Whenever people talk of the best preserved Roman cities outside of Italy there is usually mention of Baalbek in Lebanon; then perhaps someone will murmur about Leptis Magna in Libya, or quietly suggest El-Jem in Tunisia. The loudest cries are always for Jerash, Jordan.
The founding of Jerash
Jerash was founded by none other than Alexander the Great himself (or possibly by his general Perdiccas) in 331 BCE. That is the way it is reported at least.
The truth is that there was already a small settlement here when the Macedonia leader arrived; Alexander the Great merely officiated its presence.
Alexander had just finished his campaign in Egypt – where, amongst other things, he established the city of Alexandria – and was on his way to Mesopotamia to resume his long-running battle with his arch enemy: the Persian emperor Darius III.
The Macedonian leader needed a camp for his soldiers, and Jerash – or Gerasa as it was known at the time – fit the bill nicely.
Cue the Romans
The Romans swept across the Levant in 63 BCE; Jerash was absorbed into the Roman province of Syria, and later became a part of Roman Arabia.
The city flourished under Roman rule, its many merchants and business folk benefiting from the increase in trade that came with being connected to the Roman road network.
Jerash became one of the ten cities of the Decapolis (a cluster of ten prominent city-states in the Levant) along with the nearby city of Philadelphia (modern day Amman).
Hadrian’s Arch, Jerash
The people of Jerash were pretty excited when they heard Emperor Hadrian – famous for the great wall he built demarcating the northern extent of Britannia – was coming to visit their city in 129 CE.
They put up this monumental archway – intended to be used as the southern gateway to the city – to mark the occasion.
Temple of Artemis, Jerash
Artemis, the patron god of Jerash, was the Greek goddess of the hunt. She is associated with animals, the forest, virginity, and child birth. She is often depicted carrying bow and arrow, one hand resting on the head of a deer. Her Roman equivalent is Diana.
The Temple of Artemis was completed in 150 CE. It featured a prominent portico supported by 12 columns with Corinthian capitals (11 of which are still standing) and contained a cult image of the goddess.
The Oval Plaza, Jerash
The Oval Plaza (90m x 80m in size) was Jerash’s forum – an open public space where the city citizens gathered for political, social, commercial, and religious interactions.
The Oval Plaza is ringed by 56 Ionic columns, and it was connected to the cardo maximus – the colonnaded roadway that crossed the city.
The Nymphaeum was an elaborate fountain named for and dedicated to the water nymphs. Spring water once flowed from four carved lions heads and spilled into a series of basins below. Sadly it is no longer functional.
North Theatre, Jerash
Jerash had two theatres. The North Theatre, built 165 CE, was used for council meetings and could seat 800. Additional rows of seating was added at a later date expanding its capacity to seat 1600.
The South Theatre, built in 90 CE, was much larger than the North Theatre. The South Theatre could seat up to 3,000 people, and was used for plays and performances. If you are lucky you may catch a performance by the Jordanian Scottish bagpipe band while you are here to demonstrate the theatre’s acoustics.
The end of Jerash
Jerash was hit hard by the Galilee earthquake of 749 CE – which destroyed cities across Palestine and western Jordan and killed tens of thousands of people. Additional earthquakes, including the Damascus Earthquake of 847 CE – which was responsible for the deaths of up to 70,000 individuals – continued to rattle and damage the city.
Jerash was severely wounded, and it was an injury from which it never fully recovered.
There were parts of the city that continued to be used over the centuries – including the Temple of Artemis, which was converted into a fortress in the 12th Century CE – but much of the great Roman city was abandoned, and, over time, came to be smothered by the sands of the desert.
And there it lay, beautifully well preserved, for century upon century, until we came along and dug it up.
Practical information and how to reach Jerash:
Jerash is on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage status.