Jerash, located 48 km north of Amman and nestled in a quiet valley among the mountains of Gilead, is the grandeur of Imperial Rome being one of the largest and most well preserved sites of Roman architecture in the World outside Italy. To this day, its paved and colonnaded streets, soaring hilltop temples, handsome theaters, spacious public squares and plazas, baths, fountains and city walls pierced by towers and gates remain in exceptional condition.
This fascinating city of Jerash makes a great day-trip from Amman, particularly in spring, when the wildflowers are in bloom. The drive will take you less than an hour, but will transport you 2000 years back in time.
Within the remaining city walls, archeologists have found the ruins of settlements dating back to the Neolithic Age, indicating human occupation of this location for more than 6500 years. This is not surprising, as the area is ideally suited for human habitation. Jerash has a year-round supply of water, while its altitude of 500 meters gives it a temperate climate and excellent visibility over the surrounding low-lying areas.
The history of Jerash is a blend of the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean basin and the ancient traditions of the Arab Orient. Indeed, the name of the city itself reflects this interaction. The earliest Arabic/Semitic inhabitants named their village Garshu. The Romans later Hellenised the former Arabic name into Gerasa, and at the end of the 19th century, the Arab and Circassian inhabitants of the small rural settlement transformed the Roman Gerasa into the Arabic Jerash.
It was not until the days of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC that Jerash truly began to develop into a sizeable town. But it was during the period of Roman rule that Jerash, then known as Gerasa, enjoyed its golden age.
The first known historical reference to Jerash dates back to the 2nd or early 1st century BC. This reference is attributed to Josephus, a historian from the Holy Land, who referred to it as the the place to which Theodorus, the tyrant of Philadelphia, removed his treasure for safe keeping in the Temple of Zeus. Shortly afterward, Theodorus lost Jerash to Alexander Jannceus, a religious priest.
Soon after Rome took control of Syria, Emperor Pompey, in 63 BC, named conquered Jerash as one of the great cities of the Decapolis League. This brought great economic benefits to Jerash and trade flourished with the Nabataean Empire based in Petra.
In 106 AD, Emperor Trajan annexed the wealthy Nabataean Kingdom and formed the province of Arabia. This brought even greater trading riches pouring into Jerash, which enjoyed a burst of construction activity. Granite was brought from as far away as Egypt, and old temples were rebuilt according to the latest architectural fashion.
The city received yet another boost in stature with the visit of Emperor Hadrian in 129 AD. To honor its guest, the citizens raised a monumental Triumphal Arch at the southern end of the city. Jerash’s prosperity reached a peak in the beginning of the 3rd century, when it was bestowed with the rank of Roman Colony. During this “golden age”, Jerash may have had a population of 20,000 people.
The ancient city preserved today was the administrative, civic, commercial and cultural center of this community, while the majority of the city’s citizens lived on the east side of Jerash Valley.
As the 3rd century progressed, shipping began to take over as the main route for commerce. Jerash fell into decline as its previously lucrative trade routes became less traveled and therefore less valuable.
By the middle of the 5th century, Christianity had become the major religion of the region and numerous churches were constructed in Jerash. Many churches were constructed of stones taken from pagan temples – and the remains of several can be seen today.
Jerash was hit further by the Persian invasion of 615 AD and the Muslim conquest of 636 AD. A series of earthquakes in 749 AD did serious damage to the city and hastened its decline, and its population sank to 4000.
The Crusaders described Jerash as uninhabited, and it remained abandoned until its rediscovery in 1806, when Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, a German traveler, came across and recognized a small part of the ruins. The ancient city was buried in sand, which accounts for its remarkable preservation. It has been gradually revealed through a series of excavations, which started in 1925, and continue to this day.
Believe it or not, there is only one hotel in Jerash, the Hadrian’s Gate Hotel, just opposite to Hadrian’s Arch! This is a very small and simple hotel – although there is a terrace on the roof with a great view. Otherwise the closest hotel is a delightful one : the Olive Branch on a hill about 15kms or 10 miles away. See www.olivebranch.com.jo. This hotel is popular also with Jordanians for a family week end, if you are expecting to be there on a Friday it is advisable to book well in advance. It is also popular with tour companies, so perhaps better book anyway!
Main attractions in Jerash
Built to commemorate the visit of the Emperor Hadrian to Gerasa in 129 AD, this splendid triumphal arch was intended to become the main southern gate to the city but the expansion plans were never completed. One unusual feature of its construction is the wreaths of carved acanthus leaves above the bases of the pillars.
The massive arena, 245 m long and 52 m wide (only part of which has been restored) could seat 15000 spectators to watch athletic competitions, horse races, chariot races, and other sports. The exact date of its construction is unclear; between the mid-2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
City Walls & South Gate
Approaching the city from the Visitor’s Center, you see the impressive city walls, built at the beginning of the 4th century, most probably by Emperor Diocletian, and repeatedly expanded afterwards. The present walls are Byzantine and had a total length of 3456 m. The South Gate through which you enter Jerash, dates from 130 AD and has a characteristic carved acanthus-leaf decoration. The open area inside the gate was used as a marketplace, and a 2nd century olive press is visible behind a wooden screen.
The spacious plaza measures 90 x 80 m and is surrounded by a broad sidewalk and a colonnade of 1st century Ionic columns. There are 2 altars in the middle, and a fountain was added in the 7th century AD. This square structure now supports a central column, which was recently erected to carry the Jerash Festival flame.
The Cardo -Colonnaded Street
Still paved with the original stones – the ruts worn by chariot wheels still visible – the 800 m Cardo was the architectural spine and focal point of Gerasa. The colonnaded street was remodeled in the late 2nd century AD, probably after 170 AD. The Ionic columns were replaced by more elaborate Corinthian columns. On either side was a broad sidewalk with shops, which can still be clearly seen. An underground sewage system ran the full length of the Cardo, and the regular holes at the sides of the street drained rainwater into the sewers.
Halfway up the Cardo, the Colonnade becomes larger and taller, marking the entrance to the Macellum or market place, a building to the left of the colonnaded street. The inscription on the adjacent lion’s head fountain is dated 211 AD.
A newly excavated Umayyad mosque. Currently under excavation as of Aug 2006!
The intersection of the Cardo with the first cross street, the South Decumanus, was marked by 4 still visible pedestals, which supported columns and probably a pyramidal structure.
To the right, the south Decumanus runs east to a 73 m bridge which led to the town wall and residential quarter of Gerasa. Most of this is now buried under modern Jerash, with the exception of the East Baths, which can be seen across the modern road to the left of the mosque.
At the western end of the South Decumanus is an Early Islamic Umayyad housing quarter inhabited from 660 to 800 AD. The south bridge led to the residential quarter and to the eastern gate.
Further up the Cardo on the left is the monumental and richly carved gateway of the 2nd century Roman Temple of Dionysus. In the 4th century the temple was rebuilt as a Byzantine church, now called the Cathedral, although there is no evidence it was more important than any other church. At the top of the stairs, against an outer east wall of the Cathedral, is the Shrine of St. Mary, with a painted inscription to St. Mary and the archangels Michael and Gabriel.
Church of Saint Theodore
Lying above and behind the Cathedral, this large church was built in 496 AD. In between St. Theodore’s and the West Side of the Cathedral entrance is a small paved piazza with a fountain in the center; this Fountain Court was originally the Cathedral atrium. The course of the underground lead pipe which fed the fountain can be seen as a line of obliquely laid stones northeast of the fountain.
This ornamental fountain was constructed in 191 AD, and dedicated to the Nymphs. Such fountains were common in Roman cities, and provided a refreshing focal point for the city. This fine example was originally embellished with marble facings on the lower level and painted plaster on the upper level, topped with a half-dome roof Water cascaded through 7 carved lions’ heads into small basins on the sidewalk and overflowed from there through drains into the underground sewer system.
The procession to the Temple of Artemis originally started across the river in the part of Gerasa now covered by modern Jerash. Crossing the Cardo, worshippers approached the impressive entrance to the processional way leading up to the Temple of Artemis. Its massive columns and a carved portico were flanked by 2-storey shops.
The monumental staircase, originally enclosed by high walls, leads up to a U-shaped terrace where an open-air altar was built, the foundations of which are still visible. A second staircase leads through a colonnade of 22 Corinthian columns and into the Temenos. This sacred precinct, 162 x 121 m, was defined by Corinthian columns on all 4 sides.
Opposite the Propylaeum, this Byzantine church was built in the 6th century on the site of a colonnaded courtyard which formed part of the processional way. The columns were used as part of the church.
The massive West Baths, on the right, covered an area of 50 x 70 m and now lie where they fell after the earthquake of January 749 AD. Typical of the 2nd century, the Baths were an imposing complex of hot and cold rooms and other facilities.
The second Tetrapylon, located where the North Decumanus or cross street intersects the Cardo, was built during Jerash’s redesign, probably as a monumental entrance to the North Theater. At a later date, it was dedicated to Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of Emperor Septimius Severus, and probably had a domed roof in the 2nd century AD, elaborate carved decoration, arches and 4 sides to allow traffic to pass through.
North Colonnaded Street
Beyond the North Tetrapylon is a stretch of the Cardo that was never widened, and retains its simple Ionic columns.
At the end of the Cardo, the North Gate was built in 115 AD. Its odd wedge shape was probably necessary to align the gate on the inside with the Cardo, and on the outside with the Roman road, which led north to the Decapolis city of Pella.
Just off the North Decumanus, the North Theater was built in 165 AD. In front is a colonnaded plaza where a staircase led up to the entrance. The theater originally had only 14 rows of seats, and was used as a performance stage as well as the city council chamber; the names of the tribes represented in the council are inscribed in Greek on some of the seats, along with those of several gods.
Church of Bishop Isaiah
Located on a terrace immediately to the west of the North Theater. It is a triapsidal building, measuring 27.25 (E-W) x18 (N-S) m externally. The floor of the nave, side aisles and chancel area, but excluding the apses, was completely covered with mosaics made, for the most part, of locally available stone (Clark 1986). The excavators uncovered fifteen inscriptions while working on the church.
Temple of Artemis
Artemis, daughter of Zeus and sister of Apollo, was the patron goddess of Gerasa. This Temple was a place of sacrifice dedicated to Artemis and built in 150. Although small, the temple’s Corinthian columns soar impressively from the hilltop site; 11 of the 12 front columns are still standing. The temple’s inner chamber was originally clad with marble slabs and housed a shrine which probably contained a statue of the goddess.
At least 15 Byzantine churches have been found in Jerash, and more are thought to remain buried. Three of the finest are grouped together round a shared atrium. At the north, the Church of St. Cosmos and St. Damian, twin brother doctors who were martyred in the 4th century, has the most splendid floor mosaics to be seen in Jerash. An inscription dates the mosaic to 553 AD, and the images include the churchwarden Theodore with his wife Georgia, praying with widespread arms. In the center, the church of St. John the Baptist dates from 531 AD. Its mosaic floor, now damaged, included images of the four seasons, plants and animals, and the cities of Alexandria and Memphis in Egypt. The church of St. George, at the south, was built in 530 AD, and continued to be used after the earthquake of 749 AD. Its mosaics were therefore destroyed when the 8th century Christian iconoclastic movement banned the representation of humans and animals.
Church of St. Genesius
The floor mosaic of this church dates back to its dedication in 611 AD, just 3 years before the Persian invasion. A rectangular room, also with a mosaic floor, is located along its southwest side.
Saints Peter and Paul Church
This church, is located on high ground. It is over 31 m long and was a triapsidal basilica. A mosaic inscription in the middle of the nave gave the dedication and the name of Bishop Anastasius, the church’s founder. A series of floor mosaics covered the body of the nave and both aisles. The church’s main entrance is in its west wall.
Built during the reign of Emperor Domitian, between 90-92 AD, the South Theater seats more than 3000 spectators and serves today as the primary venue for the Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts. The first level of the ornate stage, originally 2-stories has been reconstructed and is still used today. The remarkable acoustics allows a speaker at the center of the orchestra floor to be heard by the entire auditorium without raising his/her voice.
Temple of Zeus
Erected in 162 AD, this temple stands on ruins of earlier sacred sites. From the Oval Plaza, a staircase leads up to an esplanade (in front of the temple), which was a Temenos, or sacred precinct. Originally, a rock in the esplanade served as a high place, and was enclosed into a shrine (Naos) in 100-80 BC. This shrine was modified in 69-70 AD and in the 2nd century AD, probably under Emperor Hadrian. From there, another staircase led to the temple, which was originally surrounded by 15 m high Corinthian columns.
Not to be missed when you visit Jerash is the Archaeological Museum, which houses a fascinating collection of artifacts found at the site. These include gold jewelry, coins, glass and perhaps the most unusual pottery theater tickets.
The well known Jerash Festival is being replaced by the “Jordan Festival” for the summer of 2010. This is being planned with some big names on the list of performers like Amr Diab, Elissa, Ragheb Alameh, Fadel Shaker, Assi Hillani, Cheb Khaled and Faudel. There are huge names expected to make an appearance as well like the famous Opera singer Placido Domingo and the popular singer Mika!
The new festival will be held in various places around the Kingdom like Amman, Jerash, Petra and the Dead Sea.
One does hope rather wistfully that the spectacular chariot racing in the Jerash Hippodrome will continue! It’s looking good.
Jerash – Ancient Romans Ruins Remain – Wonders T&T