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Revealing a ‘peripheral’ part of an ancient city in northern Jordan

In AD 749, the ancient city of Jerash was hit by a devastating earthquake. Excavating private houses that collapsed during the disaster has revealed a wealth of information about the Umayyad city. These, though, are just some of the finds encountered during recent archaeological work in the north-western part of the site, as Achim Lichtenberger, Eva Mortensen, and Rubina Raja reveal.

The ruins of Jerash, with the remains of columns in the centre and taller columns still standing to the left, with the city and hills in the distance.
The ruins of Jerash seen from the north-western part of the city, where a Danish-German team have shed new light on activity in this so-called ‘peripheral’ area. In the foreground are the remains of the Synagogue Church, and to the left is the large Artemis Temple. To the right is the South Theatre and the Oval Piazza, and in-between is the Temple of Zeus. [ALL IMAGES: The Danish-German Jerash Northwest Quarter Project, unless otherwise state]

It is winter. The kitchen is humming with activity, as sheep’s wool is prepared for textile production and fires are kept up. The sheep have already been sheared with large iron scissors, and now the wool is being combed, while the fibres are softened and dyed. The household is busy. One member gets out a large iron ladle to stir either the soaked fibres or the coals in the fire. Another inhabitant heads upstairs to find the wooden spindles and the matching clay and rock-crystal whorls, so that they are ready for spinning the fibres.

A scroll and the lead container in which it was kept
At the bottom of the photograph is a lead container that encased a silver scroll (shown at the top). This scroll was unfolded digitally to reveal 17 rows of pseudo-Arabic letters, which do not have a coherent meaning, but belong to the Graeco-Roman tradition of magical texts.

The kitchen is a rather large room, which covers about 17m2. Set into the floor in a corner are two column drums, one of which works as a crusher. On the opposite side of the room, a hearth sits on the stone floor, with cooking pots, jugs, and jars as well as fine-ware bowls arranged nearby. From the kitchen area, it is possible to enter another room, which gives access to the upper storey. Ascending the stairs would lead to walls decorated with paintings and stucco profiles, while the owners’ belongings placed here include, among other things, fine glass bottles, lamps, a small lead mirror, a belt, jewellery, a purse containing a collection of old coins, and a wooden casket. The casket contains scrap: fragments of broken metal saved for later reuse. Careful inspection might also reveal a lead case holding a thin and well-hidden rolled-up silver scroll engraved with undecipherable pseudo-Arabic letters – a magic spell. Only its owner knows whether it is meant to ward off illness, act as an amulet protecting the family, or bring harm to somebody.

A stone trough filled with small, square tesserae
A section of a large trough containing thousands of already cut white tesserae, still waiting to be used.

Next door, the neighbours are having their house refurbished. The sound of chipping echoes through its rooms, as craftspeople prepare tesserae for new mosaic floors. They have already finished a white, undecorated mosaic floor on the upper storey, while the walls are ready to receive a coat of plaster before being painted. A staircase leads down into an open courtyard, where a cistern collects rainwater channelled through pipes from the roof. Various rooms open off this space, some boasting arched doorways. In one of these abutting rooms, the mosaicists have cached white tesserae in a large trough. Thousands of these stone pieces have been cut and are now ready to be laid. Due to the renovation work, this part of the house has been vacated by its owners, who have stored most of their belongings elsewhere.

Both houses are, then, hives of activity. But suddenly, the mosaicists, painters, textile producers, and everyone else in the houses stop what they are doing. The ground has started moving and the walls are shaking ominously. Everyone attempts to flee. But when the limestone houses collapse, one person does not make it out alive.

A devastating earthquake

According to archaeological finds, this is a scenario that could have played out on 18 January AD 749 in a pair of Umayyad houses in Jerash, an ancient city located in present-day Jordan. Until the earthquake, Jerash, or Gerasa as it was called in antiquity, had been thriving. The city lies in what was then a very fertile region. To the north-west are the fecund Ajlun Highlands, while a region of basalt formation called Hauran lies to the north-east, and to the east are steppe deserts. The close surroundings of Gerasa were bountiful, and we know that the land was once intensively cultivated with flax, olives, and grapes, among other crops. Indeed, the hinterland hills still give the impression of being productive land, inviting images of how lush they must have been in Jerash’s heyday. The river Chrysorrhoas (meaning the Gold River) also ran through the city. It was spanned by at least five bridges, binding the two halves of the city together. Today, the river is known as simply ‘the wadi’, reflecting its somewhat diminished state, following both climate change and the toll taken by greater exploitation of water resources.

The city had prospered for many centuries before the earthquake struck. It is clear from the results of various excavations that a settlement of some form existed by the Hellenistic period, but today the city centre is dominated by structures dating to later eras, namely the Roman and Byzantine to early Islamic periods. It was during the early centuries AD in particular that a flourishing urban landscape took shape, boasting monumental public buildings, swathes of domestic housing, and sophisticated infrastructure. Gerasa also boasted productive pottery industries. While various types of fine ware were imported, for the most part the Gerasenes were patrons of local ceramic products, be they robust cooking pots or fashionable tableware. The city is renowned for manufacturing the so-called ‘Jerash bowls’ and ‘Jerash lamps’, which in addition to finding favour in the city, were also exported to surrounding regions. The Gerasenes also had a fondness for glass objects, with this material imported in its raw form, or as finished products. Late Antiquity saw a surge in the recycling of glass vessels, which were remelted before being blown into new forms. We can trace this industry via the contamination of the glass brought about by the fuel used to remelt it. Metals were also imported and reused, and, as in so many ancient urban centres, lead contamination can still be traced in the soils.

The city’s fortunes changed abruptly on that January day in AD 749. Buildings and colonnades came tumbling down as the earthquake forced the inhabitants from their homes. Numerous cities in the Middle East suffered extensive damage, and in Jerash urban life was never the same again. Large parts of the city were laid waste, prompting the survivors to try their luck elsewhere. At the time, Early Islamic Jerash was under Umayyad rule. However, turmoil and political unrest meant that the Umayyad caliphate was on its last legs, and in AD 750, the Abbasids overthrew it to become the new ruling class. Meanwhile, in Jerash most of the collapsed monuments and houses would never be re-erected. Indeed, evidence of settlement within the city walls is generally scarce from the mid-8th century onwards.

Refinding ancient Gerasa

Gerasa returned to prominence at the beginning of the 19th century, when its ruins were rediscovered. Soon afterwards, the site had become a regular destination on the itinerary of European travellers exploring the Middle East on their Grand Tours. The early travel accounts and photographs occasioned by such visits still provide us with valuable knowledge. This is in part because the ancient remains on the eastern side of the wadi have since been largely swallowed up by modern housing. But the early eye-witness testimonies are also important for describing the nature of the ruins before large-scale digging took place.

Organised archaeological excavations were initiated in the early 20th century. The 1920s and ’30s, brought a joint American and British expedition, with many buildings and complexes excavated, studied, and then published. This early work was mostly focused on the public structures situated along the main street, the so-called cardo, which leads through the city and runs almost parallel to the wadi. Since then, several archaeological missions have undertaken fieldwork in Jerash, uncovering workshop areas, private houses, public buildings, and religious structures.

Today, on the western side of the wadi, one of Jordan’s great tourist attractions can be experienced: half of an ancient city graced with a magnificent colonnaded street, two well-preserved theatres, a hippodrome, arches, a monumental sanctuary dedicated to Artemis and another large sanctuary dedicated to Zeus Olympios, a mosque, and numerous Christian churches. The Roman-period city wall is still partly standing, though sadly it is also being damaged by modern developments around the ancient site. When complete, this fortification stretched for about 4km (2.5 miles), encircling urban Gerasa. Several gates pierced the curtain, as did water gates, controlling the river traversing the city. It was within the wall, in what is known as the ‘Northwest Quarter’ – an area that has long been judged ‘peripheral’ – that work was underway in those two houses on that fateful day in AD 749. As it turned out, after the earthquake had passed, the collapsed structures would not be revisited until 2014.

The ruins of Jerash with the modern city and Temple of Artemis behind it.
The beginning of excavations in 2016. Trench V is laid out to investigate the House of the Tesserae further. The modern city and the Temple of Artemis are seen in the background. For little more than a month, soil is removed, finds are recorded, and structures are preliminarily interpreted.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 107Read on in the magazine (Click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which offers all of the magazine’s content digitally. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters. 

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