Background Information on Abila
The first European explorer to examine the ruins of Abila was Ulrich Seetzen, the German scholar best known as the "discoverer" of Gerasa (Jerash). In January 19, 1806, dressed as an Arab sheik, Seetzen and his Arab guide left Damascus on horseback and reached the ruins of Tell Abil on February 25, 1806. He found the city in utter ruins with no monument standing, but he does not fail to remark that the former glory of the city was very evident. Johann Burckhardt, most famous for his "discovery" of the rose-red city of Petra, came close to visiting Abila but decided to visit Umm Qeis instead, less than 12 miles from Abila (1812).
In February of 1888, with the aegis of the newly formed German Society for the Exploration of Palestine--patterned after the British Palestine Exploration Fund--C.E. Gottlieb Schumacher crossed the Wadi el-Kueilby from the east. In front of him stood the impressive ruins of Abila of the Decapolis. The site had been generally known by the local bedouin as El Kueilby (Kueilby being the diminutive form of the Arabic word for "well." Hence the name means "small/little well"). Said Schumacher, "We were thus on the very spot discovered by Seetzen on the 25th of February, 1806, which he considered to be the Abila of the Decapolis, and which, to my knowledge, has not been visited or described by any subsequent explorer."
Nelson Glueck included Abila in his extensive survey of Transjordan in the 1930's and 40's. Although he does not mention much about the site, he does remark that it served as an easy quarry for nearby villages to pillage for the purpose of constructing their homes. Glueck suggested that Abila is a possible candidate for Abel Meholah, home of the Old Testament prophet Elijah: 1.) The modern name preserves the Semitic "Abel." 2.) The site is furnished with a substantial perennial stream, and 3.) The site is situated on one of the direct roads to Damascus. Glueck's collection and identification of the sherds from Abila is his major contribution to the investigation of the site.
In the summer of 1979, W. Harold Mare of the Covenant Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri traveled to Jordan to explore possible excavation sites in northern Jordan. As a Professor of New Testament studies, he was especially interested in the Decapolis region. He visited Tell Abil with his daughter Myra (Mare) Ovshak. He later applied to the Department of Antiquities of Jordan for a permit to conduct an archaeological survey at Abila. Thus began a new era in the history of the research of Abila. Dr. Mare's American team would conduct the first extensive archaeological examination of Abila.
Surface sherding (surface survey) conducted in 1980 by Dr. Harold Mare and team revealed that Abila's history extended to the Iron and Early Bronze periods. Excavations at the site have conclusively shown that the archaeological history actually reaches back even to the Neolithic Age (8000 B.C.-4000 B.C.). At present, the Greco-Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods are the main focus of investigation.
Artistically, the site has yielded beautiful mosaics. Those in Area A provided a grand path from the North-South Cardo Maximus (main road) leading up to the entry level of the impressively constructed, tri-apsidal basalt church. This, with six other basilicas, three water tunnels, and a plethora of other exciting finds shows that the population at Abila during the Late Roman and Early Byzantine periods was quite considerable. One find revealed an inscription located in one of the water tunnels of Umm el 'Amad. It indicated that Abila had a bishop (episcopos) in the mid-sixth century. The investigation and survey of the subterranean/hydraulic system found that it was very extensive.
Again, this substantiates the extensive occupation and activity of the Byzantine Christians in Transjordan during the sixth century. Significant evidence is coming to light from excavations being carried out at other Decapolis sites. Work has and is being done at Scythopolis (Beth Shan), Philadelphia (Amman), Heliopolis (Baalbak), Damascus, Gadara (Umm Qeis), Gerasa (Jerash), and Pella (Tabaqat Fahl).