The Archaeology of the Roman City of Jerash, Jordan

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1945
The Arch of Hadrian was built to honour the visit of Emperor Hadrian to Gerasa in 129/130 AD.

A major Roman City in Jordan, Jerash’s archaeology is amongst the best preserved in the empire. Its public Roman architecture reveals how the city evolved.

Jerash in modern Jordan was one of the ten cities of the Decapolis. Founded by the Seleucids on a site occupied from prehistoric times, it became a Roman city in 63AD.

Jerash’s history can be read in its archaeological remains, which are excellent owing to its long abandonment. Many of its classical Roman civic features have been excavated. They show the development of Jerash as a Roman town and how it maintained its Syrian character.

An Ancient City of Jerash

Situated 48km north of Jordan’s capital Amman, the area around Jerash was occupied from prehistoric times. Archaeologists have found evidence of the earliest settlement around the area of the south gate. It is estimated that this early site dates to around 1600BC or the mid Bronze Age.

The city of Gerash or Gerasa as it was known was first built by the Seleucids in 170BC. Established in what became the south of the Roman city, it was centred on the mound of the temple of Zeus. But the city was not merely a Greek colony. Coins and inscriptions in both Greek and Nabatean show that these eastern traders had a considerable influence in the city.

Jerash became a Roman city in 63AD and its expansion began. By the second century AD, one hundred hectares were contained within its city walls.

Although it began to decline in the mid third century, Jerash still remained an important Christian city, maintaining its prosperity with farming, mining and trade. Its ultimate decline began in the seventh century when it was taken by the Arabs and the city was abandoned.

Unlike many ancient cities, the city was not resettled until 1878. This meant that the ancient buildings were left to the elements and not robbed of their stone. This has allowed archaeologists to reconstruct a picture of the buildings from the remains left on the site.

Roman Temples

Jerash had a number of temples. Many were dedicated to Greco roman deities such as Nemesis. In many cases, these deities were to Hellenised versions of local gods. Dionysus, for instance is believed to have been affiliated with the Nabataean god Dusares.

Of the temples in the city, the best preserved and studied are the temples of Zeus and Artemis.

Temple of Zeus-Set on a mound overlooking the oval forum and the southern entrance to Jerash, the temple of Zeus marked the central point of the Hellenistic city. Three identifiable phases have been excavated. The first two were built in the early first century AD. Inscriptions from these phases show that the rebuilding work was financed from substantial donations made by local traders-a testament to Jerash’s prosperity.

The remains on the site today date to Jerash’s Roman revamp in the second century AD. Although the temple itself was built on a natural hill, its sacred precinct was artificial and supported on a series of vaults that still survive today. The Roman redesign preserved the Syrian design and layout of the temple, indicating the continued importance of the local population.

Temple of Artemis-Artemis may have been the daughter of Zeus in Greece but in Gerash she was the patron deity of the city. This suggests that the Artemis of Jerash was in fact a Syrian deity in disguise from Jerash’s pre Seleucid days.

The sanctuary of Artemis was much larger than that of Zeus. It was also the first to be renovated in the second century. Work began in 150AD. Little remains of the naos or house of the goddess within the temple although archaeologists have deduced it was lined with marble. Hooks have been found on the inner walls that would have held the slabs in place before they were removed to nearby Christian churches.

But the Christians did not destroy Artemis’s complex as they had other pagan temples elsewhere. This was left to nature. But the vast temenos and its monumental entrance of propylaea still remain, giving a good idea of the extent and grandeur of the sanctuary in its heyday.

The Roman Theatres

Jerash had two Roman theatres which were not only dedicated to entertainment but also the government of the city.

The South theatre. Built in 90s AD, this is the oldest theatre in Jerash. The theatre was completed in the early second century AD. Designed purely for entertainment, it is one of the most impressive of its type. It had the capacity to seat around three thousand people. The lower rows of seats were numbered, suggesting that some of those seats were available for reservation-or naturally reserved for the local dignitaries who inscriptions once again record as funding the building work.

Northern Theatre. Built during the Roman redesign of the city in the 160s AD, the north theatre is smaller than its southern counterpart. Its lower seats are marked in Greek with the names of the cities voting tribes, suggesting it may have operated as a council chamber.

By the third century, its function had changed. More upper rows were constructed, expanding its capacity to 1600 people. The orchestra was also decorated with reliefs of women and boys dancing and making music, suggesting its function was now one of entertainment.

Other Roman Architecture

The City Walls. The original walls of Jerash were a metre thick. They were strengthened until they were three metres thick in the fourth century AD as a reflection of the instability of the empire.

The Arch of Hadrian. A roman triumphal arch built outside of the southern extent of the city, the arch of Hadrian was built in 130AD to commemorate the visit of the emperor Hadrian. The arch’s sides remained untrimmed, suggesting it was designed to fit within new city walls. Abutments were later added when the walls were never built; indicating that the Romans may have planned to expand Jerash but that those plans never came off.

Sources:

  1. Browning, I, 1982. Jerash and the Decapolis.Chatto & Windus: London
  2. Gates, C, 2003. Ancient Cities: The Archaeology of Urban Life in the Near East and Egypt, Greece and Rome. London: Routledge