Gerasa (Jerash)

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.

Coordinates: 32° 16′ 20.21″ N, 35° 53′ 29.03″ E

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 setting the 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.

Jerash in the 2nd century AD, at the height of its Roman imperial splendour. Illustration by Josep Ram

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.


The Hadrianic Arch built in 129/30 AD in honour of the visiting emperor Hadrian. It was built well outside the city which indicates that there were plans to extend the city, though this planned extension was never completed. The arch was left isolated far to the south of the city’s boundaries. Beside this arch stood the town’s hippodrome.
About 37.5 m wide, the Arch of Hadrian was a triple archway, with a wide central opening nearly 11 metres high, flanked by two narrower and lower ones each just about 5 metres high. These arches originally had massive wooden doors.
The Arch of Hadrian was richly decorated. Each face of the arch had four huge engaged columns with Corinthian capitals standing on pedestals and bases. The base of each column was of the Attic type and was topped by a row of acanthus leaves surrounding the lower part of the shaft. The niches were each supported by two small Corinthian capitals resting on a small entablature set over the two pilasters with capitals.
A Greek inscription with the dedication to Hadrian adorned the north facade looking towards the city.
“To the Good Fortune. For the protection of the Emperor Caesar Trajanus Hadrianus Augustus, son of the divine Trajanus the Parthicus, grandson of the divine Nerva, very high priest, Father of the Nation, and for the wealth and permanence of all his house, the city of the Antiochians-on-the-Chrysorhoas, formerly [called] the Gerasenes, by will of Phlaouios Agrippa, the arch of the “triumph”, the year 192 [129/130 AD].
When the Hadrianic project to extend the city was abandoned, the western side of the Gerasa/Philadelphia road was free to build the hippodrome. It is the smallest know hippodrome of the Roman Empire and also the best-preserved, particularly the arched carceres, which are the starting gates where the horses would be positioned.
The arched carceres
Built for chariot racing, the hippodrome was 265 metres long and 50 metres wide. It could accommodate 15,000 spectators.
The chambers below the seats were used as stables, shops, store-rooms and pottery workshops.
The South Gate, one of the two principal entries into the city which as most likely constructed in 129/130 AD just before Hadrian’s visit. The triple arch stood at the southern entrance to the city. It later became part of the 3.4 kilometre-long city wall constructed at the beginning of the 4th century AD.
The Oval Plaza, built at the beginning of the 2nd century AD to connect the Cardo with the Sanctuary of Zeus.
The west portico of the Oval Plaza. The colonnades were of the Ionic order, with the pillars standing on low blocks.
Two small monuments decorated the centre of the Oval Plaza: the first was a base for a group of statues, possibly representing priestesses, which were offered by some high ranking members of the Hadriane-Helios tribe of Gerasa. The second was a small base on which stood four columns – a tetrakionion – which perhaps protected a statue of the emperor Hadrian.
The east portico of the Oval Plaza.
The collonaded Cardo was the main street of Gerasa, forming the primary axis from which the rest of the city branches out. Along the Cardo were placed a large, scenically designed nymphaeum and entrance gates (propylaea) to the Cathedral and to the Temple of Artemis.
The Cardo was built at the start of the 2nd century AD. Large portions of the sidewalks were later modified or rebuilt in the 5th/6th centuries AD, with stones taken from earlier monuments such as the Temple of Zeus.
The Macellum (food market), set at the side of the Cardo, was built at the end of the 2nd century AD with blocks re-used from other monuments.
The Macellum had a unique octagonal shape and is based around a paved courtyard with a Greek cross-shaped fountain in its centre. The courtyard is bordered by porticoes of Corinthian columns that opened onto exedrae (large niches), alternating between rectangle and semi-circular shaped.
The South colonnaded Cardo.
The Southern Tetrapylon marked the intersection of the Cardo Maximus with the South Decumanus. All that remains of it today are four solid pedestals embellished with niches. Originally, each pedestal supported four columns made of pink granite from Aswan in Egypt, topped with an entablature. The four sets of four columns are called a tetrakionion.
The South Decumanus.
The Central colonnaded Cardo.
The Western Baths, located on the eastern side of the Cardo. They were once an impressive complex of hot (caldarium), warm (tepidarium) and cold-water (frigidarium) baths. Built in the early 2nd century AD (or at the end of the 1st century AD), the Western Baths were the earliest example of the seven public baths found within the ruins of Gerasa.
The Nymphaeum, located on the western side of the Cardo. It was the main ornamental fountain of Gerasa, dedicated to the water nymphs. Built around 190/91 AD, the two-storey structure was elaborately decorated, faced with marble slabs on the lower level, plastered with painted stucco above. Water spouted from the mouths of several lion heads into a large, deep basin.
The Propylaeum Church, built in the 6th century AD to the east of the Cardo near the propylaea of the Temple of Artemis.
The North Tetrapylon lying at the intersection of the Cardo with the North Decumanus. It was a square-shaped structure with a gate on each side and topped with a dome. It was erected between 165 and 170 AD.
The North Decumanus and the North Tetrapylon.
The North Tetrapylon and the north end of the Cardo.
The north end of the Cardo with the North Gate in the background.
The North Gate marking the northern main entrance to the city. It was built in 115 AD and was dedicated to Trajan as “founder of the city”.
View of the North Decumanus, North Cardo, North Tetrapylon and North Gate.
The North Theatre (also referred as to as the Odeon), originally built as a Bouleuterion (council meeting place) during the reign of Hadrian or Trajan. It was transformed into an Odeon in 165 AD.
The cavea of the North Theatre which had a capacity of about 2000 people. The theatre has been magnificently restored in recent years.
Sculptures on the cavea of the North Theatre.
The Temple of Artemis built as a shrine to Artemis who was the patron goddess of the city. Construction of the temple began in the 2nd century AD, however, it was never finished. The temple was mounted on a solid podium rising to a height of 4.30m. Ascent to the podium was by means of a stairway extending along the short, eastern front and enclosed by antae.
The remaining Corinthian columns of the Temple of Artemis. The temple of Artemis is a peripteral structure, along each of the two short sides there were 6 columns and eleven along each of the two long ones.
The courtyard of the Temple of Artemis. It was rectangular in shape and measured 88 x 122m. Colonnades extended parallel to the four walls.
The Church of Saints Cosmas and Damianus, one of the complexes of three churches that shared an atrium. The three churches were built between 529 and 533 AD. The name of the church is taken from an inscription that names the twin brothers who were devout Christian physicians. The brothers were martyred by the Romans.
The floor of the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damianus featured a remarkable mosaic floor depicting animal and human images.
View of the Church of Saint Theodore and the Cathedral.
The Sanctuary of Zeus Olympios first built in 27/28 AD. The sanctuary extended over two terraces. The temple stood on the highest point of the upper terrace.
The Great Temple of Zeus was erected in 162/3 AD on a terrace above the original sanctuary to Zeus. The temple stood on a podium surrounded by Corinthian columns, 8 columns along each of its short fronts and 12 columns along each of its long sides.
The Corinthian columns of the Great Temple of Zeus.
The South Theatre was the largest and the oldest of the three theatres of Gerasa. This one was built between 80 and 96 AD and is estimated to have seated 3,000 people. The theatre was financed by a number of generous benefactors, including a former legionnaire.


3 thoughts on “Gerasa (Jerash)

  1. Pingback: Das Pompeji Asiens | Die Goldene Landschaft

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