Day 31: Gladiators & Chariots in Jerash

Trip Start Mar 01, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Jordan  , Jerash,
Friday, April 11, 2008

To be honest, we didn't know much about Jordan before we arrived so we were completely unprepared for our visit to Jerash, some 30km north of Amman. As we learnt, Jerash contains one of the largest and best preserved Roman sites in the world. At the hippodrome, which seated 15 000 in its heyday, there's a daily show in which members of the Jordanian Army and Police Force dress up as Roman soldiers, gladiators and charioteers. Jamileh lives in Jerash and knows absolutely everybody - her brother trains the horses for the chariot races; three of her cousins are soldiers in the show and her daughter's friend sells tickets on the door.

As we took our seats in the original stands, the theme from Gladiator (what else?) played on the PA system. A trumpeter heralded the start of the performance from the top wall and the company of soldiers paraded in front us, responding to Latin commands and doing all the crowd pleasing moves from 2000 odd years ago. Then it was time for the gladiators to take the stage. These guys seemed to be having a particularly great time  - flexing their pecs, clashing swords and grunting and roaring.

The losers were the hammiest of all, begging the audience to give them the 'thumbs up' and let them live. We were told very firmly that the sign for death was not the famous 'thumbs down' but the rather less well known 'thumbs horizontal' because the death blow would have come from a horizontal stab through the jugular. The grand finale was a fast and furious race between three two-horse chariots, after which Jamileh used her contacts to secure a circuit on one of the chariots for Vernee and Cameron. If you look carefully, you can see Vernee attempting to smile through the terror while Cameron squeals with delight.

From the hippodrome, it's a short walk to the old theatre where Jamileh told us to stand on the well-worn centre stone and shout. The sound is amplified so strongly that the echo pounds in your chest, and makes everyone who tries it have a little giggle. She also showed us how the acoustics allow a whisper into a particular wall to be heard at the other side of the auditorium. We then climbed the steep steps to the top for a most amazing view over ancient and new Jerash. As we reached the top, a four piece bag-pipe and drum troupe struck up a slightly wobbly rendition of Scotland the Brave - apparently a remnant of the forty years of British colonial rule.

The rest of the town was equally impressive, from the cannonade and the temple of Zeus to the Byzantium church that was erected on the site on an earlier temple. Jerash was destroyed by an earthquake in the seventh century and, apart from recycling some of the stones, the locals had pretty much left it alone for the next 1300 years.

It was a Friday and public transport was limited, so we dropped Jamileh back at her home in Jerash. This allowed her to attend the one week 'anniversary' of her daughter's wedding - a significant event that marks the end of the wedding celebrations. This also gave her the opportunity to give us some green almonds from a tree in her garden. Jordanians love the young, unripe fruit and whatever they can't eat is allowed to ripen and become the more familiar almond nuts that we are used to. The shell is crunchy like raw green beans but with a more sour, tart taste. Interesting to try but we're not expecting to incorporate them into our regular diet.
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