A life in ruins Jerash, Jordan
Written by Brian Johnston
Wander the ruins of Jerash and you’ll find stuff from history books come to life in the three-dimensional display of ancient wealth and power, says leading travel journalist and aficionado of the classical world, Brian Johnston.
In all honesty, museums devoted to ancient history can be tedious. Jumbles of old coins and figurines, chunks of pillar, and dusty tombstones seldom bring classical times to life, and they can easily give the misleading impression that the ancients were dolefully earnest. Visit Jerash, however, and you get another side to history. One of the world’s best-preserved Roman towns gives you insight on a giant scale, but supplies lovely little vignettes of ancient times too. See chariot grooves worn into the street, sit in bathhouses where Romans once gossiped and splashed, and find out how gladiators fought off lions.
Jerash lies in the Gilead Hills 50km north of Amman, and is usually visited on a day-trip from the capital, since the adjacent modern town has unaccountably few amenities for tourists. There has been a city called Garshu here since at least the 1st century BC, but it really flourished from 63 BC, when the Roman general Pompey gained control of the eastern Mediterranean and granted Garshu (Gerasa in Latin) self-government. It quickly grew wealthy on the trade of silk, wool, aromatic oils, ivory, and wine between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean. At its height, its population was around 20,000, with its civic and commercial centre graced by temples, theatres, and marketplaces. Most of these have been uncovered, but archaeologists have yet to unearth sprawling residential suburbs that still lie under the sand.
The sheer size of some of the buildings and their intricate ornamentation signal a town of considerable wealth. Granite – imported from distant Aswan in Egypt, and very expensive – was used for embellishment, and dowdy Ionic columns were replaced by trendy Corinthian columns with elaborate sculpted leaves and scrollwork. Annual festivals were inaugurated and accounts tell of wealthy townsfolk indulging in magnificent banquets and enjoying two large bathhouses, which provided a meeting place for the urban elite rather like modern private clubs.
The wealthy also paid for altars and statues whose inscriptions now provide archaeologists with a record of notable Jerash events. No doubt the social highlight of the century for this jumped-up city was the visit in AD 129 of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who lingered here for nearly a year. The triumphal arch erected in his honour is one of the first structures visitors see, standing at the southern end of the city, where the modern-day ticket office is also located.
Jerash’s surviving buildings and other structures are immediately eye-catching, but just as impressive is the urban layout in Roman times, typical of a 1st-century provincial city. A main street or cardo was the axis around which city life moved. The Cardo in Jerash, bisected by two other important streets, runs for 700m to the north gate and leads to the oval-shaped main forum or public square, dominated by the Temple of Zeus and the smallish, 5,000-seat South Theatre.
The paving stones of the Cardo – rucked and much worn – are still the originals, and many of the street’s flanking columns still form a grand parade along its length. Guides like to insert coins into fissures in the stone so you can see them vibrate in an apparent demonstration of how these columns, which have stood for 19 centuries, constantly tremble.
Whether real or a trick, the vibrating coins never fail to cause consternation and amazement. Despite its splendid history, Jerash fortunately never takes itself too seriously. At the ancient 15,000-seat hippodrome, actors pretending to be Russell Crowe slug it out in gladiator costumes and conduct a quite thrilling chariot race in what is part shameless tourist entertainment, part information session on the battle tactics of the Romans.
There was no sudden movie-scene drama in the demise of Jerash. It simply started to fade away in the 4th century as overland caravan routes were replaced by Mediterranean sea routes and trade was lost. By the Persian invasion of 614 and Moslem conquest of 636 the city had shrunk to a quarter of its size, and a damaging earthquake in 747 finished it off. Jerash wasn’t mentioned again until the 12th century, when it was remarked that it had long been unoccupied.
Enjoyable though a visit is, this once proud city is best appreciated if you linger into late afternoon, when the sun
Work in progress
Jerash’s relative isolation in the past saved it from being plundered for building materials like so many other classical sites throughout the Middle East, such as Philadelphia on the site where Jordan’s capital Amman now stands. It was only in 1809 that Jerash was rediscovered by German traveller Ulrich Seetzen, who noticed the tops of some columns sticking up through the desert sand. Excavations began in 1925 and continue to this day. Archaeologists consider only a tenth of the ancient city is as yet uncovered.
Three other splendid Roman sites grace the region. In neighbouring Syria, the colonnaded street of Palmyra, lined by 150 huge columns, is even grander than the Cardo in Jerash. This financial and trade centre of Roman times also features a colossal temple, theatre, and other public buildings. In eastern Lebanon, Baalbek is notable for its Temple of Jupiter, impressive both for its staggering size and sculpted, monumental doorways. But the most significant site is Ephesus on the Turkish coast, the 2nd-century BC capital of Rome’s Asian provinces.Its statue-studded library façade is famous. It also has a 25,000-seat theatre and preserved streets decorated with mosaics, triumphal archways, and marble.
By the numbers
Only small villages dotted Jerash until the mid-20th century. The modern university and tourist town has an estimated population of 42,000 and is the 14th largest municipality in Jordan.
Tourism is a crucial part of the Jordanian economy, contributing US$800 million, or 10% of gross domestic product, in 2010. The sector employs some 30,000 people.
The estimated population of the Roman Empire in the 1st century was 45 million – about 20% of the world’s total at that time – of which around five million were considered citizens.