ruins of the upper church, almost hidden from the valley floor.

End Notes

1. Josephus also writes about the same things in his Wars of the Jews:

He [Pompey] also took away from the nation all those cities that they had formerly taken, and that belonged to Celesyria, and made them subject to him that was at that time appointed to be the Roman president there; and reduced Judea within its proper bounds. He also rebuilt Gadara, that had been demolished by the Jews, in order to gratify one Demetrius, who was of Gadara, and was one of his own freed-men. He also made other cities free from their dominion, that lay in the midst of the country, such, I mean, as they had not demolished before that time; Hippos, and Scythopolis, as also Pella, and Samaria, and Marissa; and besides these Ashdod, and Jamnia, and Arethusa; and in like manner dealt he with the maritime cities, Gaza, and Joppa, and Dora, and that which was anciently called Strato's Tower, but was afterward rebuilt with the most magnificent edifices, and had its name changed to Caesarea, by king Herod. All which he restored to their own citizens, and put them under the province of Syria; which province, together with Judea, and the countries as far as Egypt and Euphrates, he committed to Scaurus as their governor, and gave him two legions to support him; (Josephus: Wars of the Jews 1.7.7)

2. Many modern speculators regarding end-times prophecy, have taken the words of Matthew 24:15-20 to not only pertain to a future end-times event, prior to the return of the Lord, but have also made claims that the mountain destination has to be at Petra. A brief discussion regarding this is included part way through our article on Petra (this link is a specific bookmark).

3. Epiphanius, writing 375 A.D., tells much the same story.

"The Nazoraean sect exists in Berea near Coele Syria, in the Decapolis near the region of Pella, and in Bashan in the place called Cocaba, which in Hebrew is called Chochabe. That is where the sect began, when all the disciples were living in Pella after they moved from Jerusalem, since Christ told them to leave Jerusalem and withdraw because it was about to be besieged. For this reason they settled in Peraea and there, as I said, they lived. This is where the Nazoraean sect began." (Panarion 29:7:7-8)

Scholars are divided on exactly when the Christians fled. No reference to the event provides enough detail to prove it conclusively. Some claim 66 A.D. others 68 A.D. and a few place it just before the final siege of Jerusalem in early A.D. 70. The main thing we can be certain of is that it happened and at exactly the right time!

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