I happily left the Dead Sea and accompanied Lou to Jerash. Situated 48 kilometers away from Amman in the northern part of Jordan, Jerash boasts of one of the world’s largest and most preserved Roman architecture sites, outside Italy. The unbelievable beauty of Petra was still fresh on my mind and I was more keen on the beautiful wadis, wetlands and waterfalls of Jordan. However we decided to give half a day to Jerash before spending 2 nights at Wadi Rum. I was getting severely jaded from all the ruin hopping and deluge of Biblical history and Jerash seemed to me or so I thought (before my visit), yet another glorious archaeological site.
Interestingly it turned out to be a beautiful surprise and I found Jerash as spectacular as Petra (only the dramatic Siq was missing). Nestled in the fertile water fed plains, Jerash is famous for the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa, also known as the Antioch on the Golden River. Northern Jordan offers some of the loveliest Middle Eastern countryside and the drive was simply breathtaking. We passed through acres of rolling hills, smooth ribbon like highways and hazy fertile wadis. Olive and fig trees grew in clumps amidst deep pine forests and ripe gold fields of wheat shimmered in waves. The air was soft, cool and fresh and villagers sold boxes of jewel coloured fruits from back of their rusty pick up trucks. Eucalyptus trees bordered along the road and the hilly air was delightfully fragrant. It was a far cry from the blistering heat of the Dead Sea and we happily took in the change of scenery.
The UN sponsored Palestinian refugee camp of Baqqa appeared and we stopped to meet some of Yousef’s relatives. Although very much aware of the Israel Palestine conflict, back home at our respective countries, it was just another piece of news. Meeting Yousef’s relatives however made the news so real that we actually felt ashamed of our blinders on life (in spite of having traveled so much). It was not one of the most pleasant experiences and although Baqqa was more of a city than a refugee camp, the horror stories suffered by Yousef’s family made our blood go cold.
The rest of the drive was spent in moody silence and only the raucous Arabic song on the radio filled the car. The effervescent Yousef was also lost in his thoughts, even homesick perhaps (he had not been able to go home in 35 years) and suddenly us, the 2 privileged travelers from world’s 2 fastest growing economies felt horribly indulgent. Lou and I were both from aviation background and we never actually stopped to consider once how awfully lucky we were to be able to travel thus. Travels, they say open your eyes and make you see the world with fresh perspective. The brief Baqqa stop certainly did that for us. It forced us out of our cocooned existence and we both said a prayer of gratitude for everything that life had given us.
It felt good to be consciously grateful again and we silently held hands for human comfort. The beautiful scenery flew by and the ruins of Jerash appeared soon after crossing the Zarqa River. The ruins sprawled decadent and glorious all over the olive tree filled slopes and a huge blue cloudless sky smiled overhead. In spite of being early during the day, it was very hot and the sun shone brilliantly. We walked through the cavernous souvenir shop filled entrance and stood humbled before the Arch of Hadrian. The towering arch, built in honour of Emperor Hadrian welcomed us to the ancient Roman city and as we walked down the paved, colonnaded streets, it seemed as if we had been magically transported to Rome.
Boasting of an unbroken chain of human occupation for more than 6500 years, the ancient city of Jerash was a delightful blend of Greco Roman Mediterranean world and rich traditions of the mystical Arabia. Even the name Jerash has its origin in the Arab/Semitic village Garshu which existed in that area during the first millennium BC. Romans later changed it into Gerasa and in the Bible there has been mentions of “the region of the Gerasenes”-Mark 5:1, Luke 8:26. Again around the end of the 19th century, the Arab and Circassian inhabitants of the then rural settlement changed the Roman name of Gerasa into Arabic Jerash.
In the misdt of the constant changes of its inhabitants and name, Jerash started flourishing during the days of Alexander the Great. It experienced the golden age under the Roman rule and the Romans assimilated Jerash into the powerful province of Syria. It later became a part of the prestigious Decapolis League (confederation of 10 Roman cities formed during the 1st century BC) and as trade with the Nabataeans prospered over the next one and half century, Jerash flourished more. It also benefited immensely from the surrounding fertile farmlands and iron ore mining in the Ajloun area.
However as all good things come to an end the prosperity and importance of Jerash also declined over the period of time. With the advent of shipping the importance of overlanding trading routes fell and uprisings against the Roman rule, Persian invasion, Muslim conquests and series of earthquakes completely destroyed Jerash. It got abandoned and slipped through the cracks of time until its discovery in 1806.
We walked around the expansive archaeological ruins, simply lost ourselves in its intricate detailed beauty and finely laid city plans. Ghosts of theaters, baths, fountains, streets towering buildings loomed and the ancient city of Jerash appeared like a spirit in midst of the surrounding modern urban sprawl. Chariots sounded, helmets clashed and harsh Roman cries filled the phantasmagoric city as the proud conquerors indulged in their native Mediterranean pursuits in the heart of Arab/Semitic world.
TRAVEL TIP – Jerash is the second most visited city in Jordan and is famous for the annual Music and Arts Festival held every late July or early August. It draws visitors in hordes and the ancient ruins come alive with dancers, musicians, acrobats, theatrical groups and performing artists from all over the globe. The spectacular RACE (Roman Army and Chariot Experience) show runs twice daily and is not to be missed by any Jerash visitor. Brainchild of Jerash Heritage Company it features 45 armoured legionaries exhibiting Roman drill and war tactics, 10 gladiators fighting to their deaths and several Roman chariots competing in a race around the hippodrome.
We explored Jerash till the heat nearly gave us sun stroke. The beautifully preserved ruins are scattered over a huge open space and lack of shade makes the walk extremely difficult and spectacular at the same time. The perfectly symmetrical hippodrome threw long shadows in the sun and the heat made us thirsty like camels. Roman ruins lay scattered as far as our eyes could see and blocks of beautifully carved granite told tales of its erstwhile power. It was said that the granite used to build and decorate Jerash were transported all the way from Aswan in Egypt.
The Romans loved their cities and Jerash was indeed one of their crown jewels. They had bedecked it with hilltop temples, public squares and plazas, baths, fountains/Nymphaeums, city towers and gates and it was hard to believe that Jerash’s incredible beauty was hidden under sand for centuries. 70 years of excavation and restoration work finally brought this ancient beauty back to life and the back breaking archaeological study was still in progress. It finally became too hot to wander and we scampered over the burning stones as fast as we could. We managed to explore the Oval Plaza,Temple of Artemis, the colonnaded main street Cardo with its chariot wheel tracked stones and the Nymphaeum, before severe exhaustion took over and we returned to our cool air conditioned car. Yousef had thankfully left the air condition running and we left Jerash for the intensely beautiful Wadi Rum.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE