12 June 2011

Jerash, "Pompeii of the East"

Hadrian's Triumphal Gate marking the entrance to the city

I was recently asked to produce a short essay on the ruined ancient city of Jerash. As I consulted my notes and files I discovered that I'd never even posted one on my blog. In order to correct that omission I decided to post this today and hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed producing it.

Jerash is one of the most important, intact and best preserved cities of the Decapolis and is accepted as one of the finest examples of the Roman city in the East. It has managed to escape the destruction and looting some of the other historic sites have suffered. Because of its remarkable preservation, this ruined Greco-Roman city has been called “Pompeii of the East”. The somewhat misleading name derives from the extensive excavation and level of preservation, though Jerash was never buried by a volcano. Excavation of some of the outer walls has led to the discovery of tools and machinery from as far back as the late Iron Age and the Bronze Age.

This city has gone by many names, one of which is Gerasa, taken from the Semite Gersho and was mentioned in Nabataean writings in Petra. Another name for this astonishing city was Antioch on the Chrysorhoas, meaning Antioch on the Gold River because the Gold River crossed the city of Gerasa as part of the Yaboq River (al-Zarqa).
Some scholars suggest the city was established by Alexander the Great at the end of the 4th century BC, but most archaeological findings indicate that the Hellenistic era in Jerash began after Antochios III invaded the region in 219-218 BCE

Map of the cities of the Decapolis
The Decapolis (Ten Cities) was a group of ten loosely confederated cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Jordan and Syria. The ten cities were not an official league or political unit, but they were grouped together because of their language, culture, location, and political status. The Decapolis cities were centers of Greek and Roman culture in a region that was otherwise Semitic (Nabatean, Aramean, and Jewish). With the exception of Damascus, the "Region of the Decapolis" was located in modern-day Jordan, with one city located west of the Jordan River in Israel. Each city had a certain degree of autonomy and self-rule.

The impressive buildings include places of worship dating from the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim periods. In the 3rd century BCE, the city then known as Gerasa was admitted into the Roman Decapolis. In 63 BCE Pompey conquered the Decapolis cities and left Jerash as a prestigious semi-autonomous state as part of the province of Syria. Due to it’s position and the new road built by Emperor Trajan in 106 CE, the city prospered greatly on the spice and incense trade route.

Corinthian column
Remains in the Greco-Roman Jerash include:
·         The Corinthium column,
·         Hadrian’s Arch,
·         The Circus/Hippodrome,
·         Two large temples dedicated to Zeus and Artemis,
·         The nearly unique oval Forum, which is surrounded by a fine colonnade,
·         The long colonnaded street, or Cardo,
·         Two theatres (the large South Theatre and the smaller North Theatre),
·         Two baths, and a scattering of small temples and,
·         An almost complete circuit of city walls.

Most of these monuments were built by donations of the city's wealthy citizens. From 350 CE, a large Christian community lived in Jerash, and between 400-600 CE, more than thirteen churches were built, many with superb mosaic floors. A cathedral was built in the fourth century. An ancient synagogue with detailed mosaics, including the story of Noah, was found beneath one of the churches.

Jerash was a favorite city of the Emperor Hadrian who visited the city and spent part of the winter of 129-130 CE. His coming signaled a fresh outburst of building activity, and the Triumphal Arch was erected in celebration of his visit. It seems probable that the intention was to extend the area of the city as far as this arch, as the ends were left rough as though to bond to a wall, but the project was abandoned as soon as Hadrian left and attention returned to the city centre.

The 3rd century CE saw Jerash suffer decline, but it was revived as a Christian city under the Byzantines. The Persian invasion of 164 CE, the Muslim conquest of 635 CE and several 8th century earthquakes sealed the fate of Jerash. In 749 CE, a major earthquake destroyed much of Jerash and its surroundings. During the period of the Crusades, some of the monuments, including the Temple of Artemis, were converted to fortresses. Small settlements continued in Jerash during the Ayyubid, Mameluk and Ottoman periods. Excavation and restoration of Jerash has been almost continuous since the 1920s.

One example of the many beautifully preserved mosaic floors

The Hippodrome

The colonnaded Forum

Temple of Artemis

The Cardo

Overlooking the ancient city

Thanks to the growth of tourism and Jerash’s location in the heart of Jordan, modern Jerash has developed dramatically. The city is ranked second, behind Petra, as the second most important tourist attraction in Jordan.
The Al-Meradh region was called Souf because they were the only ones to resist the attacks of the looting southern Bedouin tribes led by Bani Sakher tribes. Souf finally succeeded in defeating the Bedouin and they actually reinhabited Jerash and now comprise the majority population of the modern city. Thereafter, Jerash became a magnet for successive waves of foreign migrants, beginning when the Syrians and Circassians camped near the old ruins. They were welcomed by the locals and settled in the city. Later, in 1948 and 1967, Jerash hosted waves of Palestinian refugees.

In 1981 the Jerash Festival was established in the old city of Jerash. The annual celebration is a three week long summer program of music, dance and theatrical performances. It is frequently attended by members of the Royal Family and is unarguably the largest cultural activity in the kingdom.
Jerash Festival

Their Majesties, King Abdullah II and Queen Rania

Her Majesty Queen Noor and Prince Hamzah

Jerash’s economy is primarily dependent on tourism and agriculture. The Jerash Governate is home to more than 1.25 million olive trees. Many of these trees are ancient, already bearing fruit when the Romans occupied the area. 


Anonymous said...

Hey Jim - great post on Jerash! Believe it or not I haven't been up there yet, even after 3 years in the country. My wife tends to think that if you've seen one Roman ruin you've seen them all - so that kind of limits my exploration sometimes. Maybe we'll go up for the Festival this summer - do you know the dates?


Ol Big Jim's Place said...

Thanks for the kind words Brian! Coming from you they are very meaningful. Looks like the dates for the Jerash Festival are 1 July - 31 August and I'm looking forward to it! Hope to see you there.

Anonymous said...

Thought I would comment and say neat theme, did you make it for yourself? It's really awesome!

Ol Big Jim's Place said...

Thanks for the comment Anonymous! Yes, I made the theme myself; I'm so happy you like it. Come visit the blog often!

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