Gerasa, known today as Jerash in Jordan, rises in the broad and fertile valley of the Chrysorrhoas River. It is said that Alexander the Great founded a Greek colony on this spot in 331 BC, although there have been previous occupations on and off, as far back as 3,000 BC.
After the death of Alexander, Gerasa and the neighboring territories were annexed by the Ptolemies in 301 BC. At some time during the third and second centuries BC, the Seleucids took hold of the area and undertook a thorough Hellenization contributing greatly to developing Gerasa into a busy urban center. Antiochus III renamed the city Antiochia-on-the-Chrysorrhoas or Antiochia of the Gerasenes, and by 64-63 BC it became a Roman province.
In order to properly govern Judea and Syria situated on the eastern frontier of their empire, the Romans created a Decapolis, a group of ten cities that shared the same language, commercial relations, and political status. Each city enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy with their own Semitic, Nabataean, Aramean and Jewish culture. We owe it to Plinius for reporting the full list of the member cities:
Damascus (in Syria)
Philadelphia (modern Amman in Jordan)
Gerasa (now Jerash in Jordan)
Scythopolis (now Beisan in the Jordan Valley, North Israel)
Gadara (modern Umm Qays in Jordan) and once the capital of this Decapolis
Hippos (on the banks of Lake Tiberias in Israel)
Dion (probably near Irbid in Jordan, but not yet discovered)
Canatha (now Qanawat in Syria) and
Raphana (probably north of Umm Qays in Jordan, but not yet discovered either).
In 106 Emperor Trajan added the rich lands of the Nabataeans to the province Arabia and in the years 112-114 a new caravan route was laid out in the tracks of the 5,000 years old existing one. This Via Nova Triana connected Syria to Aqaba and today’s main road from Amman to Aqaba still follows the same route as the King’s Highway. Business with the Nabataeans flourished as they guarded the important trade route through Petra, and consequently, Gerasa grew – also thanks to the fertile agriculture lands around the city and the minerals that were dug in nearby Ajloun. Today’s remains of Gerasa date back from those prosperous days, i.e. 2nd/3rd century, when the city counted 20,000 inhabitants living mainly on the east side which is still hidden underneath modern Jerash. Gerasa was one of the most thriving cities of Palestine.
By the end of the 3rd century, however, most of the trade went overseas and the role of Gerasa became superfluous. Emperor Constantine introduced Christianity, which was wide-spread by the fifth century as is proven by the many churches that were built here: 13 churches for the years 400-600 alone. The earthquakes of 747 severely damaged the city and the population decreased to about 4,000 and Gerasa became no more than a small village by the time it was incorporated into the Islamic world shortly thereafter. Slowly this once so proud city entirely disappeared under layers of sand till it was rediscovered in the 19th century.
This summarizes my historical baggage when I’m about to visit old Gerasa, with its fascinating round forum that is advertised in every single tourists’ brochures.
I’m happy to enter the city through (in reality next to) the Arch of Hadrian who honored Gerasa with a visit in the year 129. The world-traveler, Hadrian! There hardly is any city that his emperor has not visited and curiously enough every single one of them built an Arch in loving memory it seems. The monumental arch of Gerasa is in very good condition and small restorations are not really obvious. As is customary, it counts three gates and the middle passage is no less than eleven meters high. Both facades are practically identical and richly decorated with acanthus leaves. The now empty niches originally held statues, of course. Strangely enough, this arch stands about half a kilometer away, outside the city walls because at the time of its construction Gerasa had plans for expansion and building new walls – plans that never materialized.
The modern asphalted road runs more or less on top of the Chrysorrhoas River that divided Gerasa in two and the Roman ruins of all the official buildings occupy the left (west) side. A modern paved road squeeze between this asphalted road and the impressive remains of the Roman Hippodrome leads to the modern entrance gate. I walk the entire length of the Hippodrome (260 meters) where pseudo-Romans are now in full action with their horse-races. The east side of the Hippodrome is best preserved with a complex system of vaults that was supposed to carry the weight of the 16 or 17 rows of seating above. I stop a moment to take a close look at the impressive length of the field, trying to picture how in the third century as many as 15,000 people filled the tiers.
Once inside the old city walls, I almost immediately stand in the middle of the Great Oval Forum bordered with high Ionic columns, the iconic image of Gerasa. It’s not only the oval shape that captures the attention but also the size of this entirely paved piazza that is no less than 90 meters long! Behind the columns runs a two meters wide sidewalk. I stand here in awe for quite a while, trying to realize that I am really here and not staring at a picture of some kind. I could have spent much more time on this unique spot, so wondrous. Although this space is generally referred to as a forum, the archeologists are not certain about the true function of this space. The significance of the two square podiums in the middle are also still unclear since they could either have served as an altar or simply as a base for some statues. Underneath the forum, the remains of a drainage system have been discovered – how ingenious!
Over my left shoulder lies the large Roman Theater and ahead of me runs the Cardo, the north-south axis along the river. My view over the straight road stops at the first Tetrapylon that marked the crossing with the southern Decumanus. A second Tetrapylon stands further down the Cardo where the northern Decumanus crosses, and beyond that, approximately 800 meters further, I can see the Northern City Gate. Almost the entire length of the Cardo is framed with slender Corinthian columns behind which the sidewalk, probably once covered, leads to the entrance of the many temples of the Forum, but when the Cardo was enlarged in the second century, it was decided to replace the Ionian capitals with Corinthian ones – a matter of fashion probably.
I start my walk over the Cardo and turn left into the southern Decumanus, sensitive as always to the fact that I am treading over two thousand years old pavements. Standing at the very crossing where once the Tetrapylon stood as a crown jewel is another of those impressions you cannot easily forget. To my right, the road disappears under modern Jerash but I’m intrigued by what I’ll find on the left-hand side.
The most impressive building here is the Temple of Artemis but it takes a while before I can figure out the lay-out among the walls and stairs that also belong to later Byzantine and Umayyads’ additions. Many churches have been built and there was even a cathedral with a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Since the Temple of Artemis was set on top of a hill, I have to cross many corridors, jump many ditches and climb many stairs to get there. As always, the choice of the location is sublime for the temple commanded the view and was the most important building of Gerasa. Considering the enormous dimensions (the temple occupies a surface of 34,000 square meters) and the grand setup of the different parts, this does not come as a surprise. It was actually built during the second century when the entire city underwent a face-lift.
To be correct, I should have approached the temple complex from the east, where the Via Sacra on the other side of the Cardo starts at a central court surrounded by columns (later holding a Byzantine church) to join the Cardo flanked by two fountains. On the opposite side of the street lies a 120-meter-long portico with four huge columns, crowned with richly decorated architraves, the Propylaea. This part was lushly decorated and the two still existing side-gates are proof to that. To the left and to the right, there once were a number of shops, spread over two levels. After entering the Propylaea I have to climb a set of wide stairs interrupted by broad terraces which provide rewarding views over the complex and the city. In the middle of the first terrace, I find the foundation of a large U-shaped altar according to eastern traditions. It is possible that an earlier Temple of Artemis stood here.
A second flight of stairs leads to the terrace on top of the hill. Access to the central court of 161 x 121 meters was through one of the surrounding porticos. The Temple itself was framed by Corinthian columns, six on the short side and eleven on the long sides. A wide set of stairs led to the cella, the heart of the temple. The inside walls were covered with marble and in the back stood the statue of the goddess guarding the temple‘s treasury. Two more sets of stairs led to the supposedly flat roof where, according to eastern traditions, some rituals were carried out. It is a strange combination of Hellenistic and Roman construction elements, mixed with eastern traditions, but this certainly is one of the largest and most impressive temples I’ve ever seen – more so than Didyma for instance that kept me in awe.
Loose blocks of columns, capitals, and architrave have been re-used over the centuries for the construction of surrounding churches and buildings. From the fourth century onwards, entire parts of the crepidoma were re-used and re-worked in the surrounding workshops. So it is no surprise to discover a huge saw in the depth next to the temple. Huge stone blocks and slabs of marble could be sawn in small plates to build and decorate new constructions. This machine is evidently a reconstruction with a wooden water-wheel that was activated by a nearby source, i.e. the power to bring the four saws in motion. Quite an unexpected surprise!
It is while walking back down to the Cardo that I fully understand how impressive and unique the location of this Temple of Artemis must have been. Because I approached the temple from the side instead of from the Via Sacra, my first impression was entirely different, of course. It’s only now that I walk over the different terraces, surrounded or not by colonnades, to end on the staircase running over the entire width of the complex. This is how the pilgrim must have looked up the steep stairs and must have felt pretty small. The view from the Propylaea towards the Cardo is beautifully framed and although I now stare at modern Jerash, it does give an excellent picture of what once was. Back on the street, I turn around for a last glimpse but I can’t even see the very temple from here. It definitely shows an unsurpassed grandeur, one of those absolutely unique settings. My thoughts go back to Pliny and Meleagros who compared Gadara (Umm Qays) with Athens, but I wonder what they had to say about Gerasa. As far as I’m concerned, the only comparison I can make is with the Acropolis in Athens where you approach the Parthenon after climbing the stairs of the Propylaea about in the same way.
When I think having reached the end of the city at what looks like an arch or a gate, I discover that I have arrived at the Northern Tetrapylon and that the Cardo still runs on towards the northern city Gate. The land on either side has not yet been excavated and is used at present as grazing grounds for the goats.
I make a left turn to follow the northern Decumanus to the Small Theatre, which was probably conceived as an Odeon. It looks in a pretty good state but upon closer examination it has been thoroughly restored. From the top row of seats, I can see as far as the Oval Forum, the Hippodrome and the Arch of Hadrian – a very rewarding view in the floodlights of the late evening sun. I climb down, walk behind the huge Temple of Artemis where I find a beautiful mosaic floor that once belonged to a Byzantine Basilica, behind a row of six special churches that filled the back-garden of the Temple of Artemis. From this spot, I once again enjoy a breathtaking view over Gerasa now that the colonnades and streets catch the last sunrays and in particular the fascinating circle of the Forum. There must be around 230 columns still standing! What a city! What an eye-catcher!
Retracing my steps to the long Cardo, I pass by one of the several Nympheums that are spread all over the city. This fountain from the 2nd century is not exceptional big but very gracious. The colonnade alongside the Cardo has been interrupted here for the 22-meters-wide entrance. Originally, this fountain was covered with slabs of colored marble and the niches held a number of statues. It must have been a dazzling work of art which we can hardly imagine.
The large Southern Theatre is much better preserved than its smaller brother at the other end of the city, meaning that much more of the original stones have survived. Its construction started during the reign of Emperor Domitian, between 81 and 96 AD and was financed by the people of Gerasa. It has been revealed that a certain Titus Flavius spent the sum of 3,000 drachmas for one single row of seats! The theater still boasts 4,000 seats, with a podium and the two-storied paraskenia in relatively perfect condition. The four times three niches just underneath the border of the podium are very well preserved also. I always feel very privileged to walk up and down a theater and through its vaulted corridors, whether leading to the podium or running behind the seating area used by the theatre-goers. Still today people use these corridors, treading in the same footsteps as those from ancient times.
I walk back, past the poor remains of the large Temple of Zeus. It is said that the oldest part of Gerasa lays underneath this sanctuary, maybe even the original Macedonian settlement. It would be very exciting to have a confirmation of this theory one day. This Temple of Zeus, however, is pure East-Roman since it was consecrated in 162-163 during the reign of Antoninus Pius. The general plan is hard to recognize were it not for the proud Corinthian columns. According to an inscription, a certain Theon would have paid a huge amount of money for the construction of the temple and for the bronze statue it once sheltered. The name of the architect of the first temple terrace has also been found, an inhabitant of Gerasa called Diodorus who financed this monument during the years 27 and 28 AD. It is information like this that brings the stones to life, isn’t it?
On this wintry day, the sun sets shortly after 4 pm and it becomes difficult to take any more pictures but this is the time when nature turns quiet and the spirits of times past come alive, isn’t it?
[Click here to view all the pictures of Gerasa]
[Click here to view all the pictures of Gerasa]