Sanctuary of Zeus Olympios in Gerasa

By the Editors of the Madain Project

The Sanctuary of Zeus Olýmpios was an ancient Hellinistic-Roman temple complex dedicated to the god "Zeus the heavenly" in the ancient city of Gerasa (modern day Jerash). Commanding a great view from atop the hill overlooking the oval plaza, the sanctuary of Zeus Olympios was a place of worship from the Bronze Age up to the late Roman period. During the Roman era an important religious monument was built here and later expanded up the hilltop.

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This name derives from the Ancient Greek "Olympiás (Ὀλυμπιάς) Ólympos (Ὄλυμπος)", meaning "heavenly, celestial, inhabitant of Olympus (the mountain where the gods of Greek mythology resided)".

The sanctuary is made up of two main structures, a lower and an upper terrace. The actual visible lower terrace, which measures 100 by 50 meters, was built first in 27/28 CE by Diodoro son of Zebedas, and architect from Gerasa.A unique feature of this sanctuary is a vaulted corridor that ran around the periphery, some of which can still be seen today, and was embellised with facades of Ionic half-columns supporting a Doric frieze. In 162/163 CE a large temple was built on the higher ground above the sanctuary and a grand staircase was added in to the wastern facade of the lower terrace to access it.

After the mid fifth century CE the sanctuary was re-used by subsequent settlers as a monastery during Byzantine times and later by farmers and craftsmen. Abandoned after the earthquake of 749 CE, it was briefly reoccupied around the 12th century CE by a small group of Crusaders.

Notable Structures

circa 161/163 CE

Great Temple of Zeus
The once grand temple dedicated to Zeus Olympios was built in 161/163 CE. It lies on a terrace on the site of an earlier sanctuary to Zeus, and overlooks the Naos and the oval plaza. The original site of worship, which lay on the terrace beneath, became the lower sanctuary of a magnificient temple complex and a wide staircase linked with the lower part to this newer upper terrace.

The Great Temple of Zeus stood on a podium surrounded by columns. The plan and ornamentation was in a classic style typical of the time. The facade was marked by eight Corinthian columns and a unique series of niches (inspect) that decorated the outside walls. A flat roof sheltered the temple interior.

This temple was completed and was larger than the one dedicated to Artemis, the patron goddess of Gerasa. Construction of the Temple of Artemis which had begun fifteen years earlier, but it was never actually finished. The shifting of work on the city's main temple from the lower terrace of Zeus' sanctuary to the temple of Artemis and then back here to the great temple of Zeus indicates some strife amid the powers of the city.

In the fifth century CE this temple was dismantled and it became a quarry of materials used to construct churches around the city of ancient Gerasa.

circa 69-455 CE

The Naos
The Naos, which is a Greek word for shrine or temple, was a core part of the sanctuary of Zeus. It was built in 69-70 CE on the site of a cave that had been considered sacred for thousands of years. Various layers of construction over the time can still be seen, which date back to the different eras of use. This may be the only temple found worldwide where a complete succession of use is apparent from the Middle Bronze Age through the late Roman times.

The Roman era Naos was built in a checkered pattern of white and red limestone blocks and comprised a podium that supported a double portico of Corinthian columns. It had two levels and was based around a Hammana, a square structure that contained the cultic statue of an earlier Hellenistic temple. The naos was destroyed, probably at the time of the second Jewish Revolt, and then rebuilt in a smaller version in 135/140CE, at which time all remains of the Hellenistic era monument had been dismantled and carefully buried as foundations for the Roman Shrine.

circa 69/70 CE

Hellenistic Naos
The naos that was built by Theon in 69/70 CE on the lower terrace of the Sanctuary complex was finally completely dismantled in 450/455 CE by the bishop Placcus and his successors when the ancient sanctuary was converted into a convent by the Christian monks. Bishop Placcus had blocks from it reused to build the cathedral, churches, baths and other Byzantine monuments elsewhere in the city of Gerasa that bear his name.

Excavations of the foundations of the naos led to the discovery of hundreds of reused blocks from an earlier monument. It seems the earlier monument was deliberately burid and thus was well preserved. From the carved, stuccoed and painted blocks that were found, it was possible to recreate a very precise image of the achitecture and theinterior and exterior decoration of this small square monument.The finest decorated elements are presented in the cryptoporticus of the sanctuary. Date to the year 60 or 70 BCE, this is one ofthe few representations of the late Hellenistic architecture in the region.

One of the blocks that make up the decorative frieze of acanthus, populated by birds pecking pomegranates, grapes, flowers and pine cones, was itself reused from an earlier monument. It bears a Greek inscription dating from the year 130 or 135 BCE that mentions the construction of a "Hammana" by Belaois, who was the military governor of Gerasa and son of the first king of the first dynasty of Bahrain.

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