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One of the best-preserved Roman cities in the eastern Mediterranean, set in the bowl of a well-watered valley about 50km north of Amman, Jerash is the principal focus of a trip into northern Jordan. With its monumental and sophisticated public buildings tempered by charmingly human touches, the ancient city is likely to inspire even if you are on the jaded final leg of a ruin-hopping tour of the region.
Jerash is a huge site, and easily merits a full day; if you have only a couple of hours, you could rapidly absorb the Oval Plaza – with its temple and theatre – the Cardo, the Sacred Way leading up to the Temple of Artemis and the North Theatre, but without really doing the place justice. Make sure you time your visit to coincide with one of the shows of Roman-style chariot racing staged in the hippodrome: they are quite a spectacle.
Known by give-or-take the same name for more than two thousand years, Jerash has a long and colourful history taking in emperors, invading armies and – like much of Jordan – modern reinvention after centuries of abandonment.
Set in the fertile hills of Gilead, which is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament as being a populated and cultivated region, the Jerash area has attracted settlement since prehistory: Paleolithic and Neolithic implements have been uncovered nearby, and archeological investigation around the South Gate of the city has revealed evidence of settlement going back to the Middle Bronze Age (around 1600 BC).
Gerasa (the ancient name for Jerash) was founded around 170 BC, the relatively small settlement of that time focused around the Temple of Zeus and the low hill opposite. Very little evidence of this Hellenistic period survives today.
By the time of Gerasa’s foundation the idea of the Decapolis had emerged. Gerasa and its Decapolis neighbours were “liberated” by the Romans under Pompey in 63 BC and granted autonomy under the higher authority of the Province of Syria. The century which followed saw unprecedented growth and stability, and it was during the first century AD that the basic town plan as it survives today was laid down: a colonnaded north–south axis cut by two colonnaded side-streets, along with a temple to Zeus (built over the pre-existing temple) fronted by an oval plaza, expansion of the temple to Artemis and construction of the South Theatre.
In 106, when Emperor Trajan reorganized Roman authority in the region around his new Province of Arabia, Gerasa lost its autonomy and was governed from the provincial capital, Bosra. Gerasa gained a link by a branch road to Trajan’s new highway running between Bosra and the Red Sea, while other main roads linked the city with Philadelphia and Pella. Suddenly, Gerasa found itself not only close to the provincial capital but also astride the highly lucrative trade routes guarded by the Nabateans. In 129–130, Gerasa briefly became the centre of the Roman Empire, as Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, wintered in the city; in his honour, the Gerasenes built a new monumental arch outside the southern walls, and embarked on major expansion works, including widening of the main street and renovation of temples and public buildings. Hadrian’s visit ushered in a golden age for the city, and Gerasa’s population may have touched 25,000 during the late second and early third centuries.
Civil disorder in Rome in the 190s heralded the end of the boom. Taxation increased to help cover greater military expenditure – which fuelled further resentment, as well as crippling inflation – and the Persian Sassanians began to whittle away at the eastern flanks of the empire. Trade was seriously affected, and in Gerasa the lavish programme of public works was cut back.
A sea change took place when, in 324, Christianity became the official religion of the eastern empire. Gerasa embraced the new religion shortly afterwards, and during the fifth and sixth centuries dozens of churches went up, though pre-existing buildings were ransacked for stones and columns, giving a botched, make-do feel to many of Gerasa’s churches. By the late seventh century, the city was literally crumbling from shoddy workmanship and lack of maintenance. Persian forces were able easily to occupy the once-grand metropolis for a dozen years or so from 614.
After the Muslim victory over the Byzantines in 636, it was long theorized that Gerasa – subsequently arabized to Jerash – had slipped into anonymous decline: a small, jerry-built Umayyad mosque and a handful of kilns were the only evidence from the Islamic period in the city. However, a recent dig uncovered a large congregational mosque from the Umayyad period in the heart of the city centre, with what has been suggested is a governor’s house attached. Work is ongoing, but Jerash may have been stronger and more populous in the early Muslim period than was previously thought. Nonetheless, a cataclysmic earthquake in 749 seems to have brought the city to its knees, and for a thousand years Jerash lay deserted.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, European explorers – including, on a four-hour visit, Burckhardt– were taken around the ruins by local bedouin, and news of the “discovery” of the ancient city of Gerasa spread rapidly. Archaeological investigation at Jerash has been continuous and wide-ranging ever since, although large areas remain untouched beneath the grass.
In modern times, a new lease of life for the ancient city came from an unexpected quarter. In 1879, in the same process of migration and resettlement that brought Circassian settlers to the deserted ruins of Amman, the Ottoman authorities directed refugee Circassians to settle in the ruins of Jerash. They occupied what is believed to have been the Roman residential quarters on the east bank of the river, and the bustling town which has since grown up there, now capital of its own governorate, still has a substantial population of Circassians.
Most visitors approach Jerash from Amman. Aim first for the big intersection at Sweileh on Amman’s northwestern outskirts – reachable from Shmeisani on Queen Rania/University Street or from 8th Circle on King Abdullah II/Medical City Street. From there, the main highway into northern Jordan, signed for Jerash, plunges steeply down the slope into beautiful countryside, with hills on the horizon sometimes snow capped as late as April. Then comes Baqaa, the biggest of Jordan’s UN-run Palestinian refugee camps – today a city of 100,000-plus. After crossing a bridge over the River Zarqa, you’ll spot a well-signed turning marked for South Jerash. This road follows the west bank of the Wadi Jerash, lush with eucalyptus and olive trees, for 6km into Jerash itself, a bustling regional capital of around 45,000 people that sprawls over slopes beside the ruins.
Modern Jerash suffers economically from its proximity to Amman, Zarqa and Irbid, and is desperately under-resourced: it’s essentially a farmers’ town, reliant on income from olive processing and tourism. There’s a handful of good restaurants, but nowhere to stay (bar one small hotel) and nothing to do. Almost everyone visits on a day-trip from somewhere else – and virtually no one investigates beyond the ruins.
Jerash is the backdrop for a revival of the Roman sport of chariot racing, with choreographed contests and displays of Roman military prowess staged in the restored Hippodrome. RACE (“Roman Army and Chariots Experience”) organizes the reconstructions, which have been based on extensive research by academics and enthusiasts – including such luminaries as the technical adviser for the Oscar-winning film Gladiator and an Italian actor who drove chariots in the 1950s epic Ben Hur. After surveying Roman hippodromes around the world, experts settled on Jerash as being the most suitable, for its modest size, good state of preservation and well-visited setting.
From the earliest days of Classical Greece, around 650 BC, right through to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, chariot races followed a broadly similar format – four chariots competing around seven anticlockwise laps of the arena. The Jerash re-enactments follow the same guidelines. Ben Hur summons up images of gleaming, armour-plated war-chariots racing improbably quickly behind four horses, but in reality the Romans (unlike the Britons and the Celts) used chariots only for racing, not in battle, so they built less visually impressive, but much faster, 50kg wickerwork chariots, drawn by two horses. The new Jerash chariots fall somewhere between Hollywood romanticism and the flimsy, but historically accurate, truth.
The shows impress, with music, live English commentary and historical scene-setting. Expect trumpeters, legionaries in authentic Roman battledress, gladiators armed with swords and tridents and, of course, charioteers, everything meticulously choreographed. All the costumes and equipment have been manufactured in Jordan, and everyone involved in the show is from Jerash – most are ex-army or police. RACE keeps around seventy locals in salaried employment as actors, technical crew and stable-hands: for this reason, if no other, the project deserves your support.