A trip through Rome… in Jordan
he city’s first inhabitants called it Garschu. It was later christened Gerasa, and its final denizens settled on the name Jerash. This city was an ancient settlement of Arabic and Semitic peoples, a place of trade for the Nabateans, a fortress during the Crusades, and a splendid Roman city of the Decapolis (the complex of 10 cities located in the most eastern part of the Roman Empire). An earthquake hid it underground, but it survived. After being rediscovered, the city is now the second most visited destination in Jordan, after Petra.
No one who visits the new city of Jerash, 50km north of Amman, would suspect it has such a glorious past. A single wall connects modern life in the current city with the ruins of the ancient one. It is difficult to look back into history, and identify its origins. The city has been occupied for more than 6,000 years, by different civilisations, including the one that gave it its identity: the Roman Empire.
Magic amid the ruins
About 100,000 people visit the city every summer for the Jerash Festival, which was founded by Queen Nour. Events take place in the north and south theatres and in the oval square. The festival includes dance by local and international groups, ballet, concerts, plays, opera, folk music and markets selling traditional crafts.
Jerash was founded on a settlement that existed in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, and its origins can be traced back more than 6,500 years. Pompey conquered it in 63BC, and it enjoyed its greatest splendour under Roman government. Its wealth was mainly due to the fertile soil, abundant water and its profitable position on the trade route to Syria. The arrival of Emperor Hadrian in 129AD was the start of the city’s golden age, when its population grew to 30,000 inhabitants.
Walking through the monumental arch built in honour of Hadrian, in the southernmost part of the ruins, is like returning to the glory days of the Roman Empire. This route will take you through two amphitheatres, a temple dedicated to Diana, the hippodrome, an oval forum with a colonnade, the cathedral atrium and a main avenue, almost a kilometre long. Anyone who has walked the Cardo Maximus, the city’s longest road, still paved with the original stones, will know the excitement you feel on traversing its 800m, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, and emperors like Trajan and Hadrian. Its underground drainage system is still working today, one further testimony to the outstanding town-planning skills of the Romans.
The excellent state of the ruins is due to the fact that, after being destroyed by an earthquake in the year 749, the city was conserved in its entirety underground. This has led it to be compared to Pompeii, the other great Roman city destroyed by nature. In 1806, the German explorer Ulrich Jasper Seetzen discovered the first remains. Since 1925, teams of archaeologists from all over the world have been working to recover it, as part of a project of international cooperation.
There is no better way to relive the history of Jerash than by attending one of the renowned events at the Roman circus, in the hippodrome, just behind Hadrian’s arch. In its day, this enormous arena held up to 15,000 spectators. Part of the original structure remains, and it can now seat an audience of up to 500. The Jerash Heritage Company has been organising recreations on this marvellous stage since 2005, including chariot races, gladiatorial fights and centurion parades. An authentic journey through space and time.