Historical Development of Jordan from Prehistory to the Early Islamic Period

Humans have settled in the Fertile Crescent, including the region of Jordan, since the dawn of history. Unlike today’s desert landscape, this area was once humid, filled with forests and fertile plains. Consequently, people primarily lived by hunting and gathering fruits. Evidence from the Azraq region points to early human habitation, and the tools discovered across Jordan indicate a thriving civilisation during the Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Copper Ages, even though no human skeletons from the Stone Ages have been found. Between 8500 and 4500 BC, stable communities began to form, which led to an increase in population and steady reproduction. These communities initially engaged in agriculture and grazing, and over time, they progressed to making pottery.

In 63 AD, Rome extended its control over Jordan, Syria, and Palestine, maintaining dominance over these regions for four centuries. Meanwhile, the Decapolis, a federal economic and cultural alliance formed during the Hellenistic era, included Greek cities such as Philadelphia (modern-day Amman), Gerasa (Jerash), Gadara (Umm Qais), Pella, Arabella (Irbid), and other cities in Palestine and southern Syria.

The Nabatean Kingdom was annexed to the Roman Empire by the leader Trajan. This era was characterised by stability, peace, and significant infrastructure developments. The Romans focused on the development of cities like Philadelphia and Gadara, where they constructed theaters and amphitheaters, complemented by the installation of columns and other structures. Among these, Jerash stood out as a major provincial city within the Roman Empire, evident in its impressive architectural remains, including columns, amphitheaters, and theaters.

A significant excavation initiative in the 1930s unveiled several churches, shedding light on the prominence of the Byzantine era in the history of this place. However, it wasn’t until the Jerash International Project between 1981 and 1983 that the significance of the Early Islamic period emerged, marking another major chapter in Jerash’s history. These excavations have been crucial in uncovering the layers of Jerash’s past, providing insights into its diverse historical periods, and they have continued through the years.

Jerash new discoveries, Venturing Into the Depths of Jerash: Unveiling Secrets through The House of Hearts, Select.jo
Photo : https://universes.art/en/art-destinations/jordan/jerash/cardo-decumanus

Recent Excavations of the Byzantine House in Jerash by the Eastern Jerash Project

Since 2022, Julie Bonnéric, Director of the French Institute of the Near East (Ifpo), has led the Eastern Jerash Project’s exploration of a large courtyard building in central Jerash, east of the Cardo. Initially partially excavated by the Jordanian Department of Antiquities in 2001, this site revealed an urban house near the Nymphaeum, known as the House of Hearts or the House of the Wealthy Merchant. Built during the Byzantine era, this residence was destroyed in an earthquake in 749 at the end of the Umayyad period, preserving many remnants in place.

Earlier excavations focused on documenting already uncovered areas, due to a lack of records or publications from the initial dig, and aimed to better understand the building’s layout. However, during the third excavation season which the team is concluding at the moment (May 2024), the team discovered several rooms, including a kitchen, storage room, and stable, identified by the previously found remains.

Recent excavations also uncovered a staircase linking the Roman Cardo Maximus to the building, highlighting its architectural integration with the surroundings. The building’s size, over 750 square meters, and its proximity to the Cardo marketplace suggest it may have been the home of a wealthy merchant, indicating a close relationship between the residence and nearby shops, reflecting a mix of commercial and social activities.

Jerash new discoveries, Select.jo
Stairs linking the House of Hearts to the shops on the Cardo Maximus in Jerash (Photo by Saeb Rawashdeh) – Source: Jordan Times

One goal of the project is to study changes in spatial organization and housing use from the Byzantine to Umayyad periods, as well as occupations before and after these periods. The team has found three-meter-high vaults, nine rooms, and an olive or wine press, though the lack of written sources makes it difficult to determine the function of many objects. Next season, the team plans to document the eastern portico and has also found some Greek inscriptions, adding historical context to the site.

Jerash new discoveries, Venturing Into the Depths of Jerash: Unveiling Secrets through The House of Hearts, Select.jo
1 – Tetrakionion, 2 – Bridge over the Chrysorhoas (Gold River, today Wadi Jerash), 3 – Great Eastern Baths, 4 – Mosque, 5 – Macellum, 6 – Houses from the Umayyad period

In conclusion, the ongoing research in Jerash by the Eastern Jerash Project is crucial for deepening our understanding of the Byzantine and Umayyad periods. The excavation of the House of Hearts, with its extensive remains and strategic location, provides valuable insights into the urban and economic life of ancient Jerash. The discoveries, including well-preserved rooms and significant remnants, highlight the residence’s role in connecting commercial and residential spaces. Julie Bonnéric recently presented these findings at a conference on Friday, May 17, 2024, in Salle Reinach Lyon, hosted by the Archéorient laboratory. The conference, titled “The House of Hearts, a Large Urban Residence from the Byzantine and Umayyad Periods in the Center of Jerash (Jordan),” offered a comprehensive overview of this important archaeological work.