Jerash Most Preserved Roman City
In the fertile plains north of Amman lies one of the best preserved Roman provincial cities; it was also a member of the Decapolis. Its early Semitic name, Garshu, changed in the Hellenistic era to Antioch ad Chrysorhoas (Antioch on the Golden River), and again under the Romans to Gerasa, a variant of Garshu, which evolved to today’s Jarash. Human settlement predated any name, evidenced by remains from all periods between the Palaeolithic and Iron Ages. There are few survivals from the Hellenistic city because the later Roman buildings covered them. In the 1 century AD the town was redesigned, with grand colonnaded streets-the Cardo on a north-south axis, with the Oval Piazza at its south end, and two side streets. New temples dedicated to Zeus and to Artemis were started, two theaters, several bath houses, more temples and a hippodrome to meet the lofty aspirations the citizens of this provincial agricultural town.
Gerasa’s apogee came when the Emperor Hadrian stayed here for two months in the winter of 129-130 AD. In the late 4th century AD, with Christianity the official religion of the Byzantine empire, church-building became a major activity, with cut stone, columns and capitals re-used from redundant temples. But by the late 6th century AD the empire was in decline, and in 636 AD all these eastern provinces fell to the new Muslim armies from the Hijaz.
Jerash continued as an important regional center under the Umayads. But the earthquake of 749 AD, the Abbasid conquest the following year and the shift of Islamic power from Damascus to Baghdad, marked the end of its glory days. Though it remained a prosperous provincial town for a few more centuries.
In 1878, a group of Circassians fleeing persecution in the Caucasus were allowed to settle here by the Ottoman rulers. They built their new town on the east bank of the stream that ran through the ancient ruins.
The site covers a huge area and can seem daunting at first, especially as there’s virtually no signage. To help the ruins come alive, engage one of the knowledgeable guides at the ticket checkpoint to help you navigate the main complex. Walking at a leisurely pace, and allowing time for sitting on a fallen column and enjoying the spectacular views, you can visit the main ruins in a minimum of three to four hours.
At the extreme south of the site is the striking Hadrian’s Arch, also known as the Triumphal Arch, which was built in AD 129 in honor of the visit of Emperor Hadrian. Behind the arch is the hippodrome, which hosted chariot races in front of up to 15,000 spectators.
Jerash South Gate
The South Gate, originally one of four along the city wall and built in 130, leads into the city proper. One of the most distinctive sites of Jerash, the forum is unusual because of its shape and huge size (90m long and 80m at its widest point). Fifty-six Ionic columns surround the paved limestone plaza, linking the cardo maximus with the Temple of Zeus.
Temple of Zeus
The elegant remains of the Temple of Zeus, built around 162, can be reached from the forum – a worthwhile climb, even if only for the view. Next door, the South Theatre was built in the 1st century with a capacity of 5000 spectators. From the upper stalls the acoustics are still wonderful, as demonstrated by the occasional roving minstrel or drummer.
The Cardo Maximus
Northeast of the forum lies The Cardo Maximus, the city’s main thoroughfare, also known as the colonnaded street. Stretching 800m to the North Gate, the street is still paved with its original stones, rutted by the wheels of chariots that once jostled along its length.
The Colonnaded Street of Jerash
The Colonnaded Street is punctuated by the nymphaeum, the main fountain of the city, before giving rise to a superb propylaeum (monumental gateway) and a staircase. The Temple of Artemis, towering over Jerash at the top of the stairs, was dedicated to the patron goddess of the city, but alas it was dismantled to provide masonry for new churches under Theodorius in 386.
Further north is the North Theatre, built in 165 and now restored to its former glory.
The small museum contains a good collection of artefacts from the site.
The entrance is south of the ancient city, close to Hadrian’s Arch. The ticket office is in a modern market with souvenir and antique shops, a post office and a semi-traditional coffeehouse. Keep your ticket, as you will have to show it at the South Gate.
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