Travel Date 22nd-25th March 2008.
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My flight left Delhi at dawn and followed the sun; despite flying for more than six hours and the usual delays for bags and immigration I arrived at the Commodore Hotel well before noon.
I still felt quite fresh. One of the surprises on this trip was a lack of problems with jetlag. There was a car and driver firm in the lobby of the hotel so I decided to spend the afternoon productively. I chose to see Jerash mainly because I knew so little about it.
Coming from a continent where written history and architecture started in the late 18th century, it is awe-inspiring to wander through an ancient city like Jerash. The ruins on display mainly date from the Roman era. That isn’t surprising, because that was the era of the city’s greatest prosperity, but there are lots of indicators of the earlier Greek period mingled with the Roman ruins.
But Jerash is much more ancient than that. It is located a little over 20 miles or 30 km North of Amman on a strategic trade route with permanent water surrounded by an arid region. Thus it is not surprising that archaeologists have discovered evidence of settlement dating back to 2500BC.
There are Biblical references, although scholars argue whether Jerash, as Gerasa, was the city of the Gerasenes mentioned in Mark 5:1 and Luke 8:26. Some think it may be, or be near, Ramoth-Gilead, mentioned in 1 Kings 22. Whether that is true or not, it is an ancient settlement, built and rebuilt since the dawn of civilization.
But I must admit I had never heard of it before I planned the Jordan section of my trip.
Alexander seems to have colonised it around 330 BC with his usual practice of pensioning of veterans with local land – and local women – as he went on his conquering way. Later, Antiochus IV made it a Greek Metropolis and named it modestly “Antioch on the Golden River” after himself. The name did not survive, probably because there were already several Antiochs, but the city did. Between that time and the Roman era it was conquered briefly by the Jewish leader Jannaus around 100BC.
The great period for Jerash followed Pompey’s capture of the city in 63 BC, followed by its membership of the league of free cities known as the Decapolis, most of them being in Jordan; “free” provided they accepted Roman rule. Trade with Palmyra in the North, the Nabateans of Petra in the South, as well as to the West to Palestine and to the East created prosperity and population growth. The destruction of Palmyra in the 3rd century AD and decline of the Nabateans led to dramatically diminishing trade and the city started to decline. Over time it went through a Christian period, and then became Islamic from the 7th century, but by that time had reduced to less than a quarter of its peak population. By the 12th century passing Crusaders reported the site as uninhabited and converted Artemis Temple into a temporary fort. The site was re-discovered by Seetzen in 1806 and later became an enclave of refuge for the persecuted Circassians, some of whom still live there.
Despite the subsequent eras of temples and mosques, the majority of the buildings which have survived can be traced to the Romans. I never cease to be impressed at the architectural and engineering ability of the Romans. Jerash is yet another example of their skills that I have seen to add to the Pont du Gard, the Forum, Aquileia, Istanbul, Trier and so many others. My house will decay before the turn of the next century arrives but those Roman remains will still be there.