Visiting Jerash in Jordan was a big, pleasant surprise

Visiting Jerash in Jordan was a big, pleasant surprise

What did I know about Jordan? Not very much actually, except for Petra and the Dead Sea. Visiting was a big eye-opener for me.

Lovely people, stunning scenery and good infrastructure made the trip a big surprise.

One of the biggest surprises was Jerash which is one of the best preserved sites of Roman architecture outside Italy. It is Jordan’s second most popular tourist site and it is only a forty-five minute drive from Amman, Jordan’s capital.

Even though it had been settled earlier, Jerash first became an important town in the third century B.C under the rule of Alexander the Great. Later, great economic benefits were brought to the city mainly through trade with the Nabataean people from Petra in southern Jordan.

Also see: Petra rocks as Jordan rolls: in stunning, laid back history

The city reached its peak in the third century A.D. At that time it was a Roman colony of 20,000 people but in the following centuries, it started to decline. Finally, the city was deserted until it was rediscovered in 1806 by German traveller Ulrich Jasper Seetzen. Excavation of this ancient city began in 1925 and continues to this day. The site covers a large area and it takes two to three hour walking to see most of the highlights.

Hadrian’s Arch

Being close to the entrance, this is the perfect introduction to Jerash. The arch was built to commemorate Emperor Hadrian’s visit in 129A.D and it was intended to become the main southern gate to the city, however, this expansion of the city never happened. The arch is noticeably different from other Roman arches of the period and it is speculated that there is some Nabataean influence.

Each face of the arch has four columns standing on pedestals and bases. The original structure probably had three wooden doors. Just through the arch is the Hippodrome which could seat 15,000 spectators. Unfortunately, the chariot races and gladiators in full regalia that could be seen here ten years ago are no more due to a downturn in the number of tourists since the Arab Spring.

The Forum

The Forum was, for me, one of the highlights of Jerash. The unusual oval-shaped plaza is surrounded by 56 columns, each made from four blocks of stone. Limestone slabs pave the plaza, increasing in size from the centre. This was the centre of the social and political life in the city. When my wife and I visited, preparations were underway for a big event and the stone paving was being temporarily covered, so it is still being used as intended.

Temple of Zeus

The temple of Zeus (top image), built in 162 AD over an earlier Roman temple, looks over the entire city. The views are magnificent particularly the one over the Forum and down the Cardo Maximus thoroughfare to the North Gate.

A sanctuary with a wide courtyard was built during the early Roman period then during the second century A.D., the building was heavily altered, and the current temple was built. A monumental stairway leading to the courtyard was constructed but erosion, earthquakes, and looting have seriously damaged this.

South Theatre

Built during the reign of Emperor Domitian, between 90-92AD, the South Theatre can seat more than 3000 spectators. The first level of the ornate stage, which was originally a two-storey structure, has been reconstructed and is still used today. The theatre’s remarkable acoustics allow someone at the centre of the orchestra floor to be heard throughout the entire auditorium by speaking at normal volume.

Cardo Maximus

From the Forum, the colonnaded main street, the Cardo Maximus leads you through the centre of the town. The paving is original and you can still see the ruts made by the chariot wheels. On either side of the road, lie crumbling pillars, and column blocks waiting to be put back together again. The street would have been home to a great number of shops and temples. Its importance is highlighted by the height and number of the columns along it.

There are several interesting buildings along here. One is the Nymphaenum which was the main fountain for the city. Water used to cascade over the facade and into a large pool at the bottom. Next door is the Cathedral which, in fact, is a Byzantine church rebuilt in the 4th century.

Temple of Artemis

This was built around 150A.D., and is dedicated to Artemis, the goddess of hunting and fertility. Eleven of the original twelve Corinthian columns are still standing, all topped by capitals decorated with acanthus leaves. The temple can be reached from the main thoroughfare by going uphill to the west.

North Theatre

This is the smaller of the two theatres and was once even smaller. It can now hold 1,600 spectators, whereas the original theatre housed only an intimate 800 before its expansion. It was originally built in about 170A.D. as the city’s council chamber but was expanded in 235A.D. so that other, more public, events could be held here.

Getting There

British Airways and Royal Jordanian operate direct flights to Amman from London. Flight time is around five hours. Egypt Air and Seychelles Air operate from South Africa to Amman but there are no direct flights. Jerash is one hour north of Amman by car or bus.

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