Surveying beyond the walls of Jarash

A huge dumped boulder cracks a Roman sarcophagus on a large necropolis site.

A huge dumped boulder cracks a Roman sarcophagus on a large necropolis site.

by Maggie Struckmeier & David Connolly

Jarash, or Gerasa as it was once known, is an ancient Decapolis City situated on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in northwest Jordan. It has been studied extensively over the past hundred years but almost exclusively within the old city walls. The main goal of this project is to reveal more about how the hinterland of Jarash was utilised to sustain a growing population made wealthy on the profits of trade from the Silk Road and southern Arabia.

However, the modern city is rapidly expanding, so this survey may be the last chance to locate sites, some of which will soon disappear forever, destroyed by the developer’s bulldozer.

Tomb on patch of waste ground

Tomb on patch of waste ground.

A range of sites

From information gained in the initial 2005 survey the team knew the kind of sites they would be likely to encounter. They ranged from various types of tombs, quarries, cisterns, inscriptions, mausoleums, olive and wine presses to architectural fragments and mosaics.  Given the large area that the small team needed to cover, the primary objective was to gather sufficient information as quickly as possible to enable interpretation to take place.

On discovery of a new site, a global positioning satellite (GPS) reading was taken, a unique identifying number allocated and a survey form filled out with a basic description, including type of site, condition and immediate threat, along with a quick sketch plan and measurements. The site was photographed and, when necessary, a surface artefact collection was undertaken, mainly ceramics in this case.  The whole process could take about 20 minutes before the survey team moved on.  A more complex site, however, could take considerably longer, but it was important to remember not to get bogged down in detail, tempting though it was.

Recording tombs

The hinterland in the immediate vicinity of the city is filled with tombs, mostly dating from Roman times when the population was at its largest.  It is common to find that a rocky limestone outcrop first used as a quarry was then reworked into a site for burial afterwards.  The team encountered simple rock cut graves, caves with niches for sarcophagi or ossuaries, to impressive monumental mausoleums complete with underground chambers intended to hold up to 30 sarcophagi which would be sealed behind heavy limestone doors.  Sadly, all those recorded had been robbed with the internal spaces now being used as storage rooms or rubbish dumps, whilst others are being destroyed by the new construction works which are taking place.

Roman milestone found amongst rubbish in an olive grove

Roman milestone found amongst rubbish in an olive grove.

Discovery and rescue

Discovering stone inscriptions was always exciting, and those located during the two seasons of work ranged  from Greek and Roman altar texts to an early Christian gravestone and a 13th century Abbasid text. One of the most satisfying days  was the rescuing of four Roman milestones lying amongst rubbish within an olive grove. All of these pieces were immediately recovered by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan for protection and further research.

Beyond the immediate vicinity of the city, the survey team began to discover an agricultural landscape that consisted of olive presses and rock cut wine production areas.  One such example, excavated 20 years before is still in an excellent state of preservation and comes complete with a mosaic floor, sadly now beginning to suffer from erosion.

Limestone section of a Roman water course

Limestone section of a Roman water course.

Water management

Water had always been important to settlements in this area and the collection and storage of every drop was a big pre-occupation to the inhabitants of Jarash.  An impression of this intricate and widespread water management system has begun to emerge from this survey, with larger cisterns and  reservoirs  feeding down rock cut channels or ceramic pipes either directly into the city or diverted into smaller domestic cisterns. In one such case, piping discovered in a residential garden was still intact along with a perforated lead cover to strain the water as it flowed into a rock cut subterranean tank.  A narrow circular opening would have allowed buckets of clean water to be lifted to the surface which were then poured into a white plaster-lined basin for domestic use.

Final abandonment

These systems seem to have been used and maintained from the Roman period right up to the final abandonment of Jarash some time in the middle ages. Jarash became ruinous as a result of earthquakes, plagues and a change in trading routes.

From the 16th century onwards the Ottomans ruled Jordan but had very little control over the outlying areas of the country as they were only interested in protecting pilgrimage routes to Mecca.  By the late 19th century it was decided to settle Circassian people from south eastern Russia into Jarash to help protect against attack from the local Bedouin tribes.  These people, who were also Muslim and seeking to escape religious persecution, set about building houses for themselves within the crumbling city walls and established the field systems that can still be seen today.  There are still a few remaining Circassian buildings dotted around the city but these will quickly disappear unless they are given some sort of protected status.

Lost to development

Some of the field systems that the Circassians turned from Bedouin grazing land to crop production are now under immediate threat of development in the Wadi Deir  to the north of the city walls.  These fields hold many clues to a more ancient past and are littered with Roman pottery, tessara and architectural fragments.   Whilst investigating this area, two Greek inscriptions were recorded, having apparently been bulldozed onto waste ground as a result of the construction of a newly-opened medical centre. Nearby, an unusual octagonal sixth century Byzantine church sits unprotected in an overgrown back plot, and its huge red granite columns, thought to have come all the way from Aswan in Egypt, lie forgotten in the orchard below.  On the opposite side of the road a once grand mausoleum, hidden behind a newly-built house, will soon be hemmed in by development on its north and south side.

Greek inscription bulldozed and left on waste ground

Greek inscription bulldozed and left on waste ground

Further research

The team is acutely aware that the Jarash Hinterland Survey is important in many ways, and after locating over 450 sites so far in the most threatened areas, there is still much to do.  However, some of these sites without doubt need re-visiting and further interpretation, and it is important that this survey will provide information for those who wish to carry out future research on the hinterland of Jarash, whether it is the farming, the water management systems, the quarries and industry or the burial practices of the previous inhabitants.

Some need to be excavated to realise their full potential, while others desperately need conservation work. Other sites simply need immediate protection by being fenced off so that they cannot be plundered or used as dumps. It was extremely distressing to return to find that approximately 30 per cent of the sites that had been surveyed in 2005 had been lost to development over the three intervening years, and many more will probably be lost all too soon. Hopefully action will now be taken to protect some of these treasures before it is too late.

Thanks are due to the Department of Antiquities of Jordan for allowing this survey to take place, and it is hoped that the information provided in the report will be an informative and useful point of reference when looking at the areas that are under immediate threat.

Jarash Hinterland Survey