Sometimes nicknamed the “Pompeii of Asia”, Gerasa, known today as Jerash, is one of the great classical cities of the Near East. Set in a fertile valley high in the hills of Gilead about 48 km north of Amman (Philadelphia), Gerasa is also the best preserved of the cities of the Decapolis and one of the best examples of a prosperous Roman provincial town. Boasting an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6500 years, Gerasa was transformed from a village into a considerable town in Hellenistic times and a colony under the Roman Empire. Most of its ruins remained buried in the soil for hundreds of years until they were discovered in 1806.
The history of the site dates back to the Stone and Bronze Age and was colonised, like Pella and Gadara, during the reign of Alexander the Great who settled retired Macedonian soldiers there. The city was then known as Antioch on the Chrysorhoas (Antioch on the Golden River) but remains from the Hellenistic period are scarce.
Following General Pompey’s conquest in 63 BC, the city and its lands were attached to the province of Syria and became one of the ten great Roman cities of the Decapolis League. This was the great turning-point in the history of the town. Over the next two centuries, trade with the Nabateans flourished and the city, then known as Gerasa, grew extremely wealthy thanks to local agriculture and iron-ore mining. In the middle of the 1st century AD, the city was remodelled and a complete rebuilding programme was launched. It was laid out on a north-south axis intersected by two side streets running east-west and marked by tetrapyla. An inscription on the North-west Gate shows that the town walls were completed in AD 75-76 thus settingthe limits for the city’s growth. A large Temple of Zeus was built in Romano-Syrian type ca. AD 27/28 but was finished in the 160s. Nearby, the South Theatre was constructed in the 1st century AD.
The city was further enhanced in AD 106 when Trajan annexed the Nabatean Kingdom and incorporated it into his new Province of Arabia, to which he added Gerasa. Trajan’s reorganisation marked the beginning of a new period of prosperity for the whole area with the construction of a great new road, the Via Nova Traiana, which linked the provincial capital (Bostra) in the north with the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. This new road led to a surge in the city’s prosperity, reflected in the implementation of a new building plan throughout the 2nd century AD. Hadrian paid a personal visit to Gerasa, staying in the city for a part of the winter of AD 129-30. His prolonged visit was the signal for a fresh outburst of building activity, and a huge triumphal arch was erected to celebrate his visit.
The Antonine period which followed saw the golden age of Gerasa. A new temple to Artemis was dedicated in AD 150, a Nymphaeum was built in 191, a Temple of Nemesis, now vanished, was built just outside the North Gate, and another, to Zeus Epicarpus (the fruit bearer), farther up the valley was built and paid by a centurion.
Gerasa’s fortunes peaked around the beginning of the 3rd century AD when Gerasa was promoted to the rank of colony and boasted a population of 15,000 to 20,000 inhabitants. The importance of the city continued under the Byzantine Empire. Gerasa held a large Christian community and between AD 400 and 600, about fifteen churches were constructed here, often using stones and columns from earlier buildings, including the Temple of Artemis.
The Persian invasion of AD 614 caused a rapid decline in Gerasa’s wealth and population but despite its decline, the city continued to flourish during the Umayyad period. The city further declined with the devastating earthquake of 747 which destroyed most parts of the region.
The city was rediscovered in 1806 by Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, a German traveller, who described the remains. His report led to a visit by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer. Burckhardt’s description attracted more visitors and restoration of the ruins began in 1925. Excavation and restoration of Jerash have been almost continuous since the 1920s.