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Atlas of Jordan

Myriam Ababsa

Chapter three - The Time of Two Great Cities: Petra and Jerash (323 BC - 629 AD)

Roman Arabia

Christian Augé

Texte intégral

1The new province of Arabia created by Trajan united the old Nabatene with Transjordanian territories formerly dependent on the province of Syria, including several cities of the ancient Decapolis. Its capital was Bostra in southern Syria, and the construction between 111 and 114, probably for military reasons, of the via nova Traiana connecting Aqaba with Bostra confirmed this focus (fig. III.14). Petra, despite its title of “Metropolis” and Hadrian’s visit, played only a secondary role (plate III.13).

Plate III.13 — Emperor Marcus-Aurelius Portrait found near Qasr al-Bint.

Plate III.13 — Emperor Marcus-Aurelius Portrait found near Qasr al-Bint.

French Mission to Petra, 2004, F. Bernel

2The period of the Antonines and the Severians (2nd - 3rd centuries) was for Roman Arabia, which long remained protected from external threats, an era of stability and tranquillity. Like other eastern provinces, it enjoyed special imperial treatment. A strong military presence, which extended far to the south of the peninsula and to the Red Sea, ensured the control of channels of communication and contacts with nomads. This presence intensified during the 3rd century and under the Tetrarchy throughout the entire territory of present-day Jordan, which was dotted with forts and military posts beyond Azraq and Wadi Sirhan.

3In the mountains and plateaus of the west, demographic and economic development occurred through agricultural develo-pment, generally focused on olive trees, through the proliferation of villages, increased road network density and the growth and improvement of towns, many of which were raised to the level of Roman ‘colonies’. This benefitted not only the ‘Hellenized’ towns of the north: Umm Qays / Gadara, Qweilba / Abila, Tabaqat Fahl / Pella, Jerash/ Gerasa and Amman / Philadelphia, but also towns in the centre and the south: Madaba, Rabba/Rabbathmoba- Areopolis, Kerak / Charakmoba, Petra, Humayma, the port of Aqaba / Aila and the mining centre of Faynan / Phaeno.

4This readjustment between the north and south of the country was reflected in the administrative reforms undertaken in 300 by Diocletian: the former lands of Moab and Edom became, with the Negev and part of the Sinai, a new province which would become Palaestina Salutaris, with Petra as its capital. During the 4th century, it became known as Palestine III (Palaestina Tertia), the Jordan Valley being Palestine I (Palaestina Prima), and it extended further north during the 5th and 6th centuries, at the expense of Arabia, which was reduced to the northern part of the former Trajanic province and concentrated on today’s Syria.


5The importance of the defensive system, which makes extensive use of auxiliary and indigenous troops, and rural development must not make us forget the key role of towns in the form of Romanization particular to the eastern provinces of the empire, where Greek is the dominant language of the ruling classes and government. Civic pride is displayed in the local production of currency and in the construction of monuments. From Gadara to Petra, cities are adorned with Greco-Roman buildings: temples, theatres, baths, portico streets lined with shops, whose decor is often inspired by classical or Hellenistic works. These economic and administrative centres are also centres of culture: many of the empire’s famous scholars and authors came from former Decapolis. The province of Arabia thus provides an original contribution to the vast mixed civilization of the eastern empire.

6In this koine, an ever more important place is accorded to local traditions, encouraged early in the 2nd century by imperial policy. For a long time, old beliefs remain visible under the Greco-Roman image - such as in the cult of Heracles in Amman / Philadelphia – and are particularly strong in the ‘Arab’ regions, as indicated by the rise of the cult of Baetylus. They easily assimilate the Greco-Roman gods and the imperial cult is included: in Petra, for example, the statues of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus were theatrically displayed in the main Nabataean sanctuary.

Plate III.14 — Hadrien Silver Coin.

Plate III.14 — Hadrien Silver Coin.

7This vitality faded from the end of the 3rd century and during the 4th century, as a certain standardization prevailed throughout the East. Nabataean language and identity blended in with the successive waves of new Arab immigrants. The towns, damaged by earthquakes, became limited and lost some of their importance to the countryside, while Christianity spread.

Figure III.14 — Roman Roads and Cities.

Figure III.14 — Roman Roads and Cities.

The Territory of the Ten Cities. The Decapolis

8The term ‘Decapolis’ (Greek “Deca”=10; “Polis”=town or city) is mentioned in the Gospel whilst referring to the territory of Gerasa (Jerash today). It was an administrative district within the Province of Syria and founded by the Romans in the 1st century BC, probably to serve as a buffer zone against the Nabataean (Arab) and the Hasmonean (Jewish) kingdoms which were feuding over sovereignty (fig. III.15).

9We know from other ancient texts that a Roman prefect ran the Decapolis in 50 AD. We lack information about its administrative nature and composition, but we know that at least six of its cities were in modern Jordan: Gadara (Umm Qays), Abila (Qweilba), Capitolias (Beit Ras/Irbid), Pella (Tabaqat Fahl), Gerasa (Jerash) and Philadelphia (Amman). Most of these towns were founded as Greek cities by successors of Alexander the Great who, like the Seleucids in Syria or Ptolemies from Egypt, created their kingdoms. The distinguishing feature of these cities is their “Greekness” under the political umbrella provided by Rome. This dual cultural heritage manifests itself in their monuments, official language and religion. The coinage bears images identifying these cities but also pays homage to Roman imperial protection.

10After 106 AD, when Trajan had attached Gerasa and Philadelphia to the Province of Arabia and annexed the Nabataean kingdom of Petra, the Decapolis seems to have been remembered only as a geographical entity. It was no doubt the «Pax Romana» which encouraged the exuberant urban growth in the first two centuries AD.

11The local trades prospered, but the cities were nonetheless affected by the general political and economic decline of the Roman empire towards the middle of the 3rd century. This made itself felt in Gerasa where ambitious 2nd century civic programmes were abandoned and the buildings left unfinished.

12In the 4th century, Christianity became the official religion. The Decapolis experienced an economic boom and the cultural revival in the Byzantine period ensured the continuation of Graeco-Roman traditions.

Figure III.15 — The Decapolis.

Figure III.15 — The Decapolis.


13Jerash lies at the centre of a basin with an area of ca 150 km². Whilst the river Chrysorhoas (“river of gold”) provides water for cultivation, its valley forms the main north-south axis of communication and divides the terrain into two zones: to the west lie the heights of Ajlun, rich in springs and Mediterranean type cultivation; to the east is the steppe-like landscape where only the bottom of the valley is suitable for agriculture (fig. III.16).

14In addition, the basin is made up of two geological zones: in the north a crescent of limestone hills is interspersed by small shallow valleys; in the west a deep bowl riddled with ravines cut by sandstone and clayey sands formed at the bend of the river Zarqa. It is at this contact point between the two zones that the perennial springs flow.

15Due to its location at the very edges of the EW and NS axis, Jerash benefits from the four types of natural environments. To the north are the limestone outcrops which were quarried extensively for building blocks. The southern zone provided clay and sand for ceramic production as well as building materials like mortar and sand, used for sawing blocks of stone. The hills of Ajlun provided the supply of wood for building and local industries.

16The necessity to engage in external trade to supplement the modest agricultural means of the basin, encouraged the economic development of the town. Being situated geographically at the crossroads of the nomadic peoples of the steppe and the Jordan Valley further north, Jerash also benefited from being at the heart of the network of main communication routes. This link was made particularly evident in materials traded with the northern cities of the Decapolis and Philadelphia.

17The territory under direct control of the city of Gerasa may have fluctuated, particularly south of the river Zarqa. There is a series of ancient Greek rock inscriptions «POGE» (PO[lis] GE[rasa] = the city of Gerasa), in places linked together with a wall, which follows the western circumference of the natural basin. Although difficult to date precisely, these inscriptions show a remarkable harmony between the historical use of the territory and its defined geographical boundaries.

Figure III.16 — Map of Jerash.

Figure III.16 — Map of Jerash.

Table des illustrations

Titre Plate III.13 — Emperor Marcus-Aurelius Portrait found near Qasr al-Bint.
Crédits French Mission to Petra, 2004, F. Bernel
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k
Titre Plate III.14 — Hadrien Silver Coin.
Fichier image/jpeg, 92k
Titre Figure III.14 — Roman Roads and Cities.
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Titre Figure III.15 — The Decapolis.
Fichier image/jpeg, 200k
Titre Figure III.16 — Map of Jerash.
Fichier image/jpeg, 183k

© Presses de l’Ifpo, 2013

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