Jerash is one of the best-preserved Roman-era cities in the world. Located only 40 kilometers north of Amman, visitors today can trace the chariot ruts on the Cardo, admire the mosaics which were laid contemporaneously to those found in Madaba, and test the acoustics of the North and South Theatres. Inhabited since Neolithic times, Jerash came of age when Pompey swept through the region in 63 BC Jerash became one of the largest cities in the Decapolis federation.
Today's cultural events, like the Jerash Festival and the Roman chariot races, which take advantage of the unique setting and fantastic acoustics of the restored theatres, bring back some of the excitement and bustle that must have marked Jerash during its heyday.
The history of Jerash can be traced in its name. The indigenous Semitic inhabitants in the 1 st century BC called it "Garshu." The Greeks founded "Antioch on the Chrysorhoas," or the Golden River, on the same spot, naming it for the stream that runs through the area. The Romans who came in with Pompey changed the original name Garshu to "Gerasha." This name can be found in Pliny's Natural History, when he discusses the Decapolis. In the 19th century, the Circassians and Arabs who lived in what was then a small, rural community arabicized the name to "Jerash.'
Jerash was linked to the trade routes by a series of roads that led to other major trade centers like Amman, Bosra, Damascus, Pella and Petra. During the Pax Romana, Roman troops and international caravans were used these roads, bringing new ideas and energy with them. Emperor Hadrian visited in 129 AD and a Triumphal Arch was built in his honor near the Hippodrome. The highest of the three arches was 13 meters high and originally all three had wooden doors. Today, the Arch still stands and is in the final stages of restoration. The inspiration of these visitors is reflected in these amazing buildings.
Emperors Trajan and Hadrian, during the first half of the 2nd century, encouraged the construction of many of the buildings still extant today. Jerash became rich from iron ore mining in Ajlun, agricultural farming on the surrounding plains, and levying taxes on traders coming through the area, much like customs duties are levied now. However, inscriptions on many of the buildings, most prominently on the South Theatre, indicate that individuals and guilds donated money to help fund the construction. An individual named Titus Flavius, son of Dionysius, for example, donated some of the seats in the Theatre. With a possible population of about 25,000 people at its height, there may have been an enormous amount of money for civic architecture. Jerash began to decline in the 3rd century AD. Uprisings, like the destruction of Palmyra in 273 AD, made caravans more dangerous and drove trade towards shipping, de-emphasizing the old trade routes. When Emperor Constantine converted the Byzantine, or Eastern, half of his empire to Christianity, a number of churches were built, many of them using stone recycled from the earlier temples. The Persians sacked Jerash in 614 AD, along with Damascus and Jerusalem, and the area was also impacted by the Muslim victory of 636 AD. Not long after, in 747 AD, the area was devastated by a series of major earthquakes. Its population shrank, and by the time the Crusaders came through, they described it as uninhabited.
The area was "rediscovered" by a German tourist, Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, who recognized the site and publicized it. Teams of archeologists from around the world have flocked to Jerash, and they continue to uncover new treasures. Not all the site has been worked yet, and more wonders may be discovered soon.
Visitors to Jerash today have a number of opportunities awaiting them. Chariot races are held in the Hippodrome, which was built between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. The drivers are often former soldiers or police officers and their costumes and equipment have been meticulously researched. Excavations have found evidence that the Persian Sassanians played polo here in the 7th century.
A walking tour through the site begins here, and enters the city properly through the South Gate, built in 130 AD. The Oval Plaza, also known as the Forum, was an unusual construction in the classical world, as it is not symmetrical. Its shape gracefully joins the Temple of Zeus to the Cardo, leading attention away from the fact that they are not aligned properly. The Plaza is also unique in that it still has a collection of 1 st century Ionic columns, while the columns that radiate out from it are Corinthian columns from the 2nd century. Some of the columns are a different color between the lower and upper halves, indicating how deeply the column was buried in sand. The 1 st century AD Temple of Zeus overlooks the Plaza. Much like the High Places of Petra, it is located at height and surrounded by a temenos, or sacred precinct. It was built on the remains of earlier sacred sites. Enormous blocks now filling the ruin were knocked down during an earthquake.
The nearby South Theatre is the largest at the site, able to hold at least 3000 people. It is in amazing condition, and the numbers are visible on many of the seats. The acoustics are fantastic, and the construction minimizes the amount of sun that may fall on spectators. The Theatre is in use today, both for the Jerash Festival and for other cultural events.
The Cardo, or the Street of Columns, links the Temple of Zeus with the Temple of Artemis. Some of its columns were deliberately built at different heights to show off the facades of the buildings behind them. Here are the visible wheel ruts from Roman chariots, testimony to the importance of this street. It was at one time lined with shops, municipal, and religious buildings. This air of activity is recreated during the Festival every year, as kiosks and small shops line the Cardo again.
The Cardo passes by the remains of three Byzantine churches, 5ts. Cosmas and Damian, 51. John, and St. George. Most of the walls of the Byzantine churches at Jerash were leveled during earthquakes, but what makes them special are the mosaics. Laid during the same time period as those at Madaba, some of them are still in place, although many have been covered up to protect them, pending further restoration. The three churches here are thought to have been built during the first part of the 6th century AD. St. George, which is the furthest from the Temple of Artemis, is in the best shape, and there is evidence that it was used after the earthquakes of the 7th and 8th centuries. The other two were leveled. However, their destruction saved their mosaics from Christian iconoclasts, who disfigured the flooring of St. George's. 5ts. Cosmas and Damian were brothers, famous for their healing skills. Their mosaic floor is the best preserved in Jerash, with images of religious leaders, benefactors, birds and animals. Some of the mosaic sections are now in the Museum of Popular Traditions in Amman. The floors of St. John the Baptist, although damaged by time, show holy cities, like Alexandria and Memphis.
The Temple of Artemis is larger than the Temple of Zeus, as befitted the patron of Jerash and a goddess revered by the inhabitants of the Decapolis. This is thought to have been one of the most outstanding temples in any provincial Roman city. Built between 150 and 170 AD, the temple had twelve columns, which are still standing. Vaults were constructed to make the floor even and to hold treasure. However, time conquers all, and evidence has been found that during the Byzantine era kilns were built and it was used for firing ceramics. The nearby North Theatre was completed during the later half of the 2nd century. Greek inscriptions on some of the seats lead some experts to believe that this was a meeting place for regional or municipal officials. This theatre was smaller than the South, but has been well restored. It also was used for baking pottery by the Byzantines. Later, after an earthquake decimated it, many of its stones were reused for constructing houses. The West Baths are near the Tetrapylon intersection on the Cardo. They were built in the traditional manner, with a Frigidarium (cold bath), a Caldarium (hot bath), changing rooms and pavilions, the north pavilion having a domed roof.Close by is an Umayyad Mosque, built in the 7th or 8th century and is still in its place. The Nymphaeum is hard to miss, with its facade measuring 20 meters wide and the giant basin in front. Decorated with and dedicated to water nymphs, it was constructed in 191 AD. Water would have cascaded down the front of the facade into the basin, and overflow would have been siphoned off through seven carved lions' heads to the street below. The gate to the nearby Cathedral, which despite its name was probably never actually a cathedral, is built over the remains of a temple to the Nabatean god Dushara.
Jerash amazes visitors not only because of the size of the site, but also the details which have survived so much. The carved lions at the Nymphaeum, the ruts in the streets of the Cardo, and the seat numbers at the South Theatre make it easy to imagine what life would have been like during its heyday. During the hustle and bustle of cultural celebrations like the Jerash Festival, it is even easier. History seems so close in the peace of places like Jerash.
(The Decapolis – Ten Cities are : Gerasa “Jerash today” in Jordan, Scythopolis (Beth-Shean) in Palestine , Hippos “Hippus or Sussita” in Palestine, Gadara “Umm Qaiss” in Jordan , Pella in Jordan , Philadelphia or “Amman” in Jordan , Capitolias (Beit Ras ) in Jordan , Canatha or “Qanawat” in Syria, Raphana in Jordan, Damascus – Capital of Syria )