In a remote, quiet valley among the mountains of Gilead lie the ruins of Jerash, at one time a city of the Decapolis, and the only one of that powerful league through whose streets and monuments we can wander and see them as they were in its heyday, untouched except by the hand of time. Greater cities, such as Gadara and Philadelphia, have vanished almost without trace, but the remoteness of Jerash has saved it from being used as a stone quarry for nearby towns and villages, and it is one of the most complete examples of a provincial Roman city to be seen anywhere. The setting adds greatly to the charm of the place, lying as it does in a valley running rougly north and south and with a perennial stream running through the centre of it. The banks of the stream are covered in walnut and poplar trees, which look green and cool even in the heat of summer, when the surface of the surrounding hills is reduced to a harsh brown aridity. On the south the hills draw away on either side, and the village of Sweileh can be seen on the far skyline.
The site now lies on a modern highway that links Amman with the northern boundary of the Kingdom towards Syria; the drive takes 40 minutes from Amman at a leisurely speed. As one approaches, it is after a corner of the highway that he is suddenly faced with a wonderful view of the ruins with the Triumphal Arch in the foreground. On the other side of the highway lies the modern town of Jerash.
The history of Jerash goes back to prehistoric times, and on the slopes east of the Triumphal Arch can be found flint implements which show that here was the site of the Neolithic settlement. Outside the walls to the north was a small Early Bronze Age village about 2500 B.C., and on the hilltops above are remains of dolmens of a slightly earlier period. There are now no traces of occupation during the rest of the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, but had there been settlements anywhere within the area of the Roman city they would certainly have disappeared or become buried during the course of its construction. There are many Iron Age settlements in the vicinity, and it is unlikely that a place with so fine a water supply as that of Jerash would have remained unoccupied.
Exactly when the shift was made to the present position cannot now be determined. The town was at one time cal]ed “Antioch on the Chrysorrhoas,” the latter, meaning “Golden River,” being the somewhat grandiose name of the little stream which still separates the eastern from the western section. But the name “Antioch” is significant, and strongly suggests that it was one of the Seleucid Kings with the name Antiochus who was responsible for raising the little village to the status of great town, probably Antiochus IV in the early second century B.C. Inscriptions found in the ruins, however, show that there were many traditions current as to the founding of the city, some attributing it to Alexander the Great, some to the general Perdiccas in the fourth century B.C. It could also have been accomplished by Ptolemy II (285 – 246 B. C.) when he changedAmman into the Hellenistic city of Philadelphia. It is possible and probable that each and every one of these had a finger in the pie, and that the emergence of Jerash from the chrysalis village of mud huts to the brightly coloured butterfly of an Hellenistic town was due rather to the increasing general prosperity and security than to the efforts of any one ruler.
At the end of the second or early first century B.C. we have the first historical reference to Jerash. It is mentioned by Josephus, the Jewish historian, as the place to which Theodorus, the tyrant of Philadelphia, removed his treasure for safe keeping in the Temple of Zeus, which was then an inviolable sanctuary, when he had been turned out of Gadara. But soon after that he lost Jerash to Alexander Jannceus, the Jewish high priest and ruler (102-76 B.C.), and it seems to have remained in Jewish hands until the coming of Pompey. It no doubt suffered its share of the bickering and quarreling which went on almost continuously among the petty Jewish rulers of the time.
In the year 63 B.C., Pompey, having overrun the Near East, divided it up into provinces, and Jerash and its lands were attached to the province of Syria.
This was the great turning-point in the history of the town, and was recognised as such in its calendar to the very end of its life as an outpost of Western civilisation, for all its dates are given in the Pompeian era. The Hellenistic cities had enjoyed certain rights of self-government, and these rights were continued under the Pompeian arrangements, Jerash enjoyed these rights, and early in the Roman period of its history it joined the league of free cities known as the Decapalis. From now until the middle of the first century A.D, Jerash seems to have had a quiet and peaceful time. It had a flourishing trade with the Nabataeans at this period, and many coins of King Aretas IV have been found. But even before this date Nabataean infiuence had played its part in Jerash: stones carved in the typical Nabataean “crowstep” pattern testify that their type of architecture was known and used there. There is a bilingual inscription, almost illegible, in Nabataean and Greek, and other inscriptions refer to a temple of the “Holy God” Pakidas and the Arabian god. It can be deduced that this latter is Dushares, the Nabataean deity, and it is significant that the inscriptions referring to him and the “crowstep” stones are all found in the same area, i.e. the Cathedral and Fountain Court. There are known to be remains of an earlier temple beneath the Cathedral, in all probability that of the Arabian god, later indetified with Dionysius.
Other inscriptions found in the neighbourhood of the Forum and Zeus Temple show us that in the first and probably second centuries B.C. the town extended at least from the Zeus Temple to the Cathedral area; yet others suggest it may even have included the area of the Artemis Temple. But until further excavation is undertaken, nothing more can be said about the town of the preChristian era.
All this time Jerash must have been accumulating wealth, for somewhere in the middle of the first century A.D. we find the city launching out on a complete rebuilding programme. A comprehensive town plan was drawn up, the basis of which was the Street of Columns and the two streets crossing it at the North and South Tetrapylons. No substantial changes in this plan were made to the end of its days. An inscription on the North- west Gate shows that the enclosing city wall was completed in A.D. 75- 76, thus setting the limits for the city’s growth. A new Temple of Zeus was begun about A.D. 22- 23 and was still under construction in 69- 70, aided by gifts from wealthy citizens, who seem to have taken a pride in contributing to the embellishment of the town. The South Theatre, next to the temple, was springing up at the same time, the older Temple of Artemis was being beautiful with a portico and provided with a pool, and somewhere a shrine to the Emperor Tiberius had been erected. In fact, the place must have been a hive of industry and have been attaining a degree of wealth such as had not been seen before and has certainly not been repeated since.
This antlike activity continued and even increased in the second century, when the Emperor Trajan extended the frontiers. annexed the Nabataean kingdom (A.D. 106), and built a fine series of roads. More trade came to the town, greater wealth was accumulated, and some of the buildings considered as the last word in the first century were pulled down and more elaborate and ornate structures replaced them. Such a one was the North Gate, rebuilt in A.D. 115. Annual festivals and contests were inaugurated, and inscriptions tell of the munificence of one Titus Flavius Quirina, who gave banquets for both victors and vanquished.
Two huge thermae, or baths, were built, without which no decentminded Roman citizen could contemplate existence for a moment. Their. functions were much more than those of mere Turkish baths; they represented the exclusive club life of the period, were not infrequently used to steam away unwanted relatives, and provided an admirable setting for gay parties given by wealthy or merely ambitious citizens.
The Emperor Hadrian paid a personal visit to the city, staying there for part of the winter of 129- 30. His coming was the signal for a fresh outburst of building activity, and the Triumphal Arch was erected to celebrate his visit. It seems probable that the intention was to extend the area of the city as far as this arch, as the ends are left rough as though to bond into a wall, but the project was abandoned as soon as Hadrian left and attention returned to the centre of the city.
This century saw the golden age of Jerash, when most of the great buildings one admires to- day were erected. A huge programme of expansion and building was undertaken, involving the widening of the main street from the Forum to the Artemis Temple, and the replacing of the Ionic columns lining the street with Corinthian models. The Artemis Temple, with its grand approach from the east and its great gateway, was dedicated in 150. The Temple of Zeus was erected in about 163, the Nymphaeum in 191, a Temple of Nemesis, now vanished, was built just outside the North Gate, and another, to Zeus Epicarpus, farther up the valley was built by a centurion. There are many inscriptions of this period which record the dedication by citizens of altars, pedestals, statues, and stelae, and the erection of buildings now unidentifiable. Others show that there were many priests for the cult of the living emperor, and there were shrines to Zeus Helios Serapis, Zeus Poseidon, Isis, Apollo, and Diana. Still others give the names of several provincial governors, procurators, and other officials, and mention the presence of soldiers of the III Cyrenaica and a tribune of the X Gemina legions.
The peak was reached and passed early in the third century A.D., when Jerash was promoted to the rank of colony, and the grade is steadily downhill after that, with an occasional level stretch or even a little rise; but the best was over. But it was a gradual descent closely connected with the fortunes of the Roman Empire, and for Jerash there were no precipices on the road. No more buildings were erected in the grand style, and already by the end of the century we find carved and even inscribed blocks being carelessly re- used in building, always a bad sign. The destruction of Palmyra and the growth of the Sassanian Kingdom in Iraq effectively put a stop to big- scale commerce and shifted trade routes away from the east. Cities like Jerash, almost on the eastern border, must have felt the effect at once, and with the weakening of Roman force the old predatory instincts of the Arab tribes came to the surface again and security became doubtful. But under Diocletian the Sassanians were defeated and there was a short level stretch during which some building, such as the circular plaza and the shops around the South Tetrapylon, was carried out. The work, however, was slipshod, though not quite so bad as later Byzantine building, and many of the inscriptions of the period are cut on earlier pedestals or columns or even on top of partly defaced earlier inscriptions.
By the middle of the fourth century there was a large Christian community in Jerash, and the Cathedral and the Fountain Court were flourishing, for the writer Epiphanius states that some of his contemporaries had drunk from the fountain at Gerasa, whose waters turned to wine each year at the anniversary of the miracle of Cana. But from the town itself there is little history to be gleaned in the fourth century; inscriptions are conspicuous by their absence, and the only other outside reference tells that the Christians were represented at the council of Selecucia in 359 by the Bishop Exeresius. Bishop Plancus represented them at the council of Chalcedon in 451, by which time Christianity must have become the ruling religion of the town. In 440- 442 some repairs to the fortifications were carried out; the Church of the Prophets, Apostles and Martyrs was built in 464- 5, and that of St. Theodore in 464- 6, when the fountain court was also remodelled.
Under Justinian, 531- 565, there was a rise in prosperity, and no fewer than seven churches are known to have been erected in this period. Inscriptions record the erection of other public buildings of an unidentifiable nature, and even the revival of the pagan Maiumas water festival in 535. Many of the churches have been excavated, and from the objects found in them and in related buildings we can get a good idea of the life of the time. Low though the standard might be in comparison with former splendours, there was none the less a fair degree of rather cheap luxury. Appearances were all that mattered and beauty was only just skin deep. Gleaming marble and brightly coloured glass mosaics on the walls of the churches concealed a type of construction than which it would be hard to imagine worse. As the main centres of life in this period were around the churches, it naturally reflected their style. The gaily dressed women who crowded the shops and drifted in and out of the churches were adorned with magnificent strings of beads of precious stones and gold ear- rings and ornaments, which on close inspection turned out to be glass imitations and thinly gilded bronze. Still, it was all very pretty on the surface, and life was by no means unpleasant or difficult. There were new baths built by the Bishop Placcus next door to St. Theodore’s Church for the use of parishioners, perhaps the earliest example of “cleanliness being next to godliness.” The choristers had a club room just across the road from the church, and the clergy were provided with extensive and comfortable quarters adjoining the forecourt.
All this external beauty and comfort was only achieved at the cost of the earlier buildings, particularly temples. An orgy of destruction of the pagan shrines must have gone on, and it seems as though scarcely one new stone was cut for the construction of any of the churches. The beautiful courtyard of the Artemis Temple was desecrated by the building of potters’ kilns there.
The last church of which- we know at present is that built by Bishop Genesius in 611, and the Persian invasion of 614 was the beginning of the end of Jerash. The only remains of this invasion are goal- posts erected in the Hippodrome just outside the South Gate for playing polo. The Muslim conquest in about 635 completed the decline of the city, which, though it continued to be occupied, gradually shrank to about a quarter of its original size. A series of bad earthquakes destroyed many of the churches and buildings, and as no one could afford to rebuild or even clear them, they were left exactly as they fell. The Church of St. Theodore is an excellent example of this. None the less, the abandonment and shrinkage were gradual, and some of the churches were still in use in 720, when the Caliph Yazid II issued a decree ordering that “all images and likenesses in his dominions, of bronze and of wood and of stone and of pigments, should be destroyed.” The result of this edict is seen in the destruction of mosaic floors in such churches as St. John the Baptist; apparently the adjoining Church of SS. Cosmos arld Damianus was already a partially buried ruin, for the mosaics fortunately escaped.
This is almost the last thing we know of Jerash. Excavations show that the area of the Forum and South Tetrapylon was still occupied in the late eighth century, but in the twelfth century comes the last known reference to the town. A crusader, William of Tyre, speaks of it as having been long uninhabited; a garrison of forty men stationed there by the Atabey of Damascus converted the Artemis Temple into a fortress which was captured by Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem, 1118- 31, and utterly destroyed. The inner faces of the temple walls show clearly the effect of the burning which was apparently the method of destruction. Yaqut, a thirteenth- century Arab geographer, says that the place was described to him as a field of ruins, completely uninhabited.
So it happily remained until the settlement there of the Circassian colony by the Turks in 1878. To this day Arabs as far afield as south Palestine when they wish to speak of something as extremely ruinous say: “It is like the ruins of Jerash.”