Ancient Greek inscriptions from the city as well as literary sources from both Iamvichou and the Great Etymology establish the foundation of the city as being by Alexander the Great or his general Perdiccas, who settled aged Macedonian soldiers there (Γερασμένος-Gerasmenos means aged person in Greek). This took place during the spring of 331 BC, when Alexander left Egypt, crossed Syria and then went to Mesopotamia. It is sometimes misleadingly referred to as the “Pompeii of the Middle East or Asia”, referring to its size, extent of excavation and level of preservation (though Jerash was never buried by a volcano). Jerash is considered one of the most important and best preserved Roman cities in the Near East. It was a city of the Decapolis.
Recent excavations show that Jerash was already inhabited during the Bronze Age (3200 BC – 1200 BC). After the Roman conquest in 63 BC, Jerash and the land surrounding it were annexed by the Roman province of Syria, and later joined the Decapolis cities. In AD 90, Jerash was absorbed into the Roman province of Arabia, which included the city of Philadelphia (modern day Amman). The Romans ensured security and peace in this area, which enabled its people to devote their efforts and time to economic development and encouraged civic building activity.
In the second half of the 1st century AD, the city of Jerash achieved great prosperity. In AD 106, the Emperor Trajan constructed roads throughout the province, and more trade came to Jerash. The Emperor Hadrian visited Jerash in AD 129-130. The triumphal arch (or Arch of Hadrian) was built to celebrate his visit. A remarkable Latin inscription records a religious dedication set up by members of the imperial mounted bodyguard wintering there.
The city finally reached a size of about 800,000 square meters within its walls. The Persian invasion in AD 614 caused the rapid decline of Jerash. However, the city continued to flourish during the Umayyad Period, as shown by recent excavations. In AD 749, a major earthquake destroyed much of Jerash and its surroundings. During the period of the Crusades, some of the monuments were converted to fortresses, including the Temple of Artemis. Small settlements continued in Jerash during the Ayyubid, Mameluk and Ottoman periods. Excavation and restoration of Jerash has been almost continuous since the 1920s.
Remains in the Greco-Roman Jerash include:
- The Corinthium column
- Hadrian’s Arch
- The circus/hippodrome
- The two large temples (dedicated to Zeus and Artemis)
- The nearly unique oval Forum, which is surrounded by a fine colonnade,
- The long colonnaded street or cardo
- Two theatres (the Large South Theatre and smaller North Theatre)
- Two baths, and a scattering of small temples
- An almost complete circuit of city walls.
A strong earthquake in 749 AD destroyed large parts of Jerash, while subsequent earthquakes along with the wars and turmoil contributed to additional destruction. Its destruction and ruins remained buried in the soil for hundreds of years until they were discovered by German Orientalist Ulrich Jasper Seetzen in 1806. He began excavation and a return to life of the current Jerash by inhabitants of older villages. 70 years later, this was followed by the Muslim community, Circassians, who emigrated to Jordan from the Caucasus in 1878 after the Ottoman-Russian war. Subsequently a large community of people from Syria came to the area at the beginning of the 20th century.