Jerash (Gerasa) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Jerash (Gerasa)
Walk in Gerasa
Artemis Temple

The Temple of Artemis

Gerasa had a large forest to its west. As late as 1939, Nelson Glueck (p. 121) described Jerash as "close to an extensive forest region where one can still ride for hours in leafy shade." This was likely the same "forest of Ephraim" in Gilead that devoured more men than the sword on the day of battle between David and Absalom; here Absalom got his hair caught in a great terebinth.

When the Greeks arrived in the late 4th century BC under Perdiccas, regent of the late Alexander's empire, they saw the potential for a city. Their question would have been: What god or goddess rules here? In other words, who must we get permission from? Who has the power to protect us? Zeus, of course, but Zeus was responsible for everything, whereas the city founders would have wanted to know which deity had this spot in particular as the apple of his or her eye. The forest was the clue: Artemis!

Nature is diverse, and diversity engenders diverse gods. Monotheism requires the desacralization of nature: one must cease to hear a god in the brook or see a goddess in the rainbow. Bereft of its divinity, nature lies flat out, available to be experimented on. (Experimental science could most readily develop in a monotheistic civilization.) For those who've grown up in a world where nature is not divine and experiment seems quite natural, it is difficult to fathom how the Greeks or Romans could take their gods as seriously as they did. But if you have ever been alone in a forest and suddenly felt an uncanniness, as if some hostile, intelligent and cunning attention were fixed on you from all around, then you have encountered the kind of phenomenon that the ancients attributed to Artemis.

She was a goddess of the forest, and here was a forest, much bigger then. On seeing it, the founders of Gerasa must have thought, "It is she who has power here."

A forest untouched by human beings (no trees felled, no paths cut) is called "virgin," and so the goddess of forests had to be a virgin:

Artemis (not lightly do poets forget her) we sing, who amuses herself on mountains with archery and and the shooting of rabbits and wide circle dances.

When Artemis was still just a little slip of a goddess, she sat on her father's knee and said: "I want to be a virgin forever, Papa, and I want to have as many names as my brother Phoibus [Apollo], and please, Papa, give me a bow and some arrows-please!... 

"And let me be Light Bringer and wear a tunic with a colored border down to the knee, loose for when I go hunting wild game. And give me sixty dancing girls, daughters of Ocean, all nine years old, all little girl sea nymphs, and twenty wood nymphs take care of my boots and tend my swift hounds when I'm done shooting lynx and stag, and give me all the mountains in the world, Papa, and any old town, I don't care which one: Artemis will hardly ever go down into town. I'll live in the mountains, and visit men's cities only when women, struck with fierce labor pangs, call on my name, for the Moirai [Fates] ordained when I was being born, that Artemis be a helper of women, because mother in bearing and birthing me had no pain at all: I just slipped right out of her dear round belly." And with that she stretched out her hands to her father's beard, but hard as she tried couldn't reach his whiskers; and he nodded, laughing and caressing her, and said: "When goddesses bear me children like, this, I hardly mind Hera's jealous anger."

- From the Greek poet Callimachus (305-240 BC), Hymn III to Artemis

In Latin she is Diana, "Deana" in two Gerasene inscriptions. She appears on vases and in sculpture as a tall, haughty, forbidding, long-striding, independent young woman, wielding the bow of a huntress, fondling a lion or deer - or grasping it by the throat. (Readers of Henry James will remember Isabel Archer; the name is surely no accident.) She was Apollo's twin sister, and like him, she could bring sudden death with her arrows. He killed men, she women. But Apollo also healed, and his sister's special province, as said, was helping women through childbirth.

The Artemis of EphesusIn Gerasa we find her in pure Greek form. It was not the case here that a local god presided and the Greek equivalent was grafted on, as happened almost everywhere else in the region. It happened, for example, in Ephesus, where Artemis was conflated with the indigenous Astarte, the fertility goddess. It was this maternal virgin whose outraged worshippers chanted at Paul, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" (Acts 19:28)

In Gerasa the Greek element prevails. Those devotees who left inscriptions, with one exception, had Greek or Latin names. She is called "Laconian," Spartan. In more than 330 Gerasene inscriptions, "the name of only one Semitic deity, Pakeida, has been found... One has but to compare the inscriptions of Palmyra or Bostra with those of Gerasa to sense a world of difference in all of these matters." (McCown, p. 151)

Nearly all the city's known coins include "a charmingly designed bust of the youthful huntress with her quiver showing over her right shoulder and her hair in a smooth chignon at the nape of her neck." (Ibid., 132) They bear the legend, "Artemis, tyche of Gerasa," where tyche means good fortune. Each Roman city had its Tyche, but nowhere else in the East, not even in Ephesus, did a city take Artemis for that role. In her pure Greek version she was, after all, no city slicker. "Artemis will hardly ever go down into town."

Artemis on a coin of Hadrian

So the Greek newcomers looked at the encroaching forest and found her in it. Perhaps they saw that they'd have to clear trees for farmland (as Joshua had told the Ephraimites to do). This would have required Artemis' permission. They could compensate her by making Gerasa her city.

But to build a Temple to Artemis must have seemed presumptuous, considering that her temple in Ephesus had been one of the world's Seven Wonders. It had burned on the day of the night when Alexander was born, July 21, 356 BC. Artemis couldn't rescue it, for she was off in Macedonia helping his mother deliver. But the rebuilt version was still a matter for boasting.

In Gerasa, the siting of the Artemis temple determined the plan for the public part of the city. One crucial move was topographical: to choose the place of the cella, the chamber containing her statue, on the most prominent height. Then the planner drew two lines: the north-south line through that place and the line of the Via Sacra leading to it from the residential section. These two lines made up the basis, we have seen, for the entire city plan.

The Via Sacra crossed the Chrysorhoas, so the Gerasenes built a bridge. This must have supported a staircase, for the ascent was too steep for vehicles. At the first terrace on the west bank they erected an arched gate, which the Byzantines later converted into the apse of a church. The gate led into a colonnaded street, which became the church's nave and side aisles. Then the procession arrived at an open space in front of the temple's entrance, called a "propylaeum."

Jerash: Via Sacra

Inside the propylaeum begins a great staircase, almost 20 meters wide, eased by landings every six steps. On either side are high walls, directing the view to the distant pillars of the temple itself.

Jerash: The propylaeum

And now we approach the temple.

Jerash: Via Sacra West

"All but one of the twelve great columns of its portico are still in place," wrote the archaeologists in 1930. "Some of them rock with the gusty winds...but their foundations are so solid and they are so delicately poised that the many earthquakes to which Transjordan is subject have not overthrown them" (Fisher and McCown, p. 4).  In their slender grace they would have brought to the devotee's mind the young women with whom Artemis, gazing from the inner chamber, always surrounded herself.
Jerash: The Temple of Artemis