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The Danish-Jordanian Islamic Jarash Project
The Danish-Jordanian Islamic Jarash Project, initiated in 2002 in partnership with the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, has four major components: archaeological excavations in and around an early Islamic congregational mosque, to be followed by consolidation and partial restoration (Alan Walmsley, University of Copenhagen); the archaeological investigation of a late Roman bathhouse complex that existed in the mosque area before its construction (Louise Blanke, University of Copenhagen); a study into the archaeology of shops, households and industrial areas at Jarash, especially in the mosque area (Ian Simpson, Stanford University); and the detailed documentation of the main streets north and east of the mosque (Hugh Barnes, University of Copenhagen).
The Early Islamic Mosque (ca. 740 CE)
The discovery in 2002 of a large mosque at Jarash (Gerasa) in Jordan fundamentally changes our understanding of social and economic conditions in the early Islamic towns of Jordan. Once seen as less important than their predecessors of Roman (1st–3rd century CE) and Byzantine (4th–6th century CE) date, our work at Jarash demonstrates that urban life in early Islamic Jordan prospered as towns continued to serve important cultural, political, religious, and commercial roles.
The site of the early Islamic mosque of Jarash, north of the iconic Oval Piazza at the central crossroads of the town (see plan of the area).
Excavations in the mosque area were undertaken between 2002 and 2010. During the first eight seasons the full extent of the mosque was uncovered, which in outline is a trapezium, with the east and west walls measuring 44.5 metres, the south (qiblat) wall 36.25 metres, and the wider north wall is 38.9 metres (plan). The cause of this irregular shape was probably the need to place the mosque at an angle to the prevailing Roman-period urban grid (in an attempt to orientate the mosque towards Makka/Mecca), and the existence of earlier structures to the west.
The overall style of the building complies with the Arab Courtyard type, and is modelled on the Umayyad-period Great Mosque in Damascus, completed ca, 714 CE. The Jarash mosque dates to about three decades later, most probably during the reign of Hisham b. Adb al-Malik (d. 743 CE). The mosque could be entered by way of five doorways, two each in the west and east walls, and one located axially in the north wall. Dominating the mosque was a three-aisled prayer hall to the south, which stood in front of the south qiblat wall. Three miḥrābs (correctly, maḥārīb) were identified in this wall; the original being a large Umayyad miḥrāb, and two later and smaller maḥārīb (seemingly ca. ninth century modifications). Another later alteration was the insertion of a minaret in the northeast corner of the mosque, overlooking the crossroad area that in Islamic times was a main market zone. Four shops belonging to this commercial area were excavated along the southern part of the mosque’s east wall; these post-date the original construction of the mosque.
The northern of four shops (foreground), with a ninth-century style semicircular staircase that gave access to the mosque (located to the left); beyond is the plaza at the southern crossroads of Jarash.
Since 2009, work on the mosque has shifted from excavation and documentation to recording, restoration and presentation. In 2009 and 2010, the many architectural pieces from the mosque were sorted and recorded by Hugh Barnes, greatly adding to our knowledge of the architecture and chronology of the mosque. Restoration will involve rebuilding walls to no more than their existing height by using original stone recovered during the excavation. Presentation will involve explaining the progress of archaeological discovery and how the unearthing of the mosque extends the history of Jarash well into Islamic times, thereby countering outdated and colonial views of sudden urban decline solely arising from the expansion of Islam into the Levant.
Beneath the mosque a late Roman bathhouse was discovered (see plan). Termed the Central Bathhouse, this important public facility was in use as a place of bathing from its construction in the late Roman period (ca. late fourth century) until it was completely demolished to make way for the mosque (ca. 300-740). The bathhouse plan survives in full, even though the building was erased to foundation level.
Accessed from a narrow lane leading from the south decumanus, the bathhouse was flanked by shops and contained the requisite cold, tepid, and hot sections, along with a service area dominated by the bath furnace. An additional architectural feature was a horseshoe shaped latrine, a shape rare in the Levant.
Archaeology of Shops, Households and Industry
This component of the Islamic Jarash Project investigates the archaeology of shops, households and industry. It focuses on the commercial zone in the center of the town and examines material and written evidence for production, distribution and consumption in early Islamic Jarash. The results show that rows of shops became the predominant feature in the centre of late antique and early Islamic Jarash. In this development, open spaces were transformed for commercial use and equipped with new infrastructure and market shops that were formally planned. The congregational mosque is positioned at the heart of this urban marketplace. In conjunction with a program of archival study, the project component aims to integrate the data recovered from commercial and production contexts, which includes examining evidence for industrial specialization, exchange of goods and the use of early Islamic financial systems. I am concerned with the social meaning of this commercial activity and how it relates to ways in which Muslim groups participated in the urban economy and established themselves in Jarash, creating new social groups across space in the process. The broader significance of the study is to understand the interaction between markets and religion at a general level.
Excavating an Arabic commercial ledger inside one of the mosque shops. The ledger (at centre) displays a list of people’s names written in ink and the amounts they are in credit or debt to a shopkeeper in Jarash.
The Streets of Jarash
Beginning in 2002, the planning of the main paved streets and their architectural embellishments to the north and east of the mosque, cleared but not adequately recorded in the mid-20th century, was undertaken to discover many details of the use of streets and the space they created in late antique and early Islamic Jarash. Work began on the south decumanus west of the tetrakionion intersection, before moving to the main north-south street (‘cardo’) east of the mosque, reaching as far as the oval piazza. Later work focused on planning the south decumanus east of the tetrakionion, as it begins its descent to the bridge that spans the dissecting wadi of Jarash.
The detailed, stone-by-stone recording of each paving stone has revealed much detail about the planning, modification, and decay of Jarash’s streets. In late antiquity, the use of wheeled carts to move heavy building stones from the disused pagan temples to build churches and other structures wore deep ruts into the street paving. In some areas carts had to navigate around collapsed sections of the streets, probably caused by the excessive weights of carts and their cargos, and structures built over sections of the paving. The study is continuing, with the objective of fully documenting and publishing the plans and results of the Jarash street recording program.
For further details, see the links to annual end-of-season reports in the column to the right (please note these are often very preliminary accounts, often somewhat speculative, and should be read as such). To the top