Time Capsule of the House of the Tesserae Opens Window into the Past

In 2017 archaeologists in Jordan unearthed a time capsule dating back over a thousand years. The House of the Tesserae was fortuitously preserved after an earthquake struck the Jordanian city of Jerash in the 8 th century AD. The early Islamic building is particularly significant due to the surprising discovery of a mosaic studio found inside. The collapse of the building during the earthquake sealed the House of Tesserae in the manner of a snapshot, frozen in time. The House of the Tesserae and its mosaic workshop offers archaeologists a rare glimpse into the mosaic industry at Jerash during the 8 th century AD.

Origin Stories for the Foundation of Jerash

Jerash (known also as Gerasa) is an ancient city in the northern part of present-day Jordan. According to archaeological records, the area around Jerash had already been settled by human beings as early as the Neolithic period. Although there is evidence of human occupation in the area over the next couple of millennia, neither Jerash or its surroundings were of particular importance at that time and little is known about the settlements and their inhabitants during this period. More information about Jerash, however, becomes available from the Hellenistic period onwards. As a matter of fact, the city is commonly believed to have been founded during this period.

According to one version of the story, Jerash was established by Alexander the Great during the 4 th century BC. According to ancient Greek inscriptions from the city, the city was named after its first inhabitants, the veterans of Alexander’s army. Since the Greek word for “elderly person” is gerasmenos, the settlement became known as Gerasa. According to tradition, these soldiers were given a parcel of fertile land between the Jordan Valley and the desert as a reward for defeating the Persians.

According to ancient Greek inscriptions from the city, Jerash (or Gerasa) was founded by Alexander the Great and named after veterans of his army. (Public domain)

According to ancient Greek inscriptions from the city, Jerash (or Gerasa) was founded by Alexander the Great and named after veterans of his army. ( Public domain )

Was it Actually Founded by the Seleucid Empire?

Doubts, however, have been cast on this origin story. Whilst it may be possible that Alexander the Great left a temporary garrison at the site, it is less likely that he intended to establish a permanent city there. Scholars point out that Jerash or Gerasa is actually a Semitic, rather than Greek, name. Additionally, the city’s original name was in fact Antiochia ad Chrysorrhoam (Greek for “Antioch beside the River of Gold”). Scholars are of the opinion that the city was established during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a ruler of the Seleucid Empire during the 2 nd century BC.

Jerash soon grew into an important city, thanks to its strategic location along the King’s Highway, which later became known as the Via Nova Traiana. This was an important trade route that connected Africa and Mesopotamia via Jordan and Syria since ancient times. As a notable commercial center, Jerash became not only a wealthy city, but a cosmopolitan one as well. In addition to the Greeks, there were also indigenous Aramaeans living in the city. Merchants from Persia, Parthia, and even India visited the city. In addition, the Nabataeans, whose capital city Petra lay to the south of Jerash, would pass through the city with their caravans on the way to Damascus in the north.

Jerash Falls into the Hands of the Hasmonaeans

The Seleucids were not able to hold on to Jerash for a very long time. Even during the reign of Antiochus IV, the Seleucid Empire was in decline. One of Antiochus’ successors, Antiochus VII Sidetes, tried to recover the empire’s eastern provinces that were lost, and was killed in an ambush by the Parthians in 129 BC. As a consequence of the king’s death, the Seleucid Empire was plunged into chaos, and Jerash briefly fell into the hands of warlords.

One of the enemies of the Seleucids were the Hasmonaeans, who had established a dynasty in Judaea. The Hasmonaeans ruled over their territory as vassals of the Seleucid Empire. Following the death of Antiochus VII, however, the Hasmonaeans seized the opportunity to declare their independence from their overlords. In 102 BC, the Hasmonaean king, Alexander Jannaeus, captured Jerash. The city would remain in the hands of the Hasmonaeans until 64/3 BC.

In that year, the Roman general Pompey defeated Mithridates VI during the Third Mithridatic War. In the aftermath of the war, Syria was annexed, and became a province in the Roman Republic. Thus, Jerash was now a Roman city. Due to its Hellenistic past, the city was given special treatment by the Romans. Jerash was one of the ten Hellenistic cities that formed the Decapolis (which literally means “Ten Cities”), which were allowed to function as semi-independent city states.

The Prosperous Roman City of Jerash

At the beginning of the 2 nd century AD, i.e. during Trajan’s reign, however, Jerash was formally incorporated into the Roman Empire. Along with the lands of the Nabataeans to the south, Jerash became part of the province of Arabia Petraea. It was also Trajan who renovated the King’s Highway, so as to improve transport and communication between Bostra, the provincial capital, and Aqaba, the province’s only major port.  

Jerash prospered under Roman rule. It is estimated that around the beginning of the 3 rd century AD, when Jerash reached it peak, the city was home to between 15,000 and 20,000 people. Moreover, it was around this time that Jerash attained the rank of colony. The Imperial Crisis of the Roman Empire in the third century had a devastating impact on the Roman economy, and Jerash was not spared either. Although trade declined, the city was able to adapt, thus ensuring its survival into the subsequent Byzantine period. In 636 AD, the Byzantines were defeated by the Muslims at the Battle of Yarmouk . As a result of this decisive battle, Byzantine rule in Syria ended, and the region, including Jerash, was now part of the Rashidun Caliphate. This caliphate ended in 661 AD, and was replaced by the Umayyad Caliphate.

In the 2nd century AD, the Jordanian city of Jerash was formally incorporated into the Roman Empire. (EyesTravelling / Adobe Stock)

In the 2 nd century AD, the Jordanian city of Jerash was formally incorporated into the Roman Empire. ( EyesTravelling / Adobe Stock)

Struck by a Devastating Earthquake: Destruction at Jerash

In 749 AD, not long before the demise of the Umayyads, Jerash was struck by a devastating earthquake. Much of the city was destroyed, and its population was reduced to about a quarter of its former size. Jerash was unable to recover from the destruction caused by the earthquake. In the centuries that followed, the site was largely deserted, apart from a brief period of occupation by a crusader garrison during the 12 th century, and several small settlements in the area.

In 1806, Jerash was rediscovered by Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, a German explorer, though archaeological work only began there some time later. The first systematic archaeological description of Jerash was published in 1902 by Gottlieb Schumacher . The unpublished travel letters of Hhenirich Kohl, written five years later, describe the purchase of a mosaic, part of which is now in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. This suggests that some excavations were already going on at Jerash prior to that. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Yale Expedition carried out archaeological work at Jerash. In the decades that followed, other international missions were working in the ancient city. Thanks to the efforts of these archaeologists, many of Jerash’s impressive ruins have been unearthed.  

Archaeological Treasure: Jerash as Pompeii of the East

It is thanks to Jerash’s abandonment after the 749 AD cataclysm that the ruins were left untouched until the arrival of the archaeologists. Thus, the ancient city is considered to be one of the best-preserved Roman sites in the Middle East. Some have even referred to Jerash as the “Pompeii of the East”. In addition to unearthing the city’s ancient ruins, the decades of archaeological work at Jerash has also given the site a new lease of life.

Today, Jerash has been transformed into a tourist destination , and is particularly popular amongst those who are keen to know more about archaeology and the city’s ancient history. As a matter of fact, the much of the advertising for the site is centered on the Roman period and the city’s Roman monuments. Each day, for instance, the Jerash Heritage Company puts on a spectacle called the “Roman Army and Chariot Experience” for tourists visiting the site.

Image of the northern section of the tesserae trough discovered in the House of the Tesserae time capsule in Jordan. (The Danish-German Jerash Northwest Quarter Project)

Image of the northern section of the tesserae trough discovered in the House of the Tesserae time capsule in Jordan. ( The Danish-German Jerash Northwest Quarter Project )

Continued Excavation Unearths the House of the Tesserae

Although archaeological work has been going on at Jerash for more than a century, it is clear that the site has yet to be fully excavated, and that there may be many more surprises awaiting archaeologists. One of most recent of these is the House of the Tesserae, which was only unearthed in 2017. The building was discovered in the northwest quarter of the city, and has been dated to the Umayyad period.

It is speculated that when the earthquake struck the city in 749 AD, renovation work was going on in the House of the Tesserae. Arguably the most significant discovery in this house is a trough containing thousands of tesserae (small blocks of stone, glass, or other material used for the creation of a mosaic). Since the pieces have not been used, the archaeologists involved in their discovery, Achim Lichtenberger and Rubina Raja, have interpreted the trough as being a storage system for the tesserae. This is the first discovery of its kind.

The House of the Tesserae was a two-storey building, and the trough of tesserae was located on its ground floor. As a result of the earthquake, the second floor of the building collapsed onto the lower floor, thus sealing and preserving it for the future. On the upper floor of the building, complete mosaics, all of which are geometric in pattern, were also found. Interestingly, furniture and everyday objects were observed to be missing from both floors. This provides further support to the idea that the building was being renovated when it was destroyed by the earthquake.

Close-up image of some of the tesserae mosaics discovered in the trough at the House of the Tesserae in 2017. (The Danish-German Jerash Northwest Quarter Project)

Close-up image of some of the tesserae mosaics discovered in the trough at the House of the Tesserae in 2017. ( The Danish-German Jerash Northwest Quarter Project )

Discovery of Mosaic Studio: Completing the Picture of Jerash

The discovery of the House of the Tesserae has not only provided evidence of the way tesserae were stored, but also sheds some light on the way mosaics were being made in ancient times. The discovery of the mosaic studio within the House of the Tesserae suggests that the individual mosaic pieces were produced on-site, as opposed to being made in an off-site specialized workshop, and later transported to the place where they were to be installed. Prior to this discovery, experts were unsure if tesserae were produced on-site or off-site.     

Apart from the technical aspects of mosaic making, the House of the Tesserae also provides some information about the economy of Jerash during the early Islamic period. Although the city changed hands from the Byzantines to the Arabs, this did not mean that the city’s prosperity went into decline. In fact, Jerash continued to enjoy the wealth that was brought to its gates by trade. This is seen in the fact that the city’s inhabitants were able to commission mosaics in their homes.

The relative prosperity of the city is also evident in the preceding Byzantine period, indicating that the city was able to cope with the division of the Roman Empire. The many churches built by the Byzantines in the city attest to this. Some of these churches are even decorated with beautiful mosaics. One of these is the Church of Saint Genesius, whose mosaics were installed shortly before Jerash was conquered by the Muslims. The church’s mosaics depict not only geometric patterns, but also images of birds and Greek inscriptions.

It is true that mosaics have often been associated with either the Roman or the Byzantine periods , and less so with the Islamic period. Nevertheless, the discovery of the House of the Tesserae shows that mosaics continued to be produced at Jerash during the early Islamic period. Apart from that, the excavations in the past have focused primarily on the monuments of the Roman period. Still, as evidenced by the House of the Tesserae, the domestic quarters of the post-Roman period also have the potential to yield significant finds. In fact, it is through the excavation of such areas that a more complete picture of the site’s history may be produced. As further archaeological work is conducted in Jerash, especially in its northwestern quarter, more information about the city and its inhabitants during the early Islamic period will come to light. Could it be that more surprises like the House of the Tesserae are waiting to be found?

Top image: The House of the Tesserae became an unwitting time capsule after an earthquake struck the city during the 8th century AD. Source: The Danish-German Jerash Northwest Quarter Project

By Wu Mingren

References

Black, A., 2020. The Ruins of Jerash . Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-ruins-of-jerash-jerash-jordan

Bond, S., 2017. Discovery Of Early Islamic Mosaic Tesserae Sheds Light On Art And Earthquakes . Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/drsarahbond/2017/08/24/discovery-of-early-islamic-mosaic-tesserae-sheds-light-on-art-and-earthquakes/#4da642494cdd

Geggel, L., 2017. Ancient Earthquake Turned Mosaic Workshop into Time Capsule . Available at: https://www.livescience.com/60132-earthquake-reveals-mosaic-production-practices.html

Lichtenberger, A. & Raja, R., 2017. Mosaicists at work: the organisation of mosaic production in Early Islamic Jerash . Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/AAA71C710D69A70A32294C133FC6B07B/S0003598X17000667a.pdf/mosaicists_at_work_the_organisation_of_mosaic_production_in_early_islamic_jerash.pdf

Lichtenberger, A. & Raja, R., 2018. “The Archaeology and History of Jerash: 110 Years of Excavations — An Introduction” in A. Lichtenberger & R. Raja, eds. The Archaeology and History of Jerash: 110 Years of Excavations . Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, pp. 1-6.

Lonely Planet, 2020. Jerash: History . Available at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/jordan/jerash-and-the-north/jerash/narratives/background/history

Martinenz, A., 2017. 1,200-Year-Old Mosaic Studio Reveals a ‘Snapshot’ of Ancient Construction Methods . Available at: https://observer.com/2017/08/1200-year-old-mosaic-studio-discovered-jordan/

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011. King’s Highway. Available at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/jordan/jerash-and-the-north/jerash/narratives/background/history

Tobalina, E., 2019. Rome brought pomp and prosperity to this ancient outpost in Jordan. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2019/09-10/jerash-ancient-city-of-jordan/

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