The city of Jerash is an archaeological titan among the Roman relics of the east. But what sparked its monumental constructions?
In their magnificent forum, one can only wonder what the wealthy citizens of Jerash got up to. The city became a booming trade centre in Roman times, as evident by its grandiose facilities: paved and colonnaded streets, towering temples, fine theatres, public squares, city gates, fountains and baths. It became a prime example of Roman urbanism. How? Well, because it could afford it.
The city is among the best preserved ancient civilisations known to man. For reasons to be explained, it was gradually abandoned after the eight century. It was later covered in sand, and remained undiscovered until the early 1800s. When excavations began in the 1920s, the relics – formerly protected by the sand – were found in exceptional condition. “It is one of the great sites of the Roman East,” says William Bowden, professor in Roman archaeology at The University of Nottingham. “In terms of its sheer monumentality, scale and construction, there are few sites to rival Jerash.”
Researchers believe there was life here already 6,500 years ago. One study cites the evidence as being flint implements on the slopes near a large arch in the south of the city. Such inhabitation is unsurprising: the plain where it is now based, surrounded by hills, was perfect for a settlement. Water supplies were also good. When it later grew into a larger city, its location 40 kilometres (24 miles) north of the city of Amman, along the route to Damascus in Syria, was ideal. Which may have been partly why the Roman General Pompey conquered it in 63 B.C.
The capture happened shortly after the Roman invasion of Syria. Beneficially for its citizens, Jerash – then called ‘Gerasa’ – was made a member of the Decapolis – a league of the ten most prosperous Roman cities in the east. The Romans connected Jerash to the Kingdom of Syria, and started a substantial rebuilding programme: a new temple, fine streets, a new theatre with a capacity of 4,000. Among other projects, some were even bankrolled by wealthy citizens who took pride in the city’s rejuvenation.
There was more to come. In 106 A.D., Emperor Trajan annexed the wealthy Nabataean Kingdom, forming the province of Arabia. In the process, Jerash was connected to the city of Petra by a trading route called the Via Traiana Nova. This brought huge riches: trade boomed, and further construction commenced.
However, for all that, the city’s most impressive monuments were not raised until 129 A.D. That was when Emperor Hadrian was scheduled for a visit. At this time, a series of fine constructions emerged, including a giant Triumphal Arch at the southern end of the city. “It seems to have instigated a major boom in public building,” says Bowden, who has taken part in excavations of the site. “There were also people who wanted to show off to the emperor. He probably only spent a winter there. The arch they erected seems to be for that.”
In the following centuries, the Roman ‘golden age’ slowly faded. Christians overtook Jerash, sparking the erection of numerous impressive churches. In the seventh century, the city was invaded by Persians, then Muslims. One century later, it was hit by an earthquake. “It was a pretty catastrophic earthquake, and that shrank the population quite dramatically,” says Bowden. “You were in an environment surrounded by fallen bits of rubble, which is not the best place to live in.”
There was also a declining interest in town life, Bowden adds. And so people fled. Few ever came back. It has since become a tourism magnet and an archaeological treasure chest. If its uses are not the same as before, Jerash has at least reclaimed its notion of importance.
Photos: Aivolie, OPIS Zagreb, Waj [all via Shutterstock.com].