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part III - Freemasonry, Religion and Civilisation

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

Gerasa was inhabited from as early as 4000 BCE and it became one of the great cities of the Decapolis in the classical period. Its ruins in modern Jerash are by far the best preserved.


Historical background


The ancient city of Gerasa, in the region of Gilead, is the present day city of Jerash in the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. In latitude it is midway between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee about 40 kilometres north of the capital Amman and 30 kilometres east of the Jordan River. It is situated in the well watered valley of the Chrysorhoas River, a perennial stream flowing southwards through the middle of the town and joining the Nahr az-Zarqä' flowing westwards into the Jordan River. Gerasa was inhabited before the Ammonites pushed in from the desert and settled east of the Jordan River during the Early Bronze Age, some time before 2000 BCE. The Ammonites were closely related to the Moabites who lived east of the Dead Sea, both being cousins of the Israelites. The original inhabitants probably occupied Gerasa from as early as 4000 BCE during the Palaeolithic period or Old Stone Age. Gerasa was a significant city of the Decapolis during the Hellenistic period, when it ranked in importance with the merchant centres of Palmyra to the north and Petra to the south. These centres were all on the ancient trade route that headed north westwards through the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia from the Persian Gulf, looped around to Homs, then heading southwards to Al Aqabah on the Red Sea. The ruins of Gerasa in modern Jerash are by far the best preserved of the Decapolis cities, providing ample evidence of the culture of its people over many centuries.


Although early historians, including Appian in his Roman History, often refer to the Hellenistic founding of the cities of the Decapolis, most if not all of them were ancient towns and villages that underwent a process of Hellenisation, after which most flourished for a thousand years or more and some are still in existence. The detailed archaeological history of Gerasa begins in the Hellenistic period, which was a direct outcome of Alexander the Great's crushing defeat of the Persians in 333 BCE at Issus in north western Assyria. The record continues unbroken through the Roman occupation from 63 BCE, when General Pompey conquered Jerusalem; the Byzantine period from when Constantine the Great established Christianity in the Roman Empire in 306 CE; the short period of Persian suzerainty from 611-622 CE; and when Syria became an Arab state and Islam was established as the religion after general Abu Obaida conquered Damascus in 637 CE. The archaeological record ends when Gerasa was deserted, soon after the great earthquake in 747 that wrought terrible damage in Palestine. The city remained unoccupied until the Turkish Government settled a community of Circassian refugees on the east bank of the Chrysorhoas River in 1878, which was to become the modern Jerash. Iain Browning graphically describes the history of Gerasa and its development as a Roman provincial town in his book entitled Jerash and the Decapolis.


Even though Gerasa probably is of a more recent origin than Baalbek, the circumstances of its earliest occupation seem to have been very similar to those of Baalbek, which is about 180 kilometres to the north and also on the ancient trade route. Pastoralists of Canaanite origin settled Baalbek about 8,000 years ago. Very little archaeological work has been done in relation to the occupation of Gerasa prior to the Hellenistic period because, as at Baalbek, the evidence is all buried under the products of more recent occupation. Nevertheless, Gerasa's early development can be deduced from extensive archaeological work carried out in other nearby centres. Among these are the excavations at Amman, which was Rabbath Ammon during the Biblical period after about 1200 BCE and the capital of the Ammonite kings. Gerasa was called Philadelphia in the Decapolis. These excavations show that the region was occupied in pre-pottery Neolithic times, possibly as early as 6000 BCE, at about the same time as Baalbek. Subsequent distinct phases of occupation include the Early Bronze Age from about 3000 BCE toabout 2000 BCE and again during Biblical times. Excavations in another city of the Decapolis about 45 kilometres north-west of Gerasa, which was called Scythopolis because a colony of Scythians settled there, but is now called Bet She'an, provide one of the longest unbroken archaeological records of occupation in Palestine, probably from an even earlier era than Amman.


The archaeological record of these and other sites in the near vicinity is typified by Jericho, situated at the modern town of El Arïhä, only about 60 kilometres southwest of Jerash. From ancient times Jericho owed its existence to a perennial spring and was often called "the city of palm trees". Jericho provides a précis of the archaeological history of Palestine from when the hunter-gatherers may have had a shrine there before 8000 BCE, until Biblical times in about 1200 BCE. By about 8000 BCE Palestine's earliest known agriculturists built huts by Jericho's spring and the first town came into existence soon after. It had about two thousand inhabitants who channelled the spring water to their wheat fields and vegetable plots. Aggressive neighbours and nomads must have coveted the spring, because the inhabitants built a massive stone-faced wall at least 4 metres high, as well as at least one solid stone tower that was 8 metres high and had a built-in stone stairway. After then many cities were built successively and destroyed. The city that Joshua destroyed and cursed in about 1400 BCE had only been rebuilt about a century earlier, from the largest of the ancient cities built there. Two walls of brick surrounded the rebuilt city, the inner wall being about 4 metres thick and up to 10 metres high. A space of at least 4 metres separated the inner wall from the outer wall that was about 2 metres high. The spring probably continued to support a village after the destruction of Jericho by Joshua, but it probably was a fear of the curse that caused the delay in rebuilding the city until during Ahab's reign from 874 BCE to 853 BCE, when the ancient curse was fulfilled by Ahab's loss of his eldest and youngest sons.


Civilisation in the wilderness


Several Hebrew words are translated as wilderness or desert in the Scriptures. They include not only the barren deserts of sand dunes or rock that are popularly perceived as comprising most of the Biblical lands, but also the uncultivated treeless plains and pasture lands that are suitable for grazing livestock. Relatively little of the wilderness in Palestine is true desert even today. Modern research, including pollen analyses, indicates that about 8,000 years ago the parklands in the region were at least as well wooded as they are now and that the climate was as favourable for the establishment of pastoralism and agriculture. Rainfall may even have been greater than at present, but the evidence of erosion indicates that even then the rainfall probably was no more evenly distributed through the year than it is now. Evidence of early irrigation and water supply systems support these conclusions. As the wilderness areas surrounding Gerasa were adequate for breeding of stock and seasonal cultivation, they could support a moderate population growth. In addition, the Chrysorhoas River valley was and still is very favourable for food production, which no doubt also was a significant factor in the development of Gerasa.


Intensive research carried out by archaeologists in the Near East since 1960 has helped to gain a better understanding of the early development of agriculture and the breeding of stock. When the "Neolithic Revolution" began in the Near East it developed gradually, lasting from as early as 10000 BCE until about 5000 BCE. At the beginning of this period emmer wheat was growing wild in Palestine, einkorn was growing wild in Mesopotamia and barley was growing wild throughout the fertile crescent” and southern Palestine. Intensified gathering of wild cereals took place early in this period and dry farming methods had been developed by about 8000 BCE. Simple irrigation methods were introduced soon after then, which made it possible to grow cereals in arid regions even when the rainfall distribution was unfavourable. Baalbek, Scythopolis, Amman, Jericho and Gerasa are all in the wilderness regions where the earliest growing of wild cereals took place during the "Neolithic Revolution", from which civilisation gradually developed in the Near East. From about 6000 BCE cereal growing had spread throughout the Near East and into the adjacent Mediterranean regions, from where it progressively extended into the Indus River basin, Afghanistan, the Russian steppes and possibly beyond. As man developed an ability to control the environment and produce food, thus improving his living conditions, the nomadic lifestyle was gradually abandoned. The hunter-gatherers, who had lived in caves in the winter and in flimsy makeshift huts in the summer, progressively relinquished their temporary seasonal accommodation and built more permanent settlements. This transition heralded the end of the "Neolithic Revolution" and the beginning of the "Urban Revolution", with the development of a mixed economy and trade between communities.


Investigations have revealed that irrigation was foremost among the factors that led to these changes, although the changes took significantly longer or shorter periods to materialise in the various areas of development. Some examples will show how local circumstances influenced the advance of "Urban Revolution". Individual families in the oasis of Jericho could irrigate their crops and gardens easily and with very little organisation, which fostered rapid development. At Baalbek, in the swampy headwaters of the Orontes and Litani Rivers, a more detailed organisation was required. That slowed the rate of development at Baalbek even though irrigation was still a relatively simple operation. In contrast, on the flood plains of Mesopotamia and on the banks of the Nile River with its huge annual floods, a great deal of communal organisation was essential and an extensive and complicated network of structures was required to establish irrigation. The capacity of settlers to provide water supplies for their dwellings and irrigation systems for their crops was reflected in the much longer times taken for scattered temporary settlements to become villages and for their subsequent development into permanent regional towns. This "Urban Revolution" began about 10,000 years ago at Jericho, about 8,000 years ago at Baalbek, nearly 7,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, 6,000 years ago or earlier in the Indus River basin and more than 5,000 years ago in Egypt.


Jerash “discovered”


For centuries after the great earthquake of 747, the Biblical lands to the east of the Jordan River were deserted, except for small bands of nomadic Bedouins, when Gerasa and many other towns and villages fell into a derelict state. That great earthquake was not the first in the region. A series of earthquakes during the period from 550 to 555 had repeatedly caused extensive damage in Gerasa and elsewhere in the region. Although much remedial work and reconstruction had been carried out in Gerasa after those earlier earthquakes, most buildings were unsafe and became derelict after the great earthquake of 747. With no Roman organisation in place there was no will to rebuild, especially after the turmoil of the Arab conquests, which was followed by the occupation of Palestine by the crusaders in 1099. In 1122 a crusader known as William of Tyre recorded that "Jerash was reduced to a mass of ruins". That state of desolation and remoteness continued until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The situation is illustrated by a note written in 1047 by Arab geographers, who were then carrying out comprehensive surveys of their new lands and its resources:

"In various parts of Syria there may be some five hundred thousand columns, or capitals and shafts of columns, of which no one knows either the maker or can say for what purpose they were hewn, or whence they were brought."

After William of Tyre the next European to visit Jerash was a German graduate of Göttingen University, Ulrich Jasper Seetzen. He was a keen traveller and explorer who had very little money, but considerable entrepreneurial ability. He went to Constantinople in 1802 to begin exploring the Near East and Africa. To earn money for his venture he acquired antiquities and transcripts of newly found inscriptions, which he sold to the museum at Gotha, to the Duke of Saxe-Gotha and to other patrons including the Tsar of Russia who appointed him as an Ambassador Councillor. Seetzen regarded exploration as a scientific exercise and prepared himself for the Near East by learning Arabic and studying Islamic law, religion and customs, which he completed in Aleppo about three years later. Dressed as an Arab he went to Damascus in 1806 and began an extensive exploration of the region of the Decapolis. He had studied the works of the ancient authors and obtained all the available maps, although they were sketchy and very inaccurate. Notwithstanding the poor information and the dangerous conditions then prevailing in the region, Seetzen carried out a remarkably worthwhile expedition during the next three years or so. His exploits and reports stimulated so much interest in London that for several decades a number of antiquarian and archaeological expeditions were sent to Palestine, culminating with the establishment of the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1865, which is still one of the most important agencies concerned with the serious study of Palestine and its neighbouring Biblical lands.


Seetzen explored all of the ruins he could find in the Jordan River valley between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, ultimately reaching the ruins of Gerasa. In his treatise entitled "A Brief Account of the Countries adjoining the Lake of Tiberias, the Jordan and the Dead Sea" published in London in 1810, he said:


"I had the satisfaction of seeing the important ruins of Jerrash . . . which ruins may be compared to those of Palmyra, or of Baalbek. It is impossible to explain how this place, formerly of such manifest celebrity, can have so long escaped the notice of all lovers of antiquity.


It is situated in an open and tolerably fertile plain, through which a river runs. The walls of the town are mouldered away, but one may yet trace their whole extent. Not a single private house remains entire. But on the other hand I observed several public buildings, which were distinguished by a very beautiful style of architecture. I found two superb amphitheatres, solidly built of marble, with columns, niches &c, the whole in good preservation. I also found some palaces and three temples, one of which had a peristyle of twelve grand columns of the Corinthian order, eleven of which were still upright (the Temple of Artemis). In another of these temples, I saw a column on the ground of the most beautiful polished Egyptian granite. I also found a handsome gate of the city, well preserved, formed of three arches and ornamented with pilasters.


The most beautiful thing I discovered was a long street crossed by another and ornamented on both sides with rows of marble columns of the Corinthian order (the Colonnade Avenue), and one of whose extremities terminated in a semicircle that was set round with sixty pillars of the Ionic order (the Oval Piazza). At the point where the two streets cross, in each of the four angles, a large pedestal of hewn stones is visible, on which probably statues were formerly set (the South Tetrakionia). A part of the pavement still remains, formed of hewn stones (grooves cut by chariot wheels are still clearly visible).


To speak generally, I counted about two hundred columns, which yet partly support their entablatures, but the number of those thrown down is infinitely more considerable; I saw indeed but half the extent of the town and a person would probably still find on the opposite side of the river (that was the eastern side, which since then has mostly been built over by modern Jerash, although the ruins of the Eastern Baths and the Procopius Church and the site of the Church of Prophets, Apostles & Martyrs are still there), a quantity of remarkable curiosities."


Civic and religious facilities


Seetzen's report of his first sighting of the ruins of Gerasa provides a wonderful impression of its beauty and the diversity of its buildings and structures, but it does not convey any concept of the size and cultural character of the city. It would require a book to describe the civic facilities adequately, so that a brief summary of the more important features must suffice. The city was surrounded by a wall of stone 3,450 metres long and in the form of a many sided polygon, roughly circular in shape and enclosing about 85 hectares. The walls were 3 metres thick and 10 metres high, with huge inbuilt buttress towers that were 6 metres square in plan at intervals of 20 metres or less. The road to the main gate in the south passed through a Hadrianic Arch of three spans that was constructed after the Emperor's visit in 129 and 130. The road then passed by a hippodrome about 260 metres long, which has been estimated to seat at least 15,000 spectators. Immediately after going through the main gate the road passed the entrance to the Oval Piazza, about 100 metres long and located in a natural depression.


From the Oval Piazza the road continued on to the Cardo, the pivot road or axis of the city called the Colonnade Avenue, which ran straight to the other main gate in the north. Two Decumani or secondary streets intersected the Cardo at right angles, each with a stone arch bridge over the river to the east and then passing through a small gate in the western wall. The intermediate streets were also laid out on this rectangular grid, only one of which crossed over the river to the east with an arched stone bridge. The north gate provided access to one of the main water supplies of ancient Gerasa, called the Birketein reservoir, which was 88.5 metres long, 43.5 metres wide and 3 metres deep, subdivided by a barrier wall. An impressive colonnade and processional way flanked the western side of the pool and the area was landscaped and wooded. This tranquil area included an open-air festival theatre that had fifteen rows of semi-circular seating that could accommodate almost 1,500 spectators.


Within the town there were two open-air theatres of typical Roman construction, one in the north and the other in the south. Each had about thirty rows of semi-circular seating, estimated to accommodate 3,000 spectators or more. Every seat was numbered, starting from the lowest row and working from right to left. There also were two huge baths in the Roman tradition, the larger being on the east bank of the river and the other on the west bank. Though more modest than the baths in Rome, each contained a frigidarium or cold bath, a caldarium or hot bath, probably a tepidarium or warm bath, several apodyteria or changing rooms and the usual pavilions to accommodate libraries and meeting rooms. It is evident that Gerasa in Roman times was well provided with all the desirable civic amenities, vastly superior to those of the earlier and much smaller walled Hellenistic city located on Camp Hill close to the south gate. Although there are indications that Camp Hill was occupied during the "Neolithic Revolution", subsequent building and rebuilding have destroyed most of the useful evidence from that era.


The Temple of Zeus was on a tel overlooking the Oval Piazza and directly opposite Camp Hill. It replaced a previous Roman temple and an even earlier Greek temple constructed on the ancient site of the town's traditional shrine. The temple complex was erected on a series of terraces, which were connected by imposing stairways like those of the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek. The Temenos, or sacred enclosure 100 metres wide and 50 metres along the temple axis, was on the lowest terrace and had its own altar. Huge arched corridors surrounded the Temenos. The corridors had a roof terrace above them and vast arched vaults underneath, which were used as a place of refuge and to store the treasures of the realm. The temple on the highest terrace was on a podium about 40 metres long and 28 metres wide, with a portico and surrounded by thirty-eight Corinthian columns 15 metres high. The quality of the masonry and the carved detailing was exceptional. On a small hill further north an equally magnificent and intricate group of sanctuaries and shrines was also constructed on a series of terraces and included temples dedicated to Artemis and Dionysus. At least five smaller Roman temples were dispersed in various locations taking advantage of the interesting topography.


Churches are the most important remains from the Byzantine period, from when a cathedral, a basilica and at least ten churches have been discovered. In his "Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture", R. Krautheimer describes the churches in glowing terms:


"The churches of Gerasa are extraordinarily impressive - through their size, through their number and through their tendency to group several structures within one precinct".


Much of the building stone used in the Byzantine period came from older structures, but not always from those damaged in earthquakes. Parts of some temples were reconstructed as churches. The oldest remaining church in Jerash is the cathedral that was built in about 365 on what probably was the Temenos of the Temple of Dionysus, making use of the ancient Propylaea as its gate. In about 496 the Basilica of Saint Theodore was built immediately to the west of and almost abutting the cathedral, but on the higher ground that had been the site of the Temple of Dionysus. The Propylaea Church was built on the Piazza in front of the Propylaea of the Temple of Artemis. The Synagogue Church was an adaptation of a synagogue that probably was then several centuries old, but in the process the orientation was reversed because the synagogue entrance had been in the east. Another interesting example is known as the "Three Churches" of Saints Cosmas & Damian, Saint John the Baptist and Saint George, all three having been constructed side by side as a single building. Although there would have been many mosques during the Arab occupation, only the Atrium Mosque has been discovered. It was built into the Atrium of a Roman building constructed in about 150, using an existing niche as the Mihrab that indicates the direction of Mecca.

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