In the heart of modern-day Jordan, amidst the unassuming town of Jerash, lies an extraordinary tale of an ancient city that has witnessed the rise and fall of empires, and the ebb and flow of history. This 3000-word exploration takes you on a journey through time, unveiling the captivating story of Jerash – a city that transformed from a Neolithic settlement to a grand Greco-Roman metropolis, and ultimately into an Arabized center of culture and heritage.
Jerash’s Neolithic Origins
Our journey begins in the depths of time, some 9500 years ago, during the Neolithic period. In 2017, archaeologists uncovered two skulls near the Jerash ruins, providing the earliest evidence of organized human settlement. This marked the genesis of what would become Jerash, but in those days, it was known simply as “Garshu,” a modest village inhabited by people believed to be linked to the ancient Canaanites and Israelites.
The Hellenistic and Roman Transformation
In the 4th century BC, the region was conquered by the legendary Alexander the Great, bringing Garshu under his rule. Following his demise, it fell under the control of Ptolemaic Egypt. It was during the Hellenistic and Roman periods that Garshu underwent a remarkable transformation, emerging as the city of “Gerasa.” This Greco-Roman marvel boasted Greek-style temples, expansive public markets, and even two Greco-Roman theaters. Notably, it was the birthplace of the Greek mathematician Nicomachus of Gerasa, a figure who left an indelible mark on mathematics and Neopythagorean philosophy.
Temples Amidst the Grandeur
One of the city’s most celebrated landmarks was the Temple to Artemis, an architectural marvel built during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius. This temple, perched atop a prominent hill, became an emblem of the city’s devotion to the goddess. Evidence suggests that even before the Antonine period, a smaller sanctuary to Artemis existed, underscoring the city’s deep-rooted connection to this deity. Another temple, dedicated to Zeus, stood proudly in the southern part of the city.
During the Roman period, Gerasa ascended to greatness, becoming one of the renowned ten cities of the Decapolis. In 106 AD, it was incorporated into the Roman province of Arabia. The city’s architecture and marketplaces bore the unmistakable imprint of Roman influence. As the late Roman Empire took hold, Gerasa embraced Christianity, and its Christian community endured well into the Islamic Period.
The Transformation into Jerash
It was during the Islamic Period that the city underwent yet another transformation, becoming the Jerash we know today. Under the rule of the Umayyad caliphate, Jerash thrived as a hub of culture and learning, even surviving an earthquake in the 8th century. However, the 9th century marked a period of decline, potentially linked to the fall of the Umayyad caliphate, which was replaced by the Abbasid caliphate. The shift of the political center from Damascus to Baghdad under the Abbasids may have played a role in Jerash’s diminishing prominence.
Jerash Through Turbulent Times
The 12th century thrust Jerash into the midst of conflicts between the Christian Crusader states and neighboring Islamic principalities. In 1121, King Baldwin II of Jerusalem sacked the city due to its strategic location, leaving much of it in ruins. The once magnificent Temple of Artemis also bore the scars of this tumultuous period.
After the Crusades, the Mamluk sultanate took control of the region. Some parts of the city were resettled and continued to thrive until the 16th century. However, from that point on, Jerash faded into obscurity, lost to history, until the 19th century when archaeological excavations unearthed its past glory.
The Everchanging City
Jerash stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of cities throughout history. It transitioned from a Semitic village to a grand Greco-Roman metropolis and later to an Arabized cultural hub. This adaptability defines Jerash as an everchanging city. Yet, even this city’s resilience had its limits. Eventually, like all cities, it too faced destruction and abandonment.