If you’ve never heard of the Decapolis League, don’t worry, you’re probably not the only one who hasn’t. Other than thinking that the name was cool and it had something to do with the number ten, I had no idea what the League represented.
Well, wonder no longer: the Decapolis League was a group of ten cities on the eastern frontiers of the ancient Roman Empire that had similar cultures in an otherwise Jewish-dominated area. Now, pretty much everyone knows that the Romans conquered much of Europe during their heyday, but not much thought is given to their exploits in what we know today as the Middle East and North Africa. This article features one of the Decapolis League’s Middle Eastern cities: Jerash, in the Kingdom of Jordan.
History of Jerash
Jerash – once known as Gerasa – was unearthed in the 1800s by archeologists who found streets, forums and citadels from empires of yore. Conquerors included the Turkish, Greek and Islamic empires and all left their marks on the people and the architecture. Jerash’s status increased due to road building and the growing spice trade encouraged by the Roman Emperors Trajan and Hadrian. A huge arch was built there for Hadrian’s visit (fittingly known as Hadrian’s Arch); a gift from the adoring townspeople to their Emperor. Take a few moments on your way through it to appreciate some the restoration work that has been done to it.
Although Jerash is one of the best places in the world showcasing Roman history, two of the main temples are dedicated to the Greek gods Zeus and Artemis – not their corresponding Roman gods Jupiter and Diana. For the people of Jordan, the Greek empire represented knowledge and education, whereas the Romans seemed to offer subjugation instead; perhaps this is why the Greek gods were more honoured. Artemis, it would seem, was more popular than Zeus, judging by the size and workmanship on her temple as compared to Zeus’ temple. Although both are stunning buildings by human standards, I doubt either deity would start a jealous war with the other today; both temples have been ravaged by time and have lost some of their former glory.
Bagpipes in Jordan?
If you are short on time and want to see some more Roman architecture, follow the sounds of bagpipes to the old Oval Forum, also known as the Oval Forum. Yes, I did indeed say “bagpipes.” According to the people I talked to, bagpipes were invented by the Turks and then made their way over to Scotland, where they have become associated with the Scots till this day. I really don’t know if this story is true or not, but some part of me would like it to be! Anyway, once you find yourself at the theatre, take some time to walk around and imagine what it would have been like to be surrounded by hundreds of people, all clamouring to get the best sales and deals in the marketplace…
Unfortunately, Jerash cannot ever be considered for a world heritage site designation. When the modern city around the ancient site was built, the result was covering up thousands of years of history under concrete. This makes it nearly impossible to excavate further and it will therefore never achieve the level of international protection or recognition such a designation would offer.
A blow to the area has been the modern events known as the Arab Spring. While good for political scientists to study, the resulting turmoil has led to a sharp decrease in tourism in the Kingdom – a drop between 45-65%. This is huge misfortune for the country’s third largest industry and it negatively affects smaller economies, such as Jerash’s, that rely on tourist dollars to maintain their businesses.
It might be tempting to squeeze a few sights from Jordan in a whirlwind tour of Israel and Jordan, but may I suggest that rather than do that, take a few extra days and explore Jordan more thoroughly. There is a lot to see – Petra, the Dead Sea, and other cities like Jerash on the “Roman Road.” Take your time to explore these areas and soak up some of the culture of this small but mighty kingdom. You will be pleasantly surprised at what you find and will thank me later!
Edited by Joe van Troost