Jerash is one of the best-preserved Roman-era cities in the World. Located only 40 kilometers north of Amman, visitors today can trace the chariot ruts on the Cardo, admire the mosaics which were laid contemporaneously to those found in Madaba, and test the acoustics of the North and South Theaters.
The history of Jerash can be traced in its name. The indigenous Semitic inhabitants in the 1st century BC called it "Garshu". The Greeks founded "Antioch on the Chrysorhoas", or the Golden River, on the same spot, naming it for the stream that runs through the area. The Romans who came in with Pompey changed the original name Garshu to "Gerasha". In the 19th century, the Arabs arabaized the name to "Jerash".
Jerash was linked to the trade routes by a series of roads that led to other major trade centers like Amman, Bosra, Damascus, Pella and Petra. Emperor Hadrian visited Jerash in 129 AD and a Triumphal Arch was built in his honor near the Hippodrome. Today, the Arch still stands and is in the final stages of restoration.
Jerash began to decline in the 3rd century AD. Uprisings, like the destruction of Palmyra in 273 AD, made caravans more dangerous and drove trade towards shipping, de-emphasizing the old trade routes. When Emperor Constantine converted the Byzantine to Christianity, a number of churches were built, many of them using stone recycled from the earlier temples. The Persians sacked Jerash in 614 AD, along with Damascus and Jerusalem, and the area was also impacted by the Muslim victory of 636 AD. Not long after, in 747 AD, the area was devastated by a series of major earthquakes. Its population shrank, and by the time the Crusaders came through, they described it as uninhabited.
The area was "rediscovered" by a German tourist, Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, who recognized the site and publicized it. Teams of archeologists from around the world have flocked to Jerash, and they continue to uncover new treasures. Not all the site has been worked yet, and more wonders may be discovered soon.
Visitors to Jerash today have a number of opportunities awaiting them. Chariot races are held in the Hippodrome, which was built between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD.
A walking tour through the site begins at the South Gate, built in 130 AD. The Oval Plaza, also known as the Forum, was an unusual construction in the classical world, as it is not symmetrical. Its shape gracefully joins the Temple of Zeus to the Cardo, leading attention away from the fact that they are not aligned properly. The Plaza is also unique in that it still has a collection of 1st century Ionic columns, while the columns that radiate out from it are Corinthian columns from the 2nd century. Some of the columns are a different color between the lower and upper halves, indicating how deeply the column was buried in sand.
The 1st century AD Temple of Zeus overlooks the Plaza. It was built on the remains of earlier sacred sites. Enormous blocks now filling the ruin were knocked down during an earthquake.
The nearby South Theater is the largest at the site, able to hold at least 3000 people. It is in amazing condition, and the numbers are visible on many of the seats. The acoustics are fantastic, and the construction minimizes the amount of sun that may fall on spectators. The Theater is in use today for concerts and other cultural events.
The Cardo, or the Street of Columns, links the Temple of Zeus with the Temple of Artemis. Some of its columns were deliberately built at different heights to show off the facades of the buildings behind them. Here are the visible wheel ruts from Roman chariots, testimony to the importance of this street.
The Cardo passes by the remains of the three Byzantine churches, Sts. Cosmas and Damian, St. John, and St. George. Most of the walls of the Byzantine churches at Jerash were leveled during earthquakes, but what makes them special are the mosaics. St.George, which is the furthest from the Temple of Artemis, is in the best shape, and there is evidence that it was used after the earthquakes of the 7th and 8th centuries. The other two were leveled. However, their destruction saved their mosaics from Christian iconoclasts, who disfigured the flooring of St.George's.
The Temple of Artemis is larger than the Temple of Zeus, as befitted the patron of Jerash and a goddess revered by the inhabitants of the Decapolis. This is thought to have been one of the most outstanding temples in any provincial Roman city. Built between 150 and 170 AD, the temple had twelve columns, which are still standing.
The nearby North Theater was completed during the later half of the 2nd century. Greek inscriptions on some of the seats lead some experts to believe that this was a meeting place for regional or municipal officials.
Jerash amazes visitors not only because of the size of the site, but also the details which have survived so much. The carved lions at the Nymphaeum, the ruts in the streets of the Cardo, and the seat numbers at the South Theater make it easy to imagine what life would have been like during its heyday. History seems so close in the peace of places like Jerash.