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

History, Geography and Sacred Geometry 

Gerasa offers the best surviving example of a classical city on either side of the Jordan. Although dating from Hellenistic times, it had its first spurt of major growth in the late 1st century AD. Why at that time, and why was it where it was?

The place is gifted with good soil and much water. Oak, terebinth and pine cover the hills with green foliage even through the dry summer months. Here also grows the Pistachia Lentiscus, from whose resin was derived the "balm in Gilead" sought by the prophet Jeremiah. Through the middle of the valley, a small brook flows south where it eventually joins the Zarqa River (the biblical Jabbok, where Jacob wrestled with an angel). In Hellenistic times, the brook was named the Chrysorhoas (golden).

Today we can still see Gerasa's natural bounty. The virgin forests of antiquity, which to Greek and Roman minds belonged to virginal Artemis, have mostly given way to farms.

Many places are gifted by nature, yet few are chosen to host grand cities. The reasons why Gerasa sprang up where and when it did are two: geographical position and the Pax Romana.

Position.  The land of the Bible was a narrow strip between sea and desert, a "land bridge" joining Asia and Africa. (More.) Two main north-south highways composed that bridge. One went through Galilee and followed the coast (we may call it the Great Trunk Road). The other, in today's Jordan, stayed on a fertile plateau just west of the desert: wherever it could, this route skirted the deep wadi beds that slice down to the Jordan Valley (see map below). For most of the way, the need for level land between the desert and the wadi beds determined the course of the road. In Numbers 21, the route is called the King's Highway. We trace it by following the line of habitation. After the Roman emperor Trajan annexed the kingdom of the Nabataeans  in 106 AD, he had this same route paved, from the Red Sea to Philadelphia (Amman), and then he extended it to the city of Bostra (capital of his newly organized Provincia Arabia). The Via Nova Troiana "was divided into two lanes, with a protruding line of stones in the middle, and the sides of the road also marked by raised stones." (Glueck, p.12) It is still visible for miles.

Map of the north in the Roman period

But why did the great city of Gerasa develop precisely on the point of the highway where it did? A study of the map above shows the main reason: here was the junction with the road from Pella. Here one could cross the Jordan to Scythopolis (Beth Shean) and head up the gentle Jezreel Valley to a junction that gave access in three directions: to Ptolemais (Acco), Caesarea Maritima or Egypt. Of the few roads linking the two international highways, the Pella-Scythopolis route was the best.

If Gerasa's position was so good, we may ask why there wasn't a city here in the Old Testament period?

First, through most of the third millennium BC, there was indeed a settlement on a hill above a spring just 200 yards to the northeast. Like many towns on both sides of the Jordan, it was destroyed by the Egyptians at the end of that period. The cities in the Jordan valley and west of it were rebuilt in the 18th century BC (it was then that they got their ramparts, which today defiine the shapes of their tells). The highlands east of the Jordan, however, knew no such urban recovery: the area was probably too close to the desert tribes that sought grazing land in the summer. Urban dwellers would have needed a central power with a standing army to protect them. There was no such power for a thousand years - till the 10th century BC, when the kingdoms of Edom, Moab, Ammon and Israel were established. Only then could cities again arise in the highlands east of the Jordan. A small walled town developed less than three miles north of the later Gerasa. We don't have a biblical identification.

Here then is a second principle governing the establishment of a city at this prime spot: there has to be a power enforcing regional peace.

About 332 BC, Alexander the Great provided that power, and people felt secure enough to settle here. A Roman inscription mentions a statue of Perdiccas at the site. This general became regent of the empire after Alexander's death in 323 and was assassinated three years later. If Gerasa was founded in his time, it must have been in that short span. When Antiochus III, a Seleucid king, defeated the Ptolemies at Banias in 198 BC, the city was renamed Antioch on the Chrysorhoas. Remains from the Hellenistic period are scant, however. We're not even sure of the town's location.

Yet it must have been substantial. The ruler of Philadelphia, wary of the Hasmoneans, deposited part of his treasure in Gerasa, but to no avail: lured by the money, Alexander Janneus conquered it (Josephus, The Jewish War I 103).

Rome's Pompey took Gerasa back. Henceforth it counted its years according to the Pompeiian era, starting in 62 BC. The Romans needed four more decades, however, to establish peace. In 23 BC Augustus put Herod in charge of the volcanic area to the north (see map above); only then could Gerasa benefit from the Pax Romana.

The city prospered and spread. The Hellenistic shrine was replaced by a Temple of Zeus, built-we know from donors' inscriptions - between 22 and 70 AD.  If Jesus visited Gerasa, he would have seen this temple under construction. It was laid out on a north-south axis, like the street grid on the residential side across the river.

Why a north-south axis? North was determined by Polaris, the North Star. While the constellations drift from east to west in the night sky, Polaris appears to be fixed. The Romans wanted a connection to the fixed order of things, and they planned their cities accordingly. Whenever they could, they placed the Cardo or "main street" on this axis mundi, each city a microcosm.


As the photo makes clear, however, it would have been inconvenient to put the Gerasa Cardo on the axis mundi: as the street stretched northward, it would have become increasingly distant from the residential section. What is more, a Cardo requires level ground, but the landscape rises to the north. We shall soon see how the planners solved this problem.

Gerasa in the reign of Vespasian (69-79 AD)

Of all Roman emperors until his time, Vespasian knew the Near East best, for he had been here to put down the Jewish revolt. Among his trusted officers was one Trajan, whom we'll call Traianus to distinguish him from his son, the later emperor. When the revolt was over, Vespasian - now emperor - put Traianus in charge of the province of Syria. The two undertook to foster trade with Mesopotamia. An inscription on a milestone discovered in Syria indicates that Traianus paved a road from Palmyra all the way to the Euphrates. The decade saw simultaneous development in three cities that were key to this trade: Palmyra, Bostra  and Gerasa. (See map above.) In all three the Nabataeans  were strongly present. Bostra, for example, could not have developed without them: they alone had the knowhow to harness the meager water supplies. The Nabataeans and the Romans appear to have cooperated in this period for the sake of their commercial interests. (More in Bowersock. )

Amid the general prosperity, Gerasa had a surge of growth. The city's Tyche ("Good Fortune") was Artemis (why her?), and it was she, in cooperation with certain geographical "givens," who determined the layout of the streets and the placement of the buildings. We shall now attempt to see how.

Sacred Geometry
The geographical givens were these:

1. The Cardo could not follow the north-south axis, as said above; the planners wanted to keep it close to the river and to the (already existing) residential section.

2. On the west bank of the Chrysorhoas, opposite the residential section, the land gradually rose to 600+ meters above sea level. It made a slight ridge on the south side, with a valley beyond, although there was no such natural protection on the west, north or east. The Gerasenes built a wall on the ridge and extended it around their city, finishing it by 80 AD, according to an inscription in the northwest gate. Inside the wall, one hill remained prominent as it sloped down toward the river. We shall call it "Artemis hill." A point on this slope was chosen for the cella of her temple, that is, the chamber containing her statue. Perhaps the augurs determined this point, but in any case a very suitable spot was chosen: not too close to the city wall but far enough from the residential section to preserve a sense of distance and holiness, allowing a stately procession. The procession would require a Via Sacra from the residential section to the cella. This is shown here:

Artemis Hill at Jerash

These "givens" sufficed to generate the master plan of Gerasa.

Here we make use of an article by Watts and Watts (although they might not agree with the order of the process imagined here). First, draw a north-south line through the place appointed for the cella of Artemis. (She had a special connection to the North Star: her personal constellation circles it.) We now have two lines: this and the line of the Via Sacra. You would not want a main east-west road to coincide with the Via Sacra, obviously. It would have to be beyond it, and preferably on level ground. But where exactly? At what point would it intersect the north-south line? The answer to this question determined everything.

Two Lines at Jerash

The solution went as follows. Find a point on the north-south line such that, if it is the corner of a square (we shall call it the "master square"), the Via Sacra will be the side of a sacred-cut square within it. (What is a sacred square? Enlarge the diagram on the right.) The architect found this point (it is shown in the next photo), constructing the master square and its inner, sacred-cut square. That gave the whole plan, as you can see below. The Cardo bisects both squares. The vertical sides of the master square coincide on the right with the North Decumanus and on the left with a line through the southern tip of the Cardo where it meets the Oval Plaza. Its upper (west) side coincides with an ancient street. Its bottom side coincides today with a major street in the residential section (note the many automobiles), whose axis varies from the older residential grid.  The vertical sides of the inner sacred-cut square coincide with the South Decumanus and the Via Sacra.

The master plan of Gerasa, based on the sacred square

The plan was not without problems. Until it was rebuilt to face the populace in 161-166, the Zeus Temple remained on a north-south axis. The difference between its axis and that of the Cardo might have created a sense of imbalance. The solution? An oval plaza. For the viewer at ground level, this elongated circle blurred the discrepancy.
Just as a person entering through the North Gate had the Temple of Zeus in view, so a person entering through the South Gate saw the Temple of Artemis.

Two sight lines at Jerash

The surge of the 2nd century AD

The younger Trajan, who reigned as emperor from 98 till 117, had worked in the East with his father and knew it well. Looking toward the Mesopotamian trade, he annexed the Nabatean kingdom in 106, converted it (with additions including Gerasa) into the Provincia Arabia, and paved the aforementioned Via Nova Traiana. This new road and its branches led to a surge in the city's prosperity, reflected in the complete implementation of the above building plan throughout the second century.

When Trajan's successor, Hadrian, wintered at Gerasa in 129-130 AD, he had a commemorative arch erected, as was his wont. The hippodrome beside it may also date from this time. Because the master plan was already established, there was no place for another significant structure inside it. The solution was to double the master square to the south:

Jerash: Doubling the square for Hadrian

Looking straight through Hadrian's Arch, one sees the Temple of Artemis a kilometer away. All the main monuments of Gerasa are part of a single vision.

Jerash-Gerasa: Artemis temple as seen through Hadrian's Arch

When we contemplate this interaction of religion and geometry at Gerasa, the question arises whether similar principles, not yet detected, may have been at work in the other major cities of the time. But we leave the question for now.

Moments from the later history

From 350 AD, Gerasa held a large Christian community. Its delegates took part in church councils of the time. Between 400 and 600 AD, fifteen churches were constructed here, often using stones and columns from earlier buildings, including the Temple of Artemis. The churches were paved with mosaics, of which several have survived.

The Persian invasion of 614 caused a rapid decline in Gerasa's wealth and population. In the early Muslim period under the Umayyads, however, mosques were built, testifying to renewal. It did not last long. The great earthquake of 749, which destroyed Scythopolis and Tiberias, brought much of Gerasa down too. It remained a field of ruins. During the Crusades, the Muslim ruler of Damascus briefly converted the Temple of Artemis into a fortress; Baldwin II, king of Jerusalem, captured and burned it. Not long after that, an Arab geographer named Yaqut passed through; he saw just "a field of ruins." To this day, when the Arabs of Jordan seek an image for destruction, they often say "like the ruins of Jerash."

In 1806 Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, a German traveler, described the remains. His report led to a visit by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer. Burckhardt's description attracted more visitors.

The modern settlement of the city began when Russia expelled a million Circassians from the Caucasus in the late 19th century. About 800,000 survived to reach the Ottoman Empire. Some entered the area today known as Jordan, restarting the cities of Amman and Jerash. Those in Jerash settled on the east bank of the old Chrysorhoas, where the Roman residential section had been.

Let us now take a walk in Gerasa.