AMMAN — Regional politics, Jordanian hospitality and a stroke of luck kindled a three-decade-old love affair between a team of French archaeologists and one of the Kingdom’s most important archaeological sites.
Last week marked the 30th anniversary of an excavation by the team that led to the reconstruction of the ancient city of Jerash and the shattering of many assumptions about daily life 2,000 years ago.
According to the archaeologists, their lifelong bond with the Greco-Roman city sprouted from a chance encounter.
The archaeological team from the French Institute of the Near East that is now synonymous with Jerash was originally destined for Lebanon, but the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the war-torn country forced them to relocate to Jordan.
“It turned out 1982 was not the best time to be in Lebanon,” said Jacques Seigne, who has overseen the Jerash project since its inception.
As the archaeologists attempted to regroup and salvage what seemed to be a lost season, they had a chance meeting with officials from the Kingdom’s Department of Antiquities (DoA), who just so happened to be launching a new excavation at Jerash’s Temple of Zeus.
With its manpower and resources already stretched thin, the department invited Seigne’s team to take part in the project.
“They simply asked us if we wanted the Temple of Zeus. We agreed, and they just gave it to us,” Seigne said.
Little did he know that the apparently modest excavation would be the start of an enduring relationship with the ancient city and the source of many “surprising” discoveries.
The team’s first excavation uncovered an earlier temple from the Bronze Age, indicating that Jerash was settled some 2,000 years earlier than previously believed.
Seigne and his team came back to Jerash in subsequent seasons, with the DoA inviting them to expand their work to other parts of the city, gradually moving from excavation to restoration.
Over time, the institute and the DoA went on to rebuild the city stone by stone, reerecting the Temple of Zeus and refurbishing the colonnade and the imposing Hadrian’s Arch.
With each excavation, the archaeologists also made a series of new cultural and anthropological discoveries that forced scholars to rethink what they thought they knew about Greek and Roman civilisation.
These findings include a nearly complete Greek bronze workshop, an inscription bearing the first mention of the Bahraini monarchy, and a hydraulic stone sawmill that represents one of the first machines known to man.
The French archaeologists also believe they have found the reason why Roman Emperor Hadrian wintered at Jerash: superstition.
Seigne’s team and the DoA uncovered a series of inscriptions and artistic depictions indicating that the city was home to several oracles, among them perhaps one of the most renowned soothsayers in the east.
“There were much more attractive cities in the empire to vacation at the time,” Seigne said. “But it is very likely that Hadrian came to Jerash to consult with oracles for advice.”
Perhaps one of the team’s more groundbreaking discoveries was a seating chart of the city’s northern theatre.
The inscription demarcating various tribes’ seats on the tribal council — a local democratic assembly found throughout the empire — leaves approximately one-fourth of the seats empty.
The team believes that the unmarked seats were reserved for a second chamber, making Jerash one of the first and perhaps only cities in antiquity with bicameral legislatures.
After three decades of unearthing Jerash’s history and altering past, the French archaeologists say they now have their sights set on the city’s future.
Seigne said the institute plans in future seasons to focus on conservation and preservation efforts, such as finding a solution to chronic flooding that threatens to erode the ancient city, and boosting public awareness over the importance of Jordan’s heritage.
“We want citizens to be able to point to Jerash and say, these are our ancestors, this is where we come from, and this is what we have achieved,” Seigne told The Jordan Times.
The most important pillar of the institute’s future plans, according to Seigne, will be training Jordanian archaeology students in order to “pass the torch” to a new generation.
“If these young Jordanians are half as in love with Jerash as we were, this city will continue to confound us for many years to come.”