Several months ago, after so many years of dreaming, I finally got the chance to visit ancient Roman ruins for the very first time in Baalbek, Lebanon. Due to their sheer size, the city’s Temple of Jupiter and Temple of Bacchus are considered the largest religious structures ever built in the Roman world, even bigger than those in Italy. “How can you visit other Roman ruins after this?” James told me, amused and concerned at the same time. Several months after that first trip to the Middle East, I posted this information on my social media account, and an acquaintance replied with a question. “Are they even bigger than the ruins in Jerash?”
There’s only one way to find out, and that is by seeing the latter with my own eyes – which happened last month when I fulfilled a long-held wish to visit Jordan, a country where the ancient city of Jerash is located.
The drive from downtown Amman to Jerash takes us through rolling hills which become greener as we move further north toward one of Jordan’s most-treasured heritage sites. The ancient village of Garshu (from which the Roman name Gerasa and Arabic name Jerash were derived) fell under the control of the Greeks in the fourth century BC when Alexander the Great settled his old soldiers there. The Greeks remained in control of this place for more than two centuries until the arrival of the Roman army in 63 BC after occupying Baalbek and its surrounding areas a year earlier. Under Roman rule, Gerasa continued to thrive and joined nine other cities in the region to form the Decapolis – a group of autonomous city-states in the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. However, unlike the Romans who came to this city from the north, we take a southern approach.
Around one hour after leaving Amman, we arrive in modern Jerash, a city of around 50,000 people. A large, imposing gate stands at the southern end of the city’s archaeological park, welcoming visitors to the expansive site. It is the Arch of Hadrian, built to honor the visit of the namesake Emperor to Gerasa in the second century AD. We walk through this magnificent gateway and find the ruins of a hippodrome to our left, with no large-scale structures for another 400 meters straight ahead, where the South Gate stands. That monument is believed to be a prototype for the bigger, more elaborate Arch of Hadrian. Historians view the latter’s distance from the actual gateway to ancient Jerash as evidence of a plan to expand the city southward – a plan that never got off the drawing board.
Past the original entrance to the city is the Oval Forum, a monumental plaza surrounded by Ionic columns that marks the southern end of the Cardo – the main street of Gerasa which formed the city’s primary axis. 800 meters away at the northern end of the colonnaded Cardo lies the North Gate, with many of the city’s most important structures built along this stretch of this north-south center line. On higher ground behind the Oval Plaza sits the Temple of Zeus, a once stately shrine commissioned in the second century AD as the city’s main place of worship. Its location was an extension of a terrace directly below it which had been used as a sanctuary for the god of the sky, lightning and thunder prior to the construction of the temple. Overlooking the entire ancient city, the Temple of Zeus was in fact built 15 years after the construction of another temple situated on one of the highest points in the city dedicated for Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals, the Moon, and chastity. The fact that two major temples were built in the city tells of a struggle between those who held positions of power in Gerasa – pitting the Hellenistic part of the population that preferred the goddess against the Semitic inhabitants who venerated the sky god more – resulting in two competing cults.
No Roman or Greek city would be complete without a large theater, and Gerasa had not one, nor two, but three. The biggest of them – the South Theater which lies next to the Temple of Zeus – offers a sweeping view of the entire ancient city with the remnants of the Temple of Artemis rising above all other structures in its vicinity. Meanwhile, the modern part of Jerash rises to the east of the archaeological complex, built literally on top of much older buildings, adding to the area’s already rich layers of history. From this vantage point I realize what my friend was saying about the size of Jerash; while its individual structures are nowhere near as colossal as the ones in Baalbek, when seen in its entirety the ancient city of Jerash is expansive with multiple temples and theaters, a long Cardo, an iconic plaza, and splendid gateways strewn all over the ancient city.
We return to the Oval Plaza and begin our walk through the Cardo, handsomely flanked by Ionic and Corinthian columns on both sides. A few minutes later we arrive at the remains of the South Tetrapylon, four pedestals upon which four columns used to stand, built at the intersection of the Cardo and the South Decumanus (a main road running from east to west).
We continue ambling down the stone-paved road, some parts of it bearing the telltale grooves left by horse carriages from almost two thousand years ago, while others provide a resting place for fallen columns. Multiple earthquakes had in fact caused extensive damage to Gerasa, contributing to its eventual demise. The largest of those occurred in the year 749 which rattled many cities along the western and eastern banks of the Jordan River, leaving an extensive trail of destruction. Today, modern visitors in Jerash can still see the impact of this brute force of nature upon once-prosperous Gerasa. This state of damage was further exacerbated by the conquest of the city by different foreign powers, and before then, major modifications under the Byzantines, who reused many collapsed parts of the Roman structures to build churches across the city.
Among the buildings constructed during this period were the Cathedral and the Church of St Theodore, both situated next to the grand staircase that leads to the Temple of Artemis. Not much is left from the former two, except for several columns and walls that still stand against all odds. However, crosses carved in stone in these ruins speak of a shift in the locals’ beliefs following the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. Elsewhere within the archaeological compound are vestiges of the Umayyads, the Abbasids and the Ottomans – successive Muslim dynasties that ruled Jerash following Islam’s rapid expansion throughout the Middle East and North Africa since its inception in the seventh century AD.
I climb the stairs toward the Temple of Artemis under the scorching sun, and stumble upon a small snake that is trying to get into a small crack under one of the steps to escape the heat. A little farther on, I arrive at a wide rectangular courtyard bordered by a few columns; the main temple stands close to the western side of the perimeter. In its heyday, when all the columns were intact, as was the entablature and pediment perched atop the sanctuary, all of this must have looked so elegant and magnificent. It is said that this temple was built to be the most beautiful of all places of worship in Gerasa. But even today, with only a fraction of its original structure still standing, the Temple of Artemis remains an impressive sight. Dwarfed by its millennia-old pillars, I look up and I’m immediately reminded of what I felt when I was at the Temple of Bacchus in Lebanon: being astonished, enthralled, and humbled at the same time.
From the Temple of Artemis we walk farther past the North Theater, and the North Tetrapylon, before eventually reaching the North Gate which marks the very end of the entire archaeological site. Not all tourists make their way toward this northern end point, giving this part of the complex a much quieter ambiance than the area around the South Gate. Here, James and I marvel at the remarkable ancient structures and stone blocks around us, before turning around for one final walk down the Cardo, this time from north to south, the exact same direction the traders and other people of ancient Gerasa traveled to reach another Decapolis city-state: Philadelphia, a place we know today as Amman.