'Alas for me, I am dead': Greco-Roman tomb in Jordan offers clues about life in Capitolias

A tomb discovered by a bulldozer may show how the Aramaic population dealt with Greek and Roman overlords

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Six years ago, a bulldozer was digging foundations for sewage pipes near the Jordanian city of Irbid when it burst into an ancient tomb.

The site turned out to be one of the most important archaeological finds in recent times in Hauran, a plain at the crossroads of the ancient world, stretching from the north of modern day Jordan to the outskirts of Damascus.

Enough details survived, mainly from a red mural on one wall of the tomb, to discern 64 Greek and Aramaic inscriptions written above figures depicting workers and other people.

Many were builders of Capitolias, one of a group of cities called the Decapolis League. Pliny the Elder wrote about it in Natural History, his epic work, almost two millennia ago.

The 10 or so Greek cities were founded or expanded as part of Rome's drive to establish vassal states that would act as an eastern buffer in the aftermath of its conquest of Palestine in 63AD.

“Alas for me. I am dead”, a phrase on the wall reads next to a figure of a man apparently falling from the city wall of Capitolias.

“Thick, stupid,” reads another inscription above a scene of two men facing each other.

Other scenes show masons, quarries, architects, labourers and methods for transporting and moving construction material, according to a summary of a study by the Institut Francais du Proche-Orient (Ifpo).

The inscriptions, as well as other frescoes in the tomb, depict daily life and hint as to how the local Aramaic population dealt with Greek and Roman overlords, and the Gods invoked in the construction of Capitolias, the study says.

Opposite the entrance, which leads to a 38 square-metre main room, is a large basalt sarcophagus. No one knows who the tomb was for. Additional bodies were placed in it for hundreds of years, although it could have originally been built for someone who was influential in the city's construction.

The National was let into the tomb as part of a tour organised by Jordan’s Department of Antiquities for French diplomats and personnel from Ifpo, one of several western organisations working with the department to preserve and study the site through a US-funded project.

Among them is the American Centre of Oriental Research and the Italian Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro, which is has been involved for years in rescuing Qusayr Amra, an Umayyad era gem in Jordan's eastern desert.

The two-chamber tomb is accessible only by ladder because its main entrance is buried under the terrain. It is situated next to a government school in Beit Ras, a suburb of Irbid, Jordan’s second city.

There are no plans to open the tomb to the public anytime soon, and most of Capitolias remains unexcavated. But there are many other archaeological sites nearby, such as the ruins of Gadara, another member of the Decapolis League with views of the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee.

The Dar Al Saraya Museum in Irbid, the provincial capital, has artefacts spanning the 16,000 year history of the region. They are housed in the old saray building, Irbid’s seat of rule during the Ottoman era.

An easy-going mood prevails in the region, partly because of its commercial and societal links to a more cosmopolitan Syria.

Ziad Ghnimat, director of antiquities in the Irbid governorate, was constantly smiling throughout the tour of Bayt Ras tomb, proud of his home city of Irbid and its history.

He pointed out the ruins of a 5,000-seat theatre, unearthed in Bayt Ras in the 1990s, obscured from view by humble concrete houses and an olive grove.

He said beneath the modern construction sits possibly a site as expansive as Jerash, the best preserved city of the Decapolis, or Gadara.

But they do not have Capitolias's tomb.

“It is rare that we find depictions detailing the construction of an ancient city, let alone one belonging to Decapolis”, Mr Ghnimat said.

“In that aspect the tomb is unique.”

Updated: June 25, 2022, 8:43 AM