“ Jerash, Jordan „
Jerash, in northern Jordan, is one of the best preserved former Roman cities that can be found in the region, helped by the dry desert air. Situated about an hour's drive from the capital, Amman, it is also easily accessible for a half day trip. Admission price is 8JD for non-Jordanian adults (£8). Under fifteens are free. Purchase your tickets before you head up to the town, where there is a small cluster of tourist shops.
Back in its Roman heyday, Jerash (or Gerasa as it was known then) was a fertile agricultural area with a Mediterranean climate. Ties with Rome were kept strong, to keep the empire unified, and there were many public monuments built to remind the locals of the generosity of their wealthy Roman benefactors. The site eventually fell into decline after the Muslim conquest and a large earthquake. It was rediscovered in the late 19th century, and its archaeological significance quickly realised, which has helped the site to be preserved, and in some cases they are re-building and re-storing.
After purchasing your ticket walk up the hill to Hadrian's Arch. This 13m high imposing gate was originally built outside the city walls and was intended to be the new South entrance to the city but the expansion was never finished. The Arch may have lost its original doors, but it is still an impressive structure with a lot of carving detail still visible. As you go through the arch, to the left is the Hippodrome. This is a former sports field and base for chariot racing and the arches at one end have been renovated. I gather they do have chariot racing displays here sometimes. Back in the peak time for the city it could have held up to 15,000 spectators.
One of the original city entrances is the South Gate. It is not as spectacular as Hadrian's Arch, being shorter, but has a number of attractive stone carvings still visible. This is the point where your tickets will be checked and you can visit the lavatories. There is a restaurant here too, but I didn't visit it so cannot comment on selection or value. You can also hire a guide here if you wish, but we already had one. From here you walk through another arch to the Forum
The Forum or Oval Plaza is vast and impressive, inducing a number of "Oh Wow"s from the group. To be honest I was not expecting anything so big, and for so much to still be here. It is 90 x 80m and the oval shape is quite unusual. It is estimated to have been constructed mid way through the 1st century and have 56 columns around it but I am not sure how much is original and how much has been restored. The remains of a 7th Century fountain are in the middle. This Forum would have been a market place as well as for social gatherings.
From here we walked to the South Theatre which would have held 5000 people and was the largest theatre (excluding the Hippodrome) in the city. If you are lucky (I use the term loosely) a Jordanian pipe band will play a number of 'classics' on the bagpipes such as Amazing Grace and Happy Birthday. If nothing else it highlights the excellent acoustics. You can climb to the top (32 rows - but it definitely seems more when you are climbing) and you can get a fabulous view of the plaza.
Over the other side of the site (walking behind the plaza, rather than across it), you will come to the site of a number of 5th and 6th Century churches. Very little remains of any of these churches but there are a few floor mosaics which have survived.
One of my highlights was the Temple of Artemis. It is built on a small hill in the mid 2nd Century and eleven of the twelve Corinthian columns are still standing in their original form and have not been restored, although the ceiling is long gone. Apparently the building was once covered in marble. The columns has been especially designed to wobble under pressure but not collapse which makes you wonder why they didn't build all columns the same...
Opposite here are the remains of the Western baths with an unusual domed roof still remaining on a square building. Also nearby is the North Theatre, a smaller amphitheatre than the South Theatre, which was more likely to have been a meeting place for the local government than a typical theatre. Whilst not as impressive as the South Theatre, if you wish to climb to the top (14 rows only this time), you do have a few good views of this side of the city and the Temple of Artemis. This building has been restored after earthquake damage and sacrifice for Byzantine and Umayyad (Muslim conquerors) buildings.
Whilst the North Gate is nothing special, you can get a good photo of it through a (rebuilt) tetrapylon, down a narrow colonnaded street, however, on our route we carried on down the main street towards the Plaza again. The 800m main colonnaded street (or Cardo Maximus) is also a pretty impressive affair. The stone floor is original, and ruts worn by the chariots are visible, as are the drains. Alongside the street are a number of stones with carvings that are likely to have been from the original columns that have since collapsed. Most of the columns currently standing have been restored, but you do get a good idea of what the street would ave been like: I think of it as a Roman Oxford Street, but cleaner and with less tourists with lots of smaller arcades coming off of it. Also along here is the Nymphaeum, a two-storey fountain which would have been an impressive sight back in the day. I am not sure how much is original and how much restored, but the carvings seem authentic.
On you way back out through the South Gate there is a small museum showing some carved stone and a few other artefacts. There is supposed to be a ticket from the South Theatre here, but we couldn't spot it. I was a bit disappointed with the museum, as the stone carvings look so much better in context outside than they do in a poorly lit room with unclear signage.
Museum aside, I thoroughly recommend spending two to three hours here. All in all we were here about 2.5 hours, and although there were other parts to see, I was starting to get a bit Roman-ed out.