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

A severe earthquake struck the ancient city of Jerash in AD 749. Excavation of private houses destroyed by the calamity has uncovered a wealth of information about the Umayyad metropolis. These are only a few of the discoveries made during a recent archaeological excavation in the site’s northwestern corner, as Achim Lichtenberger, Eva Mortensen, and Rubina Raja show.

Winter has arrived. The kitchen is a hive of activity as sheep’s wool is prepared for textile production and fires are maintained. The sheep have previously been shorn with enormous iron shears, and the wool is currently being combed and softened and coloured. The household is very active. One of the members takes out a heavy iron ladle and stirs the wet fibres or the coals in the fire. Another tenant goes upstairs to find the wooden spindles, as well as the matching clay and rock-crystal whorls so that they can spin the fibres.

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.

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.

A section of a large trough containing thousands of already cut white tesserae, still waiting to be used.

The kitchen is a rather large room, measuring approximately 17m2. Two-column drums, one of which serves as a crusher, are set into the floor in a corner. A hearth rests on the tiled floor on the opposite side of the room, surrounded by cooking pots, jugs, and jars, as well as fine-ware bowls. It is able to enter another room from the kitchen area, which provides access to the upper storey.

Ascending the stairs would reveal walls painted with paintings and stucco profiles, as well as the owners’ valuables, which include exquisite glass bottles, lamps, a little lead mirror, a belt, jewellery, a purse containing a collection of antique coins, and a wooden casket. Scrap metal fragments collected for eventual reuse are stored in the coffin. A careful examination may also disclose a lead casket containing a thin and well-hidden rolled-up silver scroll carved with illegible pseudo-Arabic letters – a magic spell. Only the owner knows if it is supposed to ward off disease, serve as a protective amulet for the family, or do harm to someone.

The neighbours next door are having their house renovated. As craftspeople create tesserae for new mosaic flooring, the sound of chipping echoes through its rooms. On the upper floor, they have already completed a white, undecorated mosaic floor, and the walls are ready for a coat of plaster before being painted. A stairway descends into an open courtyard, where a cistern gathers rainwater directed from the roof via pipes. Several rooms open off this atrium, some with arched doorways. The mosaicists have stashed white tesserae in a big trough in one of these adjoining rooms. Thousands of these stone pieces have been carved and are ready for installation. This section of the house has been evacuated by its owners, who have placed the majority of their things elsewhere due to the remodelling work.

As a result, both houses are buzzing with activity. But then the mosaicists, painters, textile manufacturers, and everyone else in the houses all cease working. The ground has begun to tremble, and the walls are trembling ominously. Everyone tries to flee. However, as the limestone houses fall, only one person survives.

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A devastating earthquake

According to archaeological discoveries, this is a situation that could have occurred on 18 January AD 749 in a pair of Umayyad mansions in Jerash, an ancient city in modern-day Jordan. Jerash, or Gerasa as it was known in antiquity, had been thriving prior to the earthquake. The city is located in what was once a very fertile region. To the northwest are the fertile Ajlun Highlands, while to the northeast is a basalt formation known as Hauran, and to the east are steppe deserts. Gerasa’s immediate surroundings were abundant, and we know that the land was once intensively cultivated with flax, olives, and grapes, among other crops. Indeed, the hinterland hills still appear to be productive land, evoking images of how lush they must have been during Jerash’s heyday. The Chrysorrhoas (Gold River) River also ran through the city. It was crossed by at least five bridges, connecting the city’s two halves. Today, the river is just known as ‘the wadi,’ reflecting its slightly decreased state as a result of both climate change and the toll taken by increased water resource exploitation.

Before the earthquake, the city had thrived for generations. Various discoveries show that a town of some kind existed by the Hellenistic period, although today the city centre is dominated by constructions dating from later times, particularly the Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods. The early centuries AD saw the rise of a flourishing urban landscape, complete with enormous public buildings, swaths of domestic housing, and sophisticated infrastructure. Gerasa also had thriving pottery businesses.

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While numerous varieties of fine china were imported, the Gerasenes preferred local ceramic wares, whether they were strong cooking pots or trendy dinnerware. The city is well-known for producing the so-called ‘Jerash bowls’ and ‘Jerash lamps,’ which, in addition to being popular in the city, were also exported to neighbouring regions. The Gerasenes were also fond of glass artefacts, which were imported in either raw or completed form. In Late Antiquity, there was a spike in the recycling of glass vessels, which were remelted before being blown into new shapes. We can trace this business back to the pollution of glass caused by the fuel used to remelt it. Metals were also imported and reused, and lead contamination can still be found in the soils, as in many old cities.

On that January day in AD 749, the fortunes of the city took a sharp turn. As a result of the earthquake, buildings and colonnades collapsed and residents were forced to flee their homes. Numerous cities in the Middle East were severely damaged, and life in Jerash was never the same again. Large swaths of the city were destroyed, forcing the survivors to seek refuge elsewhere. Early Islamic Jerash was ruled by the Umayyads during the time. However, political upheaval and turmoil meant that the Umayyad caliphate was on its final legs, and the Abbasids toppled it in AD 750 to become the new ruling dynasty. Meanwhile, most of Jerash’s collapsed monuments and houses would never be rebuilt. Indeed, evidence of population within the city walls becomes increasingly sparse after the mid-8th century.

Refinding ancient Gerasa

Gerasa rose to prominence again in the early nineteenth century, when its ruins were found. Soon later, the site became a frequent stop on the itinerary of European Grand Tours to the Middle East. The early travel accounts and images that resulted from such journeys still offer us useful information. This is due, in part, to the fact that the ancient remnants on the wadi’s eastern side have been substantially absorbed by modern dwellings. However, early eyewitness accounts are also essential for defining the nature of the ruins prior to large-scale excavation.

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Archaeological digs were organised in the early twentieth century. During the 1920s and 1930s, a joint American and British expedition unearthed examined and published many buildings and complexes. This early work was primarily concerned with the public structures located along the city’s main thoroughfare, the so-called cardo, which runs practically parallel to the wadi. Several archaeological expeditions have conducted fieldwork in Jerash since then, unearthing workshop areas, private residences, public buildings, and religious structures.

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, the soil is removed, finds are recorded, and structures are preliminarily interpreted.

Today, one of Jordan’s most popular tourist attractions can be found on the western side of the wadi: half of an ancient city with a magnificent arcaded street, two well-preserved halls, a hippodrome, ridges, a monumental safe zone dedicated to Artemis as well as another large sanctuary dedicated to Zeus Olympios, a mosque, and so many Christian churches. The Roman-period city wall is still partially intact, however, it is being harmed by modern construction around the archaeological site. When finished, this fortification encircled Gerasa for roughly 4km (2.5 miles). Several gates, as well as water gates, penetrated the curtain, regulating the river that ran through the city. On that fatal day in AD 749, work was ongoing in those two houses within the wall, in what is known as the ‘Northwest Quarter’ – an area that has traditionally been considered ‘peripheral’. As it turned out, the collapsed structures would not be revisited until 2014, after the earthquake had gone.

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