Day 11 – Jerasa

Earlier we had seen Beth Shean on the Israel side, and the sites at Capernaum and Magdala showed hints of the bones of first century building and city life. In the case at Capernaum, the original synagogue was styled after a Roman temple, and had been overlaid with a church.

Jerasa, destroyed by two earthquakes and deserted after sea routes replaced land routes for the spice trade, lies relatively untouched and has been reconstructed to a degree. Hadrian’s Gate, a tribute created in honor of his visit in 130 A.D., still stands tall and magnificent on the entrance to the City. If you’ve ever seen Ben Hur, you can imagine the Hippodrome with horse-drawn carriage races circling counterclockwise to a cheering crowd. The hippodrome could accommodate five carriages at a time and the oval track is a third of a Roman mile, meaning the horses would round the track three times for a mile long race.

The enormous city showed sheer ingenuity of the engineers and shed light on the communities that Jesus lived in and traveled among during his time. Jerasa, "Rome away from Rome," had a thousand pillars — the oval plaza had ionic pillars, hallmark of Grecian architecture with its scroll-like decoration — and the pillars supported a ceramic pipe system overhead that piped in running water to the shops and houses along the Cardo (heart/main street) of the city and within the expansive oval city plaza where underneath a drainage system would whisk dirt and offal out of the city.

The theatre was ingenious, with a center area where our group spread out to try out the acoustics — the spoken word echoed back loudly and the ovals around the pit area served as communication conduits because of their ceramic pipe internal structure — a word spoken on one side could be heard clearly on the other. As the theatre was set facing north, the wealthy got the best seats on the Western side so the sun wouldn’t be in their eyes — and smoke marks were left above that alcove for night lighting on that side. A bagpiper and a drummer were performing for the visiting crowds, and the sounds of the theatre came alive. The orchestra pit would also serve as entertainment where wild animals would be pitted against each other or unfortunate people — maybe early Christians?

The size and magnificence of the temple inspired a group of us to walk up all the stairs to the top, which afforded a view of the next mountain over where architects have determined the sprawling city encompassed. Although it isn’t believed that Jesus visited here, this city does illustrate more fully the structure of Roman life during his time, and how Jerusalem Jews would be in conflict with the culture of Romans in terms of the way they worshipped and their sacrifices. It also shows how life was lived in the first century — the butcher block for animal sacrifices and the pillar that marks it, the oil press that provides oil for cooking and for lighting, pigeons for communication, theater and hippodrome for entertainment, an imposing fountain for water, and richness displayed even in the stones, decoratively shaped to be more aesthetically pleasing. Next we venture to Petra, the Rose City, to see what treasures await our eager eyes!