BACK

Al-Birketein Roman pools of Jerash (Gerasa), Jordan

Jerash has bloomed due to its central location in addition to its rich in water valley. Therefore, water is one of the main reasons for its prosperity. The town was once named Antioch of the “Chrysorrhoas” (= Gold River), being the somewhat grandiose name of the little stream which still separates the eastern from the western section. But the name “Antioch” is significant, and strongly suggests that it was one of the Seleucid Kings with the name Antiochus who was responsible for raising the little village to the status of great town, probably Antiochus IV in the early 2nd century BC.

The Hellenistic cities enjoyed certain rights of self-government, preserved also during the Roman era. Jerash enjoyed such rights, and early in the Roman period of its history it joined the league of free cities known as Decapalis (= 10 cities). From that point on until the middle of the 1st century AD, Jerash achieved peace and prosperity. It had a flourishing trade with the Nabataeans as testified by the numerous coins of King Aretas IV that have been found.

In the early phases of Jerash there must have been a certain balance between the water needs of ancient city and the available water sources. The city was situated along the banks of the Gold River (Chrysorhoas) a tributary of the Wadi Zarqa. Within the future town walls there was a spring with a capacity irregularly ranging between 1500 and 15000 m3/day which supplied the local houses, the gardens and from the 2nd century AD onwards the eastern baths. Until now the Ain Karawan spring still supplies water to its surroundings. ..

As the town became more and more prosperous as agricultural and trade centre, the standard of living rose and so did the private consumption, including water needed for bath houses, fountains, etc. In total the remains of 7 bathhouses (plus 1 in Birketein), 1 nymphaeum  and numerous fountains have been found until now. Specifically, Birketein was considered a luxury ′suburb′ including a theatre, at the same time a cult place for the annual Maiuma festival.

In the second half of the 1st century AD, the city of Gerasa achieved great prosperity. In AD 106, the Emperor Trajan constructed roads throughout the province and more trade came to Jerash. The Emperor Hadrian visited Gerasa in AD 129-130 and the triumphal arch was built to celebrate his visit. A remarkable Latin inscription records a religious dedication set up by members of the imperial mounted bodyguard wintering there.

During the second century AD, the now-populous city of 20,000 - 25,000 people enjoyed a Golden Age of civic splendor, constructing new temples to Zeus and Artemis, a Hippodrome, and an Odeon. Many monuments, public buildings and baths were built by donations of the city’s wealthy citizens.  The city reached about 800,000 square meters within its walls.

From AD 350, a large Christian community lived in Jerash, and between 400 to 600 AD more than 13 churches were built, many with superb mosaic floors. A cathedral was built in the 4th century. An ancient synagogue with detailed mosaics, including the story of Noah, was found beneath a church.

The Persian invasion in AD 614 caused the rapid decline of Gerasa. However, the city continued to flourish during the Umayyad Period, as shown by recent excavations. In AD 749, a major earthquake destroyed much of Jerash and its surroundings. During the period of the Crusades, some of the monuments were converted to fortresses, including the Temple of Artemis. Small settlements continued to exist in Jerash during the Ayyubid, Mameluk and Ottoman periods. Excavation and restoration of Jerash has been almost continuous since the 1920s.

The Maiuma Festivals

The Maiuma was probably of Phoenician origin and by the late Empire it seems to have gained a reputation for promiscuous going–on. The derivation is more likely to be from the Semitic word Mai, meaning “water”. Recent evidence from Aphrodisias, where a large pool was discovered in the Portico of Tiberius, may suggest that aquatic spectacles were part of the celebrations.

The name might come from the port of Maiuma (Gaza), where it may have originated. The festival may have included mixed bathing, nocturnal displays and ritual feasting. Libanius felt that the festival was licentious, which, alongside the increasing Christian emphasis at Jerash, makes it surprising that it was revived at Jerash in the 6th century AD.

In the annual Maiuma festival, among other activities, the ritual submersion of naked women would take place.

 

The North Theatre

This intimate theatre (seating 800) is oriented to the northeast overlooking the El Birktein pools. There is this assumption that the theatre has been created for people to follow the celebrations and water festivities in the pool, but this has not been proved by the excavations. The theatre overlooks only at the north wall of the pools, without good visual contact with the pools’ surface, even from the seats upper part of the theatre.

It was originally built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) probably as the city's council chamber, and later enlarged. Perhaps it was used for rituals, before the water festivities at the pools. The simplicity and small size of the theater (unlike the South theatre of Jerash) make experts speculate it could also have been an Odeon dedicated to music performances that did not last so long as theatre performances.

The original construction was later extended to 1,600 seats. The theatre was in use between the 2nd and the 6th century AD, as indicated by the coins found in the excavation.