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A Journey To Jerash - The Ruins Of Gerasa

( Originally Published 1908 )



WE are coming now into the region of the Decapolis, the Greek cities which sprang up along the eastern border of Palestine after the conquests of Alexander the Great.

They were trading cities, undoubtedly, situated on the great roads which led from the east across the desert to the Jordan Valley, and so, converging upon the Plain of Esdraelon, to the Mediterranean Sea and to Greece and Italy. Their wealth tempted the Jewish princes of the Hasmonean line to conquer and plunder them; but the Roman general Pompey restored their civic liberties, B.C. 65, and caused them to be rebuilt and strengthened. By the beginning of the Christian era, they were once more rich and flourishing, and a league was formed of ten municipalities, with certain rights of communal and local government, under the protection and suzerainty of the Roman Empire.

The ten cities which originally composed this confederacy for mutual defence and the development of their trade, were Scythopolis, Hippos, Damascus, Gadara, Raphana, Kanatha, Pella, Dion, Philadelphia and Gerasa. Their money was stamped with the image of Caesar. Their soldiers followed the Imperial eagles. Their traditions, their arts, their literature were Greek. But their strength and their new prosperity were Roman.

Here in this narrow wadi through which we are climbing up from the Vale of Jabbok we find the traces of the presence of the Romans in the fragments of a paved military road and an aqueduct. Presently we surmount a rocky hill and look down into the broad, shallow basin of Jerash. Gently sloping, rock-strewn hills surround it; through the centre flows a stream, with banks bordered by trees; a water-fall is flashing opposite to us; on a cluster of rounded knolls about the middle of the valley, on the west bank of the stream, are spread the vast, incredible, complete ruins of the ancient city of Gerasa.

They rise like a dream in the desolation of the wilderness, columns and arches and vaults and amphitheatres and temples, suddenly appearing in the bare and lonely landscape as. if by enchantment.

How came these monuments of splendour and permanence into this country of simplicity and transience, this land of shifting shepherds and drovers, this empire of the black tent, this immemorial region that has slept away the centuries under the spell of the pastoral pipe ? What magical music of another kind, strong, stately and sonorous, music of brazen trumpets and shawms, of silver harps and cymbals, evoked this proud and potent city on the border of the desert, and maintained for centuries, amid the sweeping, turbulent floods of untamable tribes of rebels and robbers, this lofty landmark of

" the glory that was Greece

And the grandeur that was Rome " ?

What sudden storm of discord and disaster shook it all down again, loosened the sinews of majesty and power, stripped away the garments of beauty and luxury, dissolved the lovely body of living joy, and left this skeleton of dead splendour diffused upon the solitary ground ?

Who can solve these mysteries ? It is all unaccountable, unbelievable,—the ghost of the dream of a dream,—yet here it is, surrounded by the green hills, flooded with the frank light of noon, neighboured by a dirty, noisy little village of Arabs and Circassians on the east bank of the stream, and with real goats and lean, black cattle grazing between the carved columns and under the broken architraves of Gerasa the Golden.

Let us go up into the wrecked city.

This triumphal arch, with its three gates and its lofty Corinthian columns, stands outside of the city walls: a structure which has no other use or meaning than the expression of Imperial pride: thus the Roman conquerors adorn and approach their vassal-town.

Behind the arch a broad, paved road leads to the southern gate, perhaps a thousand feet away. Beside the road, between the arch and the gate, lie two buildings of curious interest. The first is a great pool of stone, seven hundred feet long by three hundred feet wide. This is the Naumachia, which is filled with water by conduits from the neighbouring stream, in order that the Greeks may hold their mimic naval combats and regattas here in the desert, for they are always at heart a seafaring people. Beyond the pool there is a Circus, with four rows of stone seats and an oval arena, for wild-beast shows and gladiatorial combats.

The city walls have almost entirely disappeared and the South Gate is in ruins. Entering and turning to the left, we ascend a little hill and find the Temple (perhaps dedicated to Artemis), and close beside it the great South Theatre. There is hardly a break in the semicircular stone benches, thirty-two rows of seats rising tier above tier, divided into an upper and a lower section by a broader row of "boxes" or stalls, richly carved, and reserved, no doubt, for magnates of the city and persons of importance. The stage, over a hundred feet wide, is backed by 'a straight wall adorned with Corinthian columns and decorated niches. The theatre faces due north; and the spectator sitting here, if the play wearies him, can lift his eyes and look off beyond the proscenium over the length and breadth of Gerasa.

"But he looked upon the city, every side,
Far and wide,
All the mountains topped with temples, all the glades
Colonnades,
All the causeys, bridges, acqueducts,—and then,
All the men!"

In the hollow northward from this theatre is the Forum, or the Market-place, or the Hippodrome—I cannot tell what it is, but a splendid oval of Ionic pillars incloses an open space of more than three hundred feet in length and two hundred and fifty feet in width, where the Gerasenes may barter or bicker or bet, as they will.

From the Forum to the North Gate runs the main street, more than half a mile long, lined with a double row of columns, from twenty to thirty feet high, with smooth shafts and acanthus capitals. At the intersection of the cross-streets there are tetra-pylons, with domes, and pedestals for statues. The pavement of the roadway is worn into ruts by the chariot wheels. Under the arcades behind the columns run the sidewalks for foot-passengers. Turn to the right from the main street and you come to the Public Baths, an immense building like a pal-ace, supplied with hot and cold water, adorned with marble and mosaic. On the left lies the Tribuna, with its richly decorated façade and its fountain of flowing water. A few yards farther north is the Propylæum of the Great Temple; a superb gateway, decorated with columns and garlands and shell niches, opening to a wide flight of steps by which we ascend to the temple-area, a terrace nearly twice the size of Madison Square Garden, surrounded by two hundred and sixty columns, and standing clear above the level of the encircling city.

The Temple of the Sun rises at the western end of this terrace, facing the dawn. The huge columns of the portico, forty-five feet high and five feet in diameter, with rich Corinthian capitals, are of rosy-yellow limestone, which seems to be saturated with the sunshine of a thousand years. Behind them are the walls of the Cella, or inner shrine, with its vaulted apse for the image of the god, and its secret stairs and passages in the rear wall for the coming and going of the priests, and the ascent to the roof for the first salutation of the sunrise over the eastern hills.

Spreading our cloth between two pillars of the portico we celebrate the feast of noontide, and looking out over the wrecked magnificence of the city we try to reconstruct the past.

It was in the days of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, in the latter part of the second century after Christ, that these temples and palaces and theatres were rising. Those were the palmy days of Græco-Roman civilisation in Syria; then the shops along the Colonnade were filled with rich goods, the Forum listened to the voice of world-famous orators and teachers, and proud lords and ladies assembled in the Naumachia to watch the sham battles of the miniature galleys. A little later the new religion of Christianity found a foothold here, (see, these are the ruined out-lines of a Christian church below us to the south, and the foundation of a great Basilica), and by the fifth century the pagan worship was dying out, and the Bishop of Gerasa had a seat in the Council of Chalcedon. It was no longer with the comparative merits of Stoicism and Epicureanism and Neo-Platonism, or with the rival literary fame of their own Ariston and Kerykos as against Meleager and Menippus and Theodorus of Gadara, that the Gerasenes concerned themselves. They were busy now with the controversies about Homoiousia and Homoöusia, with the rivalry of the Eutychians and the Nestorians, with the conflicting, not to say combative, claims of such saints as Dioscurus of Alexandria and Theodoret of Cyrus. But trade continued brisk, and the city was as rich and as proud as ever. In the seventh century an Arabian chronicler named it among the great towns of Palestine, and a poet praised its fertile territory and its copious spring.

Then what happened ? Earthquake, pestilence, conflagration, pillage, devastation—who knows? A Mohammedan writer of the thirteenth century merely mentions it as "a great city of ruins"; and so it lay, deserted and forgotten, until a German traveller visited it in 1806; and so it lies to-day, with all its dwellings and its walls shattered and dissolved beside its flowing stream in the centre of its green valley, and only the relics of its temples, its theatres, its colonnades, and its triumphal arch remaining to tell us how brave and rich and gay it was in the days of old.

Do you believe it ? Does it seem at all real or possible to you ? Look up at this tall pillar above us. See how the wild marjoram has thrust its roots between the joints and hangs like "the hyssop that springeth out of the wall." See how the weather has worn deep holes and crevices in the topmost drum, and how the sparrows have made their nests there. Lean your back against the pillar; feel it vibrate like "a reed shaken with the wind"; watch that huge capital of acanthus leaves swaying slowly to and fro and trembling upon its stalk "as a flower of the field."

All the afternoon and all the next morning we wander through the ruins, taking photographs, de-ciphering inscriptions, discovering new points of view to survey the city. We sit on the arch of the old Roman bridge which spans the stream, and look down into the valley filled with gardens and orchards; tall poplars shiver in the breeze; peaches, plums, and cherries are in bloom; almonds clad in pale-green foliage; figs putting forth their verdant shoots; pomegranates covered with ruddy young leaves. We go up to see the beautiful spring which bursts from the hillside above the town and supplies it with water. Then we go back again to roam aimlessly and dreamily, like folk bewitched, among the tumbled heaps of hewn stones, the broken capitals, and the tall, rosy columns, soaked with sunbeams.

The Arabs of Jerash have a bad reputation as robbers and extortionists; and in truth they are rather a dangerous-looking lot of fellows, with bold, handsome brown faces and inscrutable dark eyes. But although we have paid no tribute to them, they do not molest us. They seem to regard us with a contemptuous pity, as harmless idiots who loaf among the fallen stones and do not even attempt to make excavations.

Our camp is in the inclosure of the North Theatre, a smaller building than that which stands beside the South Gate, but large enough to hold an audience of two or three thousand. The semicircle of seats is still unbroken; the arrangements of the stage, the stairways, the entries of the building can all be easily traced.

There were gay times in the city when these two theatres were filled with people. What comedies of Plautus or Terence or Aristophanes or Menander; what tragedies of Seneca, or of the seven dramatists of Alexandria who were called the "Pleias," were presented here ?

Look up along those lofty tiers of seats in the pale, clear starlight. Can you see no shadowy figures sitting there, hear no light whisper of ghostly laughter, no thin ripple of clapping hands ? What flash of wit amuses them, what nobly tragic word or action stirs them to applause ? What problem of their own life, what reflection of their own heart, does the stage reveal to them ? We shall never know. The play at Gerasa is ended.



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