Most Americans who consider traveling to Jordan for the first time do not imagine that in Jordan they may find the best preserved Graeco-Roman provincial city in the world. But the fact is, the city of Jerash was once a Roman city, and today is the site of some of the most perfectly preserved Roman ruins in the world.
In fact, Jordan is really many countries overlaid one upon the other. The modern Jordan was only created in 1921, when the British – who had taken control of what was then called Palestine from the Ottoman Empire of Turkey – gave semi-autonomous control to the Arab leader as-Sayyid Abdullah of the Hashemite family, who was believed to be a descendant of both the prophet Muhammad and Abraham.
Abdullah led the country under a British protectorate until 1946, when Britain asked the United Nations to recognize an end to British rule, and the country officially became The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The country upon which modern mapmakers have drawn those boundaries has been home to many nations. Today we call it Jordan; 2,000 years ago, it was Rome. But even that was relatively recent in its lifespan. The human settlement upon which Jerash was built has been inhabited for 6,000 years. Jerash was built on a Greek settlement. It went through a Persian period, a Babylonian period and a Turkish period, and had many other rulers. It’s Jewish, Muslim, Arabic, Christian. It still bears traces of its time as a Neolithic settlement.
As a Greek city, Jerash was one of the Decapolis, a league of 10 cities that included Damascus, now the capital of Syria; and Amman, which was called Philadelphia (“the city of brotherly love”) by the Greeks. The cities prospered because of their domination of the incense and spice trade route from the Arabian Peninsula to Syria and the Mediterranean. After being conquered by Rome, the area was annexed in 63 B.C. to become part of the Roman province of Syria. The Romans called it Gerasa. One hundred and fifty years later, in 90 A.D., it was absorbed into the Roman province of Arabia.
Most of the colossal Roman ruins that are still standing in Jerash were built during the second century A.D., which is considered its golden age, when wealth apparently poured into the city and fueled a huge program of expansion and development. It peaked in the third century and went downhill after that, its fortunes linked to the Roman Empire itself.
The Roman ruins were buried in sand for centuries and rediscovered in the 1800s. They have been excavated and restored since the 1920s. The ruins include a theater with rounded rows of stone seats for 3,000, showing little wear for the last 2,000 years, and still demonstrating acoustic properties that make it possible to stand on the stage and speak in conversational tones and be heard perfectly in the highest rows. Built in 92 A.D., the theater originally had a two-story stage. The first stage has been rebuilt and is used today.
In July of each year, the Jerash Festival transforms the theater and much of the surrounding site into a colorful festival, featuring folkloric dances, ballets, concerts, opera and theater, as well as traditional handicrafts.
Still somewhat intact are a temple of Dionysus that was later transformed into a Christian cathedral during the Byzantine period; the Nymphaeum, a colossal, ornate fountain structure where young virgins bathed for the entertainment of soldiers and merchants; Hadrian’s Arch, erected to commemorate the visit of Emperor Hadrian in 129 A.D.; a fountain court, where the miracle of changing water into wine was re-enacted during Roman times; a surviving Corinthian column; a bathhouse; and a forum.
Situated just 80 miles, or a 40-minute drive north from Amman, Jordan’s capital and international gateway, Jerash makes an easy day trip. The ancient ruin lies parallel to a thriving modern Middle Eastern city. A standard tour as offered by ground operators might begin with a lunch at a local restaurant to gain stamina and focus for a walk through the city.
Exploring the Roman ruins is a hike that may be as short or long as one wishes, depending on how much of the city one wants to take in. A route that essentially covers the main points of interest can take anywhere from 90 minutes to three and a half hours, depending on your pace. It’s best to see Jerash with a guide, who will take you through the ruins and explain what you are seeing, bringing the still, stone structures back to life by describing what surrounded them and what activities took place during their day. The city is a monumental example of the grand urban style the Romans employed in their provincial cities.
Approaching the city by car, the first things you see are the hippodrome, the 800-foot arena just outside the city walls where chariot races and athletic contests took place; and Hadrian’s Arch, a forerunner to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and its little brother in New York’s Washington Square Park.
You approach the city through the Arch of Hadrian, then pass through the city walls at the South Gate, through which you emerge onto the Oval Plaza of the Forum. Then you can stroll down the Cardo Maximus, the colonnaded street. Still paved with its original stones, in which ruts formed by the wheels of chariots can still be seen, it’s a broad street as long as several football fields, lined with giant Ionic columns. Proceeding down the strip, you come to a place where the street widens into the Macellum, or market, the lively center of town commerce.
Another highlight of the city is the Temple of Artemis, dating back to 150 A.D. It’s a monument to Artemis (Diana), the daughter of Zeus (Jupiter) and sister of Apollo, who was the patron goddess of Jerash. Eleven of the temple’s original towering Corinthian columns are still standing.
A fully rounded experience of Jerash ends where it began, with a visit to the Hippodrome, or Circus Gerasa, where the chariot races were held. It could hold 15,000 people, a large proportion of Jerash’s population. In cooperation with the Jordan Tourism Board and the Jordan Hotel Association, the Jerash Heritage Co. Ltd. produces a show called the “Roman Army Chariot Experience” (RACE). The show re-creates the Roman chariot races in their original setting, circa 113 A.D. Sitting on the original stone seats of the hippodrome, audiences watch Roman soldiers wearing authentic costumes and armor going through military maneuvers, and finally tearing around the race track with real chariots and spirited horses.
The production was put together by a retired Swiss pharmaceutical executive, Stellan Lind. Lind saw the film Ben Hur in 1977 and developed a fascination with Rome and the chariot races that did not rest until he had achieved his dream of creating re-enactments that were meticulously accurate, down to the details of the uniforms. Lind decided when he saw the film that “somewhere, somehow” he would create a re-enactment of chariot racing. He spent his free moments for the next 25 years researching, gathering information, trying to find investors and arranging an appropriate venue. He was helped by scholars at the University of Exeter in the U.K.
Lind’s sister lived in Jordan, and when he discovered the Hippodrome at Jerash, he decided it was the venue he had been seeking. He approached Jordan’s minister of tourism, found support with the Jordan Hotel Association, and the RACE was on. The Jerash Heritage Co. was formed in 2004, and performances began in mid-2005.
The soldiers are played by retired soldiers and policemen who have become actors, with the help of training by an English stuntman. The show takes place twice a day, seven days a week. It begins with grand music from the soundtrack of the film Gladiator and Respighi’s “Pines of the Appian Way” broadcasting through giant loudspeakers, creating a majestic mood.
RACE is attracting nearly 15,000 people a year, and the numbers are growing rapidly, thanks to quite a bit of press attention. Visit www.jerashchariots.com.
For more information, call 877-733-5673 or visit www.visitjordan.com.-- David Cogswell