Jordan – The Roman Ruins of Jerash

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Jerash

Our Jordanian adventure started when we arrived at Queen Alia airport after midnight following a delayed flight from Barcelona. Our rep guided us through immigration and to meet the other members of our tour group who had been waiting for us. The 40 minute taxi ride into central Amman saw us finally put our heads down around 2am.

Up early for breakfast the next day we met our fellow travellers at the pre tour meeting. A diverse bunch including two Romanian sisters who lived in London and were both doctors (and the daughter of one of them – an architecture student), a Spanish mid-wife that also worked in London and a fly in fly out project manager from the mines Western Australia to name a few.

Today we were going to visit the Roman ruins at Jerash and then go to Madaba to see the oldest known map of Jerusalem – a 6th century mosaic of Jerusalem and parts of the Holy Land.

Jerash

The ancient city of Jerash is the second most popular tourist site in Jordan after Petra and boasts an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6,500 years. It lies about 50km North of Amman and is generally acknowledged to be one of the best-preserved Roman provincial towns in the world.

According to Wikitravel.org “Jerash prospered during the 1st century BC as a result of its position on the incense and spice trade route from the Arabian Peninsula to Syria and the Mediterranean region. Jerash was a favorite city of the Roman emporer, Hadrian, and reached its zenith in AD 130, flourishing economically and socially. The city began to decline in the 3rd century, later becoming a Christian city under the rule of the Byzantine empire. The Muslims took over in AD 635, but the final blow to the city was dealt by Baldwin II of Jerusalem in AD 1112 during the Crusades.”

The city’s golden age came under Roman rule, during which time it was known as Gerasa, and the site  Hidden for centuries in sand before being excavated and restored over the past 70 years, Jerash reveals a fine example of the grand, formal provincial Roman urbanism that is found throughout the Middle East, comprising paved and colonnaded streets, soaring hilltop temples, handsome theatres, spacious public squares and plazas, baths, fountains and city walls pierced by towers and gates.

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Layout of Jerash (By Hobe / Holger Behr – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1598371)

The site is huge and we spent about and hour and a half with our tour guide Mo explaining the details and history of the site before having free time to explore.

The entrance to the site is through Hadrian’s Arch built in 129 AD to mark Emperor Hadrian’s visit.

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Jacqueline and Brandon at Hadrian’s Arch – the gateway to the archaeological ruins at Jerash

Shortly after entering through the arch you come across the Hippodrome. It was quite impressive but apparently it is the smallest one in the Roman Empire at only 245m long and 52m wide.

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The ten starting gates for the chariots at the Hippodrome
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People walking on the seating area overlooking the Hippodrome on the left

The Hippodrome appeared familiar to me and then I remembered that I’d seen it on TV. For those of you who are fans of the UK TV show Top Gear this is where they had the car race as part of the Top Gear: Middle East Special in 2011.

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Hippodrome looking back towards the starting gates   (By Michael Gunther – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33480720)

Further along from the Hippodrome you enter the main area of the site passing through the South Gate.

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The South Gate

Beyond the South Gate is the Forum – this was an asymmetrical plaza at the start of the Cardo Maximus (or main street) from the 1st century AD and is enclosed by 160 Ionic columns and measures 80m x 90m.

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Some of the 160 columns encircling the Forum
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Elevated view of the Forum with the Cardo leading away from it

The Cardo Maximus was a 600 metre colonnaded street that ran the length of the city. It ran on a North-South axis and was lined with the cities major buildings, shops and residences. The Romans were ingenious engineers and below this stretch of ‘road’ was a complex drainage system to manage the water (waste and main city supply).

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View of one of the intersecting east-west roads with the Cardo
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View down the Cardo Maximus (main street) in Jerash

One of the most impressive ‘ruins’ at the site was the Nymphaeum – a massive water fountain that fronted directly on to the Cardo. I tried to imagine what it would have been like in its glory days with water flowing from multiple orifices down to the large pool in the front. I’m sure it would have been magnificent.

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The Nymphaeum

Of course any Roman city worth it’s salt must have a few temples and theatres and Jerash does not disappoint in this area. There are two theatres here – the large South Theatre that held about 3000 patrons and the smaller North Theatre. The South Theatre has excellent acoustics and we were ‘treated’ to a couple of South Korean tourists singing some opera tunes from the ‘sweet’ spot on the floor. There was also some Jordanian musicians playing bagpipes and drums too!!!

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The 3000 seat South Theatre
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Jordanian Pipers…..
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The smaller North Theatre

The most spectacular part of the site (in my view) was the Temple of Artemis. This temple was dedicated to the patron goddess of the city. Our guide showed us how the columns actually move (ever so slightly) as the blocks aren’t 100% smooth on the intersecting joins. This was demonstrated by some of us putting our hands into a gap between the base and the lowest part of the column and the guide ‘pushing’ the column!! You could feel the gap close up on your hand (but it was large enough that your hand didn’t get crushed!!!)

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Temple of Artemis
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Temple of Artemis

After wandering around exploring many other parts of the site it was time to return to the cool of the air-conditioned coach and head off for a well deserved lunch at a local restaurant. Jerash is definitely worth a visit if you are going to Jordan and being less than an hour from the capital relatively easy to get to. We thoroughly recommend you add it to your Jordanian itinerary….

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View to the North Gate (in the distance) with the Tetrapylon in the foreground
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