Jarash: Ancient city with Islamic culture

Middle East Nilanjan Hajra
Ancient city
The remainings of an ancient amphitheater in the ruins of Roman Jarash in todays Jordan. Photo : Dreamstime

Every living ancient city in the world has several lives. Jarash in Jordon is no exception. While it is generally known for its spectacular Roman ruins, its medieval Islamic past is lesser-known. In fact, archeologists and historians have only recently begun to find and comprehend the existence of a sprawling Islamic urban culture in and around Jarash. Only in the 1980s, historians began confirming that by the 8th century Jarash had a bustling mixed culture with both Muslim and Christian populations. It is now archeologically established that the ancient city had a significant urban community during the Umayyad period.

Excavating ancient city Jarash 

Excavations carried out between 1928 and 1934 had indicated the existence of an Islamic settlement in Jarash. However, archeologists and historians took another half a century to seriously look into the remains of the sites.

By the 1980s archeologists came across the remains of an Islamic era mint. They also stumbled upon pieces of evidence of abundant Islamic ceramic production. Unfortunately, these discoveries were largely by accident and lacked appropriate meticulous recording or attention. In 1981 a small mosque-like structure was also discovered in the ancient city. Such excavations, even if somewhat haphazardly, continued even in the 1990s. Finally, a major project, titled the Danish-Jordanian Islamic Jarash Project began in 2002, with a view to systematically excavate and document the medieval Islamic cultural remains in the ancient city.

The Danish-Jordanian project 

A major project launched jointly by the University of Copenhagen and the Jordan government’s department of antiquities can claim the primary credit for discovering the early Islamic civilization in Jarash. Started in 2002, the project by 2010 was able to unearth the remains of a huge Umayyad era mosque, rows of shops, and the layout of streets of the ancient city during the reign of Hisham bin Abd al-Malik (died C 743 CE).

According to Alan Walmsley, who is engaged in a comprehensive archeological and heritage program in Jarash, “The discovery in 2002 of a large mosque at Jarash (Gerasa) in Jordan fundamentally changes our understanding of social and economic conditions in the early Islamic towns of Jordan. Once seen as less important than their predecessors of Roman (1st–3rd century CE) and Byzantine (4th–6th century CE) date, our work at Jarash demonstrates that urban life in early Islamic Jordan prospered as towns continued to serve important cultural, political, religious, and commercial roles.”

Walmsley has also prepared a map, showing the plan of ancient city Jarash including the principal features of the early Islamic town. He lists these features as follows:

1) Umayyad mosque;

2) Possible Islamic administrative centre;

3) Umayyad ‘House’ – potential market area;

4) South tetrakonia – built over;

5) Macellum & Southern Cardo;

6) Oval Piazza – domestic quarter;

7) Zeus temple forecourt – potential industrial area;

8) Hippodrome and Bishop Marianos church;

9) SS Peter and Paul church;

10) Churches of SS Cosmas and Damianus, St George and St John the Baptist;

11) Christian complex of two churches, a bath, and housing all occupied under the Umayyads/Abbasids;

12) Artemis compound – Islamic ceramic production;

13) Synagogue church;

14) North Theatre – industrial area with large kilns;

15) Naghawi’s ‘Umayyad mosque’ discovered in 1981; 16) Central cardo with blacksmith’s shop.

Excavations and research into the Islamic era of Jarash are still on. However, enough has already been discovered to prove that the ancient city had a distinct medieval Islamic period, during which Muslims and Christians harmoniously coexisted here.