21/01/2014 16:07

Hadrian wanted to know with his own eyes the territories he was ruling. In the year 129 he visited a city cornered in the bounds of his empire, in an extreme province called Arabia. In one of its cities, Gerasa, a triumphal arch was made to commemorate his visit.

Gerasa, now Jerash in today Jordan, was at that time a thriving growing city. Few years earlier had concluded the new causeways that had to accelerate communications with the rest of the Empire. Levelled and paved new roads that significantly reduced the distances and made trade easier.

Before the Roman conquest in 63 BC, Gerasa was already a Hellenized city which was known as Antioch in Crysorrhoas, Antioch of the golden river. It had belonged to the Decapolis; the league of Greek and Macedonian cities founded by the Seleucid king Antiochus III the Great, among which also belonged Damascus and Philadelphia, currently Amman. Although inscriptions have also been found to attribute its foundation to Alexander the Great or to Perdiccas of Orestia, who would settled here veterans of his army and hence derive the name of the city, from Gerasmenos, Greek for old person. It is believed that this happened in the spring of 331 BC, when Alexander left Egypt, for, through Syria, head towards Mesopotamia.

But Rome decided to build a new town planned according to roman common use, i.e. a broad way, the Cardo, crossed by other transverse main streets called Decumanus in a grid network structure. And around the wall that was to protect it.

Along the brand new Hadrian Archway there’s the 268 yards elongated racecourse, shaped as a classical circus where horses competed with or without trolley and also athletes run. Up to fifteen thousand people gathered to their stands. Reaching the wall, the southern gate gave access to a monumental oval ninety yards long and surrounded by Ionic columns.

To the left, on a hill, still stands the temple of Zeus, built upon the remains of previous shrines. At his side, the southern theatre has excellent acoustics that keeps active when annually is celebrated the Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts. When it was built, under Emperor Domitian, about the year 90, it gathered more than three thousand spectators.

From the oval square starts the Cardo Maximus, the main artery that still keeps the original pavement. The marks left by the chariots that here transited are still visible. And also stands the many columns that line the colonnade street. Some of these in Ionic style were replaced in the second century by another in more sophisticated Corinthian.

The Cardo Maximus was Gerasa main street and here poked the most important structures and buildings of the city. The Macellum, in a widening of the Cardo where was celebrated the market, right across from where the Umayyads built a mosque of which only the foundations remain.

Here was the intersection with the first Decumanus, the first cross artery indicated by four pedestals, the Tetrapylon. Among both Documani, north and south, on the highest point was the temple of the patron saint of the city: Artemis, daughter of Zeus and sister of Apollo. Raised about the year 150 in the days of Antoninus Pius, retained eleven of the twelve front Corinthian columns.

Few years later was built in front of the temple the Nymphaeum, a large ornamental fountain dedicated to the nymphs, with marble finishes and a central waterfall fed by seven lion’s jaws.

By the next Decumanus, marked by four pillars that would be dedicated to Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of Emperor Septimius Severus, there were considerably large baths, obviously with hot and cold water available to users. Right next to the second theatre of the city, smaller than the main but that still could hold 1600 people after being renovated in the year 235.

Not missing many pedestals, altars, stelae and statues that were scattered among the houses, homes and shops, there were also temples dedicated to Poseidon, Helios, Isis, Diana or Serapis, a syncretic framework of beliefs possibly hybridized.

With the establishment of Christianity as the state religion bishops of the city participated in the councils. So did Exeresius at Seleucia in 359 and Bishop Plancus in that of Chalcedon in 451. In about two centuries, between 400 and 600, were built more than thirteen churches and a cathedral which replaced the ancient Roman temple of Dionysus. Surrounding the temple of Artemis are the churches of Isaiah, Saint Jenesien, probably built in the 611 and last build, Saint Theodor and Saint Paul and Saint Peter. Martyr twins Saints Cosmas and Damian have in its floor the best mosaics in the city with a written inscription that dates them in the year 531.

In the early seventh century the Persian invasion and the collapse of trade routes with the East began the gradual decline of the city. In 636 Muslim troops arrived and Gerasa started counting the years since the Hijrah of the Prophet. Nevertheless Gerasa continued to flourish during the Umayyad period. The 749 earthquake and the shift of power from Damascus to Baghdad relegated the city to the background. Abandonment and sinking continued gradually. Some of the churches were still dedicated to Christian worship in 720 when the caliph Yazid II banned images and icons.

In the early twelfth century Damascus atabeg Zahir al-Din Toghtekin used the temple of Artemis as a fortress until the Crusaders leaded by Baldwin II of Jerusalem expelled them and destroyed the defences. In 1806 the old city was rediscovered by the German Orientalist Ulrich Jasper Seetzen who initiated arqueological excavations. In 1878 the Ottomans settled on the opposite bank of the river the Circassians displaced from the Caucasus. Finished the Great War and dismembered the Turkish Empire, Jordan, Jerash within, came under British protectorate. After World War II the creation of the State of Israel would lead to a new wave of immigrants, this time Palestinians displaced from their territories.

The modern Jerash has continued to grow, on the other bank, the other side of the walls that protected the ancient Gerasa, absorbing new suburbs and opening new horizons beside the memory of stones.

© J.L.Nicolas


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