The Ancient Roman Ruins of Jerash
Originally known as Gerasa in antiquity, the ancient Greco-Roman ruins of Jerash are located near the mountains about 30 miles north of Amman. There are ancient Greek inscriptions establishing the city’s foundation by Alexander the Great, with human occupation of the region dating back over 6,500 years. But the city’s golden age came under Roman rule after it was conquered by General Pompey in 63 BC, and it eventually became one of the ten great Roman cities of the Decapolis League.
This massive welcoming gate, known as Hadrian’s Arch, was built to honor the visit of Roman Emperor Hadrian to Jerash in 129/130 AD. The Emperor is best-known for building Hadrian’s Wall, which marked the northern limit of Roman Britain, but he also he famously rebuilt the Pantheon and constructed the Temple of Venus. The central section allowed for huge chariots to pass through, while the sections on either side were meant for pedestrians (one for nobles, one for commoners). The recessed niches at the top once held statues.
Having visited the ruins in Rome and Pompeii during my childhood made our day in Jerash seem all the more impressive. This entire immense city was hidden for centuries beneath the sand before archaeologists excavated and restored it over the last 70 years, and our guide Ali Abudayeh suggested that more than 50% of the city is still waiting for funding to be excavated! It was amazing to walk the cobblestone paths of the oval Forum (with its 56 ionic columns) where massive public gatherings were once held, and the Hippodrome, where up to 15,000 assembled to watch chariot races and fierce gladiatorial battles. You could almost feel the history in every step.
After Emperor Trajan built roads throughout the region to bring more trade Jerash’s way, the city achieved impressive prosperity. The remains of great temples (such as the Temple of Zeus, from where this shot was taken) practically reek of wealth, and the walled city ultimately expanded to a size of approximately 800,000 square meters. This photo, which shows the modern city of Jerash in the background, only hints at the massive size and scope of the ruins.
The area flourished for more than 500 years before the Persian invasion of 614 AD led Jerash into decline. But it was a major earthquakein 749 AD that caused devastating destruction of the city. Even today, nearly 1300 years later, rubble lies everywhere, and workers remain busy gradually putting Jerash back together, stone by stone. But even the ruins that hadn’t been re-assembled were impressive, showcasing an astonishing sense of artistry and attention to detail (especially when you consider the fact that they were made nearly 2000 years ago).
Located at the top of the hill above the Forum, Jerash’s South Theaterwas easily among the city’s most impressive sites, reminding me a little of the Roman Coliseum. Anywhere from 3000-5000 people would cram into the seating areas to watch performances of theatre and poetry, and you could feel that energy emanating from the stones. Ali demonstrated the innovative construction techniques that allowed sound to carry : If you stood to either side of the spot where you see the woman in the beige shirt and white hat, your voice sounded normal, but when you stood dead center you could hear every word echoing and reverberating as if you’d been trained at Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts!
For the #2 attraction in Jordan, Jerash was impressively free of crowds when we visited. Ali said the tourism business has been hit hard ever since the Arab Spring shook neighboring countries like Syria and Egypt. But they certainly did their best to cater to foreign travelers, including a musical performance on bagpipes and drums that included “Amazing Grace.” We’re still not sure about the connection between Jordan and the musical traditions of Scotland, but it was an entertaining diversion nonetheless.
We were surprised to learn about the prominence of Byzantine influence in Jordan, but apparently there was a significant Orthodox Christian community in Jerash starting around 350 AD. Among the city’s remarkable ruins are the remains of a 4th century cathedral, an ancient synagogue, and around a dozen churches. Mary and I are both huge fans of mosaic art, and the Byzantine mosaics we saw throughout the country were some of the most impressive we’ve ever seen. Though the colors were a bit washed-out in the scorching afternoon sun, this floor piece blew us away.
By the time we made our way to the ruins of the Artemis Temple, about 2/3 of the way to the North Gate of Jerash, severe fatigue had begun to set in. We were extremely jet-lagged after nearly 24 hours of travel the day before, our brains were boiling from the intense heat, and we were dehydrated (left our bottled water in the car, a mistake we wouldn’t make again!) and hungry. Fortunately, Ali was about to introduce us to what became our favorite Jordanian tradition.
I come from the state of Georgia, where tea is as much a part of our cultural heritage as red clay and magnolia trees. Often called the “Table Wine of the South,” we like our tea served as sweet as molasses. So when we ascended the steps of the temple and saw this young man serving up Bedouin Tea (black tea with either fresh mint or sage), I was elated. It was sweet, minty and as welcomingly refreshing as the shade in which he stood. The fact that he was also selling bottled water was a bonus. The communal enjoyment of tea became a Jordanian ritual we would observe several times a day.
As we explored Jerash’s North Theater, it began to sink in for Mary and I that this little dream of ours that had evolved into Green Global Travel had somehow led us to the other side of the world, to explore amazing sights we’d only dreamed of. It was very surreal and powerful to finally be in the Middle East after watching movies like Indiana Jones and Casablanca as kids. We took hundreds of pictures and videos and asked Ali tons of questions, but we also took time to just sit in the shade of the theater quietly and soak it all in.
As we made our way back towards the entrance, we walked down the long colonnaded street known as the cardo, whose cobblestones were clearly etched with the tracks of chariots that must’ve ridden through by the hundreds. The heart of ancient cities, these roads would have been lined with shops and vendors, and we stopped to take in the majesty of the Nymphaeum, which boasted elaborate lion-head fountains from which residents could draw water. We could only imagine what a monolithic spectacle such buildings were to behold in the city’s golden age.
As we left Jerash, we saw a huge busload of tourists entering. Though we usually hate crowds, we were delighted to see them, because a remarkable site like this deserves to be seen. Despite being hot, tired and hungry, we were also extremely humbled by the majesty of these archeological ruins, and left hoping that Jordan could increase tourism revenues to finance further excavation. In the meantime, we were also anxious for the next few days, which would find us exploring the country’s diverse Nature Reserves… –by Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
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