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Jerash - Jordan's Other Treasure

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Ruins in Jerash, Jordan

Can you imagine stepping back to a civilization that flourished back in 331BC? The ancient ruins of Jerash in Jordan were founded about that date by Alexander the Great or one of his generals. When I visited, I could feel the currents of civilization that had flourished in these ancient streets and buildings.

My first glimpse was of Hadrian's Arch. It towered out of the landscape like an entrance to an ancient world.  That entrance beckoned me so I could hardly keep from rushing through the gates long enough to listen to our guide, Mohammed, give us some background on the ruins. Good thing I made myself pay attention. Mohammed indicated the remnants of the wall some distance into the site. He told us "more than half of the ancient city lies outside of the main walls of this old Roman city and is buried underground beneath the new city." He pointed to the modern city adjourning the walls filled with modern day buildings and apartments.

Hadrian's Gate in Jerash, Jordan
Hadrian's Gate

He then led us through Hadrian's Arch. It was built in 129 BC in honor of the popular emperor's visit to a city that was already old. Hadrian was, like many of us, an inveterate traveler. He visited every province in his empire which stretched from England to Egypt. As I stepped under that arch on the remains of the old Roman road, I felt a connection as if I were standing in the spot Hadrian's sandals had also stood.

Before we reached the Roman wall of the city, we stopped to admire the Hippodrome where the Roman games took place. It was outside the city walls because, just like with today's unruly football fans, it was deemed safer to confine the noisy crowd outside the actual residential part of the city. But the Hippodrome was not the first sporting site here. The Romans came in and built it on top of the site of a Greek race track.

Hippodrome in Jerash, Jordan

The early Greek name of the city was Gerasmenos meaning "aged Macedonian soldiers" who were the original settlers the Greeks placed there. Roman conquest in 63bc by Emperor Pompey changed the style of the city as well as the name to Gerasa. Romans built on the Greek ruins, appropriated the temples, added new roads and made it Roman. They decided Jerash was to be included in it Decapolis Cities, ten important centers they established in the Palestine region. They played politics to change the trade route from the Nabataean city of Petra (yes, you have to see Petra, too) and have it run through Jerash instead. Naturally these caravans brought a lot of money and contact with many cultures to Jerash.

Theater and musician in Jerash, Jordan
Theater with Musician ready to entertain.

Although Jerash is known as one of the best preserved Roman cities outside of Rome, A recent discovery made by the University of Jordan's archeological team of two human skulls, date the site back to the Neolithic period (7500-5500 BC.) The Greeks may have founded the city but they were not the first to settle there.

Forum in Jerash, Jordan

After we entered the city gates, Mohammed showed us a site where we could see traces of the civilizations who had built on what was once a Neolithic city.  He pointed to a structure where we could see a difference in the stone work and explained how to distinguish what each culture built on upon the other. The top part of the wall was large stones, Roman construction. Just below was a section of smaller cut stone, the Greek style. Below that was a small crude style of stone dated back to an earlier Arab people who had begun the original wall. We stopped at one place where I picked up a piece of the shards of Roman pottery that lay all over the ground; Mohammed commented "This is where you touch history."

wall built by three civilizations in Jerash, Jordan
Notice the difference in stone work

Religions over the ages are represented here. I was equally thrilled by the sight of the huge columns of the Temple of Artemis and Zeus and the mosaic still visible in the ruins of a Byzantine church.

Zeus Temple in Jerash, Jordan
Zeus Temple

The advanced technology of the Romans when it came to uses of water is seen at the Nymphium, a well preserved ornamental fountain dating to 191 AD dedicated to the Nymphs, or water goddesses.

Nymphium in Jerash, Jordan

The Colonnaded Streets amazed me. They are so straight and look better preserved than some streets I have driven on present day. I could see the chariot tracks worn down into the cobblestones.

Colonnaded Street in Jerash, Jordan
Colonnaded Street

Jerash began its downward slide when the Persians invaded in 614 AD. Then in 749 AD there was a major earthquake.  When the Crusaders arrived to "rescue" the city, they converted many of the ancient buildings into fortresses. They described it as an abandoned city. Sand covered much of the site until modern times when excavation begun in 1927 and began to unearth this hidden treasure. Not even half of Jerash had been excavated.  I can't help but wonder what might be forever hidden beneath the modern city.

Overview of Jerash, the ruins and the town in background
Overview of Jerash, the ruins and the town in background

Jerash's remote location helped protect it from having the stones reused to build modern buildings. It is about 45 minutes from Amman and fast becoming almost as popular as Petra.

For more info:

Getting there: I suggest Royal Jordanian Airlines. http://www.rj.com/en


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