Jerash , What’s Different ?

Jerash , What’s Different ?

JERASH is one of the three great classical city sites of the Near East. Jerash , however, altogether different from Petra and Palmyra. The grandeur of Jerash is tempered by a charm to which one can relate immediately. Here the gods of antiquity presided benignly over the everyday life of the people, and still one can feel this human measure.

For above all Jerash is typical of a prosperous provincial Roman town.

jerash day trip photo 27 20170420 1124632859

Set in a wide, fertile valley high in the Hills of Gilead, Jerash is also the best preserved of the cities of the Decapolis. Josephus tells us in his Wars that Scythopolis was the largest of the ten cities but one can hardly believe that it was as magnificent as Gerasa, as ancient Jerash was called. During the first and second centuries A.D. all the cities of the Decapolis developed into grand metropolises adorned with many fine civic and religious buildings. According to tradition Gerasa, like Pella and Gadara, was founded by Alexander the Great. This proud claim was not strictly accurate. Certainly one can say that the history of all ten cities started with Alexander because it was he who created the political and cultural environment in which they were conceived and in which they grew up. It was as though he set the stage for all subsequent events; but this is true not only of the ten cities but of the whole of Palestine, Jordan and Coele-Syria.

 jerash day trip photo 12dec2014 10 20170420 1242891609

What then was the Decapolis? And where was Jerash on that,  All one can say with certainty is that the word Decapolis means ten cities and that these were of Hellenistic origin. Were they federated in any way or did they form some sort of league? At times they are clearly being referred to as a particular group, but how did it come about that people should consider these ten cities to be a distinct group- and why only these ten? The situation is complicated by the authors of the classical period who disagreed on which were the ten; the count-list can reach as many as eighteen.

There is no answer from antiquity on any of these questions, so it is no surprise that scholars vary considerably in their assessments. But when one reviews the history of the whole area, and particularly Jerash , a general pattern appears which permits speculation.

 jerash day trip photo 12dec2014 28 20170420 1435204155

For centuries Transjordan had been made up of three main kingdoms, Edom, Moab and Ammon (Map I). All three were carrying on incessant wars, either independently or collectively, with the Jewish kingdoms. Invaders, be they Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, Egyptian or Persian, had torn their bellicose way across these lands and held them in subjugation. With the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., a new pattern began to form. King Zedekiah of Judea was led away with all Jews of any consequence into captivity in Babylon, leaving Palestine severely depopulated. The Edomites moved westwards into the fertile lowlands across the Rift Valley, there to create the new state of Idumea. In time the Neo-Babylonians fell to the Persians who, in about 538 B.C., allowed some of the captives to return. The Persians had other peoples to think about - the Greeks.

 jerash day trip photo 48 20170420 1648453449

Despite their almost constant bickering the Greek cities presented the major obstacle to Persian supremacy, and a head-on conflict was inevitable. The Hellenic city-states woke up in time to the scale of the Persian threat and, abandoning their prejudices, joined arms and faced the Persians. However, the overwhelming Greek victory at Salamis in 480 B.C. did not remove the long-term threat of oriental domination, for the Persians continued to be a powerful and potentially crippling force.

Then Alexander appeared on the scene, larger than life, larger even than the heroes of the epics. Son of the brilliant Philip II of Macedon (359-336 B.C.) who had established himself as the dominant force in Hellas, he like all his countrymen was considered little better than a barbarian by the cognoscenti of the Hellenic states. But that hardly mattered because on his father s death Alexander took the reins of pan - Hellenic power firmly in his hands and turned it towards the Persian threat. A pupil of Aristotle and, through him and his father s court, steeped in Greek culture, he knew what was at stake. It was this awareness which lies behind his contest with Darius, the Persian.

The consequences of his campaigns were not only to secure the future independence of Greece but were to affect all the lands over which he and his armies strode; none more so than Syria, Palestine and Jordan. As Professor Nicholas Hammond has pointed out, ‘It must have been clear to Alexander that if he succeeded in overthrowing Darius, a very important center of his communications would be Syria; so he took all possible steps to strengthen the Macedonian control of that vital area. * Control meant Hellenistic penetration of all aspects of life, from military and civil administration to cultural environment. This he achieved principally through the creation of Macedonian settlements across the length and breadth of the conquered lands. Satraps were also appointed, such as Andromachus who ruled Coele-Syri (Hollow Syria)which probably comprised the lands of the Bekaa, the area around and south of Damascus and the Jordan Rift Valley as far south as the Dead Sea.

jerash day trip photo 105 20170420 1895951709

By 332 B.C., Alexander had established settlements at strategic points in that area. Not that all these sites were new, for there is ample evidence in the majority of cases of occupation extending back many centuries. Nonetheless, the new settlements were overtly Hellenistic, peopled by the many wounded and disabled Macedonian soldiers who were one of the consequences of his campaigns. His methods, according to Professor Hammond, in contrast to those of Persia were calculated to win the native peoples to his side . But it was not always so amicable, for it depended very much on how the native peoples accepted the new arrivals with their alien ideas. An example of a less happy case is Samaria, where a revolt was overthrown in 33 I B.C., and the entire defeated population was ruthlessly expelled and replaced by Macedonian stock.jerash day trip photo 43 20170420 1340535719

A group of these settlements developed in time into the cities of the Decapolis (and Jerash was one of them)

They had a common history: we know of their struggles with the Hasmonean dynasty in Jerusalem, of their liberation by Pompey the Great, of their Golden Age, of their Byzantine period and of their final eclipse. But there is no contemporary evidence to tell us of their founding, and one must question whether each was formally founded as a polis (city) at this stage. The majority were established after Alexander s time, as strategic posts, vulnerably isolated in a land where there could be no certainty that the indigenous population would remain friendly. So the claim that Alexander founded Gerasa and Pella, made by Stephanos Byzantios in his treatise on cities, Ethnica, must be interpreted with caution. He was writing some eight hundred years after the event, about A.D. 535, and there is evident confusion in much of his material. Neither do we have any text from that time which mentions the word Decapolis . All one can say is that during the early Hellenistic period a large number of principally Macedonian settlements were established in the region, some of which later - probably before Pompey-developed into the cities of the Decapolis.

 jerash day trip photo 62 20170420 1517818011

The first reference we have to the Decapolis is in St Mark s Gospel: And he went away and started to proclaim in the Decapolis all the things Jesus did for him; and all the people began to wonder. * Later in the same Gospel the Decapolis is again mentioned: Now coming back out of the regions of Tyre He went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the region of Decapolis. In neither of these is anything about the nature or character of the Decapolis revealed except for the word region . St Matthew is equally unhelpful when he wrote ... consequently great crowds followed Him from Galilee and Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from the other side of the Jordan. What is obvious from these references is that the Decapolis was an accepted territorial definition; that people recognized that a particular area was being referred to. But it does not tell us how this came about or what the Decapolis was.

The first historical text which says anything specific about the Decapolis was written towards the end of the first century A.D. by Pliny, who gave a list of the cities. But he admits that even then historians disagreed as to which were the member cities:

Adjoining Judea on the side of Syria is the region of the Decapolis, so called from the number of its towns, though not all writers agree to the same list; most however include Damascus, with its fertile water-meadows that drain the river Chrysorrhoea, Philadelphia, Raphana (all these three withdrawn towards Arabia), Scythopolis (formerly Nysa, after Father Liber s nurse, whom he buried there) where a colony of Scythians are settled; Gadara past which the river Yarmuk flows; Hippo, Dion, Pella rich with its waters, Galasa and Canatha.Galasa is a misspelling of Gerasa.

 jerash day trip photo 69 20170420 1073149842

Pliny, like St Mark, refers to the region of the Decapolis. Dr S. T. Parker has pointed out that Pliny uses the word regio meaning region , territory or district ; and not a term like foedus or societas which could be translated to mean a league. The choice of word is obviously intentional.

The only other Roman commentator of the first century whom one might expect to be interested in the Decapolis was Strabo. He refers to individual cities such as Gadara, Philadelphia and Scythopolis but of the group name there is no mention. This is surprising when one remembers his interest in the Lycian League, which was a federation of twenty-three cities in western Asia Minor organized and supervised by the Romans .He was also interested in the Tetrapolis in northern Syria which consisted of four cities founded by Seleucus I, Seleucia, Antioch, Apamea and Laodicea. There was no actual federation here; the word Tetrapolis being only a generally recognized definition of the area controlled by these cities. Strabo s comment, however, that the four cities used to be called sisters, because of their accord with one another’ is surely important, for it is possible that the same sort of accord existed between the ten cities of the Decapolis, giving rise to the popular recognition of them as a group.

Also writing in the first century A.D. was Josephus, who mentions the Decapolis by name four times, but he tells us nothing to suggest a formal link.

jerash day trip photo 100 20170420 1669158591

Only in the second century is something of a constitution hinted at. Like Pliny, Claudius Ptolemy, the Geographer, gives a list of the cities of the Decapolis and Coe1e-Syria without distinguishing which was in which. It is evident that he was combining two lists. Whether this can be taken as an indication that the need for an organized Decapolis was declining is debatable. Times were more peaceful under the Pax Romana, so any mutual self-preservation pact there may have been would have lost much of its point. In A.D. 106, the Emperor Trajan had reshaped the east yet again, with the result that old loyalties faded into the background. On the other hand the inclusion of Coele-Syrian cities in Ptolemy s list could equally be taken to indicate that the old Decapolis had expanded far beyond its original conception - whatever that was. Ptolemy s list is, however, interesting: Heliopolis, Abila, Saana, Ina, Damascus, Samoulis, Abila of Lysanias, Hippos, Capitolias, Gadara, Adra, Scythopolis, Gerasa, Pella, Dion, Gadora, Philadelphia ar Canatha. Of these cities which correspond with Pliny s list only Raphana is not mentioned: some have identified this with present day er-Rafeh, but other scholai maintain that Capitolias is the same place by a different name. Pliny certainly do not mention Capitolias. To Pliny s list Ptolemy also adds Samoulis, Adra an Abila of Lysanias but it could be argued that Samoulis, Adra and Gadora were not in fact Decapolis cities (of the ten), only cities in the geographical area generally recognized as being called by that name. The same would apply to places like Arbila (present-day Irbid) which also claims to have been a Decapolis city Heliopolis, Abila of Lysanias, Saana and Ina are clearly cities of Coele-Syria.

However, Ptolemy s work is suspect because, in the form in which we know it, it is a compilation of the tenth and eleventh centuries from texts now lost. Under such circumstances the possibilities of error are greatly increased.

Another writer who mentions the Decapolis is Eusebius who was writing his Onomasticon during the fourth century. He also uses the word regio and again provides no clue of a formal treaty. Epiphanius, also writing from the fourth century, refers to the Decapolis only in a regional sense. He says about an early heretical sect: This heresy is found in the vicinity of Be rae a in Coele-Syria, in the Decapolis ... . The double in - in Coele-Syria, in the Decapolis - might be interpreted that the Decapolis had expanded to include part, if not all, Coele-Syria. Or should it be read the other way, as a scaling-down from Coele-Syria to a part of it, to the Decapolis, and then to a particular city, for the text continues ... in the vicinity of Pella... : were this to be the case it would mean that the Decapolis had been absorbed into Coele-Syria and had lost its identity but as the name of a recognized geographical location.

 jerash day trip photo 104 20170420 1016148337

And, indeed, a name is all we are left with. Still, in his Historical Geography of the Holy Land, G. A. Smith wrote in 1894 that the Decapolis was a league of Greek cities against the Semitic influences east and west of Jordan .J. S. Buckingham in his Travels etc. published in 1821 was more circumspect when he wrote: and ten principal cities were built on the east of the Jordan, giving the name of Decapolis to the whole part of that portion of land over which they were spread . But the idea of a formal grouping has stuck fast and has been slow to lose its grip, for even C. H. Kraeling in his outstanding Gerasa: City of the Decapolis, published in 1938, refers to a confederation of free cities . But tempting as it is to place a formal structure behind the name, there is no evidence to support it. If one bases one s argument on textual sources alone, Dr Parker went as far as one legitimately can when he wrote ... we may safely assume only that the Decapolis was a geographical region in southern Syria and north -eastern Palestine composed of the territories of member cities .

 jerash day trip photo 132 20170420 1665523097

That these cities had a common Hellenistic culture is not questioned. That there was fraternal sympathy between them at times of trouble can hardly be doubted. And because the core of the group is closely located, this fraternal sympathy would have been obvious to any contemporary observer even though there was no concerted effort which historians could record. Any cohesion behind the name Decapolis is likely to have been forged during the Hasmonean period when these cities were up against it . When he liberated the cities in 64/63 B.C., Pompey did not band them together in a formal federation, he only re-established each as an independent city-state united only in their membership of his Province of Syria. The citizens were so grateful that they proclaimed a new Era, and henceforth everything, including their coinage, was dated from that event. This has led some numismatists to suggest that the Decapolis was conceived by Pompey. It is more likely that he inherited the situation. It is possible that Pompey may even have been opposed to any federation. However much the ruling-classes of Rome might admire Greek culture, they never quite trusted the Greeks. Was it not better, having freed them, to encourage them without providing a means by which they might pose a threat to Roman authority? The old principle of divide and rule.

 jerash day trip photo 90 20170420 1362876349

Less than a hundred and fifty years after Pompey, Trajan created the Province of Arabia, to which he annexed the Nabataean Empire and most of the cities of the Decapolis. In the process the cities became just provincial cities with Basra as the capital. Professor Yadin has argued against Bosra being the first capital, contending that this was at Petra until A.D. 132, when it was transferred to Bosra. Father Spijkerman has, however, argued for Bosra from the start, basing his argument on the facts that the city s name was Nea Traiane Bosra, that it was at the head of the Via Nova, that it was the headquarters of the legions and that the city dates worked on yet another, Trajanic, Era.

The indications, therefore, are that there was never any confederation of the cities of the Decapolis. Each was independent of the others, but they shared a common heritage and common cause in which fraternal sympathy , or accord, to use Strabo s word, was a powerful and cohesive force. The word Decapolis remained only the name by which the geographical region of the ten cities was known.

 jerash day trip photo 169 20170420 1709015997

(The Decapolis – Ten Cities are : Gerasa “Jerash today” in Jordan, Scythopolis (Beth-Shean) in Palestine , Hippos “Hippus or Sussita” in Palestine, Gadara “Umm Qais” in Jordan , Pella in Jordan , Philadelphia or “Amman” in Jordan , Capitolio (Beit Ras ) in Jordan , Canatha or “Qanawat” in Syria, Raphana in Jordan, Damascus – Capital of Syria )