The ancient Roman city of Jerash (also known as Gerasa), and the current modern city by the same name, are located about 48km north of Amman, Jordan. It’s the second most-visited site in Jordan, with Petra being the first.
The area was inhabited as far back as the Neolithic Age, around 7500–5500 BC. Archaeological digs in 2015 uncovered human remains dating to this period. There is also evidence of settlement in the area during the Bronze Age (3200 BC – 1200 BC).
Originally, in Pre-Hellenic times, this was a small village known as Garshu. At some point during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the town was re-founded as the city of Gerasa. It’s not entirely certain who re-founded the city, but there are several theories. Alexander the Great conquered the surrounding region in the 4th BC. Some believe that Alexander the Great or his general, Perdiccas, established the city as sort of a retirement home for old Macedonian soldiers. A few ancient Greek inscriptions also support this version of history.
On the other hand, one of the old names for Jerash, “Antioch on the Chrysorrhoas”, suggests that Antioch IV, a Seleucid king, was the founder.
Regardless, the city is one of the best preserved Roman cities in the Near East. It was also just one of the amazing archaeological sites we visited on our Egypt/Jordan group tour.
Exploring the Ruins
The size of the site is really spectacular, and the level of preservation is even more impressive. Gerasa is often referred to as the Pompeii of the East, even though the city was never destroyed by a volcano eruption. But the amount of preservation is comparable.
Most of the public buildings were a result of donations from wealthy citizens. But there was another reason Jerash saw an influx of money. The Roman emperor Trajan annexed the Nabatean Kingdom in 106 AD. Jerash had a prime location along trade routes, which Trajan paved. This newly paved, two-lane road, called the Via Nova Traiana, brought a surge or prosperity to the city.
Jerash’s construction style and layout, therefore, is primarily Greco-Roman, architecturally speaking.
Let’s take a look at some of these incredibly preserved buildings!
This hippodrome was built during emperor Hadrian’s reign, around 117-138 AD. It was used for sports, chariot races and gladiatorial battles. The arena’s dimensions are 245m long and 52m wide – considered on the small side! It could easily seat 15,000 spectators at a time. Today, you can watch mock gladiatorial battles and chariot races as part of a live performance put on by The Roman Army and Chariot Experience (RACE).
The nymphaeum was constructed in 191 AD. This was a building consecrated to the water nymphs. It was originally covered in marble and was topped with a half-dome in the shape of a shell.
The Oval Forum, below, is a somewhat unique design, and the only one of its kind in the Middle East. It’s surrounded by 56 columns. You can take a 360 virtual tour of the Forum here.
The Forum was used for numerous activities, including elections, civic speeches, and criminal trials.
Here is a better view of the Forum from a distance so you can get the full effect of its size:
In 129/130 AD, the Triumphal Arch, or Arch of Hadrian, was built to celebrate his visit to the city. It was originally 22m in height and has three vaulted entrances. There’s still quite a lot of original detail remaining. However it also underwent reconstruction between 2005-2007 to bring it back to it’s former grandeur.
Of course, no ancient Roman city could be without an amphitheatre, to showcase political satires and tragedies. Jerash had two theatres, North and South. This is the South Theatre, which could seat around 3,000 people.
This is the North Tetrapylon – a four-sided monument with a gate on each side. It was typically placed at a crossroads. Jerash has two; the other marks a crossroads on the southern end of the ancient city.
The city of Jerash was invaded by the Persians in 614 AD, which caused Jerash to decline, though it persevered through to the Umayyad period. An earthquake in 749 AD, however, destroyed much of the city.
Luckily, excavations and restorations have been fairly continuous since the 1920s, so we’re able to understand the lay of the land, as it were. For example, the floor plan for the Temple of Artemis:
Artemis was the patron goddess of Jerash. The temple devoted to her was built on one of the highest points in the city. Here is the Temple of Artemis as it appears today:
The temple was converted to a fortress in the 12th Century by the atabeg of Damascus (an atabeg is like a governor, subordinate to a monarch. I had to look it up). The King of Jerusalem, King Baldwin II captured and burned the fortress in 1121-1122 AD. Luckily some of the structure was saved.
After the Crusades, the area surrounding Jerash was controlled by the Mamluk sultanate. But by the 16th Century, Jerash was all but abandoned. It was rediscovered in the 19th Century through archaeological excavations.
There is much more still to be uncovered too. Even as we were walking, we noticed mosaics on the ground, hiding underneath a fine layer of sand.
Jerash is really a highlight of any trip to Jordan and we highly recommend the side trip. Allow 3-5 hours to explore the site fully, there’s a lot to see here!
Opening hours: 0800-1600 (during winter), 0800-1700 (during summer).
See updated entrance fees to Jerash and other sites in Jordan here.
(Post Updated March 2018)