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.
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.
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 Northwest Quarter
It was just before 6am on 21 July 2014 that members of our excavation team made for the north-western portion of the ancient city to commence a new campaign. The sun had already risen, and there was a light breeze before the blazing heat of the day set in. It was some hours earlier that the first call for prayer from the competing muezzins resonated through the modern town and across the ancient site. Our diggers walked uphill from the ‘archaeologists’ camp’, where they lived on-site in metal 1980s living quarters, equipped with small bathrooms and kitchen compounds. All excavation teams in Jerash can use this complex, which nestles in a hollow just inside the city walls and belongs to the Department of Antiquities. The archaeologists were equipped with heavy boots, long trousers, shirts, and – importantly – headgear to shield them from the sun. Their destination was the highest part of the ancient city, and some previously entirely unexplored portions of the settlement that lie there, in the Northwest Quarter. Among them is a terrace overlooking the sizeable sanctuary of Artemis. The team started by laying out new trenches, one of them on the terrace, which goes by the designation ‘East Terrace’. To the archaeologists, the new trench on the terrace is Trench K.
The excavators came across several sturdy walls in Trench K, all running either northwest–southeast or northeast–southwest. Understanding what structure the walls belonged to required carefully digging through 1.5 to 2m of debris: debris that contained vessels, lamps, coins, beads, spindle whorls, metal tools, and chunks of tumbled wall, painted wall plaster and stucco profiles, and much more. It soon became clear that the debris layer must be the collapsed upper storey of the structure under excavation. A silver scroll in a lead container was also found among the rubble, gifting the building its modern name: ‘House of the Scroll’. Below this find-rich collapse deposit lay a loose brownish soil, which turned out to be decayed woodwork from the former ceiling of the lower storey.
It was only when the excavation team reached the ground-floor rooms that they finally established what sort of structure they were dealing with. The hearth, together with the various types of pots nearby, revealed the presence of a kitchen belonging to a private house. What is more, based on the finds, the lavish decoration, and the size of the house (although the whole structure has not been excavated), it was clear that this residence belonged to a wealthy family. This was not just a trophy property, though, as it was also a place of work. One of the occupations undertaken by the inhabitants was clearly evidenced by the numerous instruments associated with the textile industry found in both the kitchen and the thick debris layer from the upper storey.
Despite the age of Gerasa itself, the finds from the house are mainly of Umayyad date. They reveal that the house was most likely built during the early part of that era, before collapsing in the dying days of Umayyad rule. The neat fit between the finds, the collapsed masonry, and historical accounts of the earthquake is corroborated by radiocarbon dates of charcoal samples. It is therefore safe to assume that the house was indeed destroyed by the AD 749 earthquake.
Following the results from the House of the Scroll, two new trenches (P and V) were laid out to its south on the East Terrace in 2015 and 2016. This revealed large parts of another private property, this time a courtyard house, the upper storey of which had also collapsed to form a thick rubble layer. Among this were fragments of wall plaster that bore traces of being prepared to receive a fresh coat and chunks of white mosaic floors, while a trough holding thousands of unused tesserae on the ground floor testifies to mosaicists engaged on renovation work, prompting the name ‘House of the Tesserae’. A more poignant find came from a collapsed hallway, where a victim of the earthquake still lay. The skeleton was that of a child, who had not managed to escape.
Except for tesserae, floor fragments, and pieces of plaster, finds from the house are scarce compared to those from the House of the Scroll. The simplest explanation for this is that the furnishings and the inhabitants’ possessions had been moved elsewhere before the renovation work commenced. Some pottery and coins were found in the trench, though, and alongside a radiocarbon-dated hearth, an Umayyad origin for the house and a destruction date in the mid-8th century AD can be established. In other words, its building history matches that of the House of the Scroll.
Revealing a ‘peripheral’ part of the city
The two private houses are only a small part of what has been investigated during the excavation project undertaken since 2011 in the so-called Northwest Quarter. This research was co-directed by Achim Lichtenberger (Münster University, Germany) and Rubina Raja (Aarhus University, Denmark). As this portion of the city lies on a hill, it offers a stunning view of the ruin-covered landscape, the well-preserved public monuments along the cardo, and the modern city of Jerash on the eastern side of the wadi.
So, what can be said about the development of this previously neglected quarter? The earliest archaeologically attested activity in the Northwest Quarter is stone extraction, witnessed by quarry marks in the bedrock that have been detected in numerous places across the excavated trenches. Two large cisterns on the hill date to the Roman period, and oil-presses belonging to that era have also been found. As such, parts of the area seem to have been devoted to industrial activity, while it must also have played an important role in the water management of the city. However, it still remains unknown how the hill was linked to the rest of the city, since no main connecting street has been found.
The settlement spreads out over partly natural and partly artificial terraces on the hill, with the southern slope and later also the East Terrace seemingly mainly occupied by residential blocks.
While there is plenty of evidence for activity in the early centuries AD, the extent and nature of this is hard to grasp. This is due to later development and in particular intense reuse of complexes and building materials from the late Roman period through to the mid-8th century AD. It is clear, though, that in the Roman period a monumental complex of some form, with a well-built underground cistern, stood on the summit of the hill. This might have had a public representative or religious function, before being abandoned in one go, most likely after a destruction event of some sort.
Another large edifice in the area was already known before the Danish-German project began. The so-called ‘Synagogue Church’ was built into an earlier Roman structure and comprises a 4th- or 5th-century AD synagogue that was converted into a church in the 6th century. During our excavations, a building directly connected with the Synagogue Church was unearthed to its north. Its floors are decorated with mosaics that contain inscriptions. These tell us the date of the mosaics, and also reveal who commissioned them: a diakon (military administrator) and a special forces unit called the Electi Justiniani – a formation of troops created under the emperor Justinian. The presence of these soldiers in Jerash was unknown prior to the excavations – indeed, the very existence of this unit was only brought to light by the mosaic inscriptions. It seems that these troops were in some way associated with the conversion of the synagogue into a church, while the ‘Mosaic Hall’ more generally would fit with a much larger military presence in Byzantine Jerash and its hinterland than previously assumed.
Both this quarter of the city and Jerash itself continued to thrive following the advent of Umayyad control. Although this meant a transition to Islamic rule, it is notable that there was no sudden shift in the sorts of artefacts being used in the city. This can be observed in the finds from the House of the Scroll, which is itself of Umayyad date. The iconography of the coins, for instance, only gradually moved away from earlier styles, while continuing to borrow motifs from Byzantine imagery. When it comes to the tools used for textile production, these had not developed since the Roman period. Equally, animal bones recovered during the excavations indicate that dietary habits did not change markedly during the early Islamic period.
One notable difference, though, is in the way that water was managed. During the Roman period, water was collected in large cisterns, before being distributed via an extensive water-pipe system. This integrated water infrastructure must have been centrally administered by the urban authorities. In the early Islamic period, by contrast, water collection seems to have been primarily done on a house-by-house basis. Each residence had its own cistern, which collected rainwater from the roof, as seen in the House of the Tesserae. Naturally, this does not rule out the existence of public cisterns, but they are yet to be found in the Northwest Quarter. Intriguingly, though, this movement to a decentralised water supply seems to have its roots in the Byzantine period.
As we have seen, it was the AD 749 earthquake that brought urban life to a close. The Northwest Quarter was abandoned, but this is not quite the end of its story. Hundreds of years later, in the 12th century (during the middle Islamic period) a small settlement was founded on top of the hill amid the ruins of the ancient city. In some cases, older structures were rebuilt and reused by the new inhabitants. Even after Gerasa had passed into history, then, this ‘peripheral’ part of the city could find favour with new residents.
Digging into the results
On 10 January 2021, copies of the second volume of the final excavation report arrived by post. This publication is the product of almost ten years of work, and will ultimately document the excavations, field studies, laboratory work, and finds processing, as well as the ensuing interpretation of it all. This particular volume concerns the coins and other metal finds. Around a thousand pieces of metal, mostly iron, were found in the Northwest Quarter excavations, many in the House of the Scroll, and many with a household purpose.
Now that all of the Danish-German excavations in the Northwest Quarter are finished, publication of the remainder of the material is under preparation. The final report will count eight volumes and bring to light a wealth of new knowledge about this famous city in Jordan.
FURTHER READING A Lichtenberger & R Raja (eds.) (2018) The Archaeology and History of Jerash: 110 years of excavations, Jerash Papers 1. Turnhout: Brepols. A Lichtenberger & R Raja (eds.) (2020) Environmental Studies, Remote Sensing, and Modelling: final publications from the Danish-German Jerash Northwest Quarter Project I, Jerash Papers 6. Turnhout: Brepols. A Lichtenberger & R Raja (eds.) (2020) Metal Finds and Coins: final publications from the Danish-German Jerash Northwest Quarter Project II, Jerash Papers 7. Turnhout: Brepols.
ALL IMAGES: The Danish-German Jerash Northwest Quarter Project, unless otherwise stated.