Jerash and Ajlun - strategic imperatives

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Amman was plain but good as described in the last entry, but I had to bust out of there to keep myself occupied whilst waiting for entry to Syria and the next leg of my journey. Fortunately there is plenty to do that is easily accessible from the capital in every direction, so I made the ancient Roman city of Jerash to the north my first target.

Another glorious day transpired for the expedition. Managing to find the right bus at Abdali station, we headed up a major highway and through some pretty fertile land with plenty of crops and miscellaneous greenery to look at. Surveying this scene, it began to dawn on me why the people in the area have been fighting over the turf for eons - it's not the barren wasteland that I thought it to be and in such a densely populated region, no wonder such productive domains would be coveted and defended at all cost.

Hence the intractable conflict over Israel. I'm not going to take sides or apply labels but if everything roughly west of Amman is even half as green as the area I drove through, I am starting to see the point. Travel does open one's eyes to very important but seemingly minor details.

Anyway, onto the star of the show - Jerash. Gerasa as it was known in ye olden times first came to prominence with a visit and blessing from Alexander the Great in 333BC. Other high profile visitors included Pompey the Great, sometime friend and nemesis of one Julius Caesar, who came and conquered in 64BC to bring the city into Rome's sphere of influence as part of its Syrian Province. Emperor Hadrian also popped by in 129AD.

At its peak Gerasa was home to more than 15,000 people. It's decline to obscurity was another sad story of the fall of the Byzantine Roman empire in the Middle Ages, as Islam swept across the region to north Africa. Fortunately for us it was incredibly well preserved in the aftermath and considering that up to 90% of it remains to be excavated, it could be fairly compared with the famed Pompeii in Italy - it had all the mod cons a Roman could want and much of the good stuff is on display now.

First sights encountered are the Hippodrome (chariot arena) which could sit the entire population on a big day. This sits just outside Hadrian's Arch, an impressive set of soaring gates that mark the start of the city proper. Just inside is a beautiful Oval Forum, lined with columns and measuring 90 metres long and 80 metres wide. The circular limestone paving adds to its uniquely groovy effect.

Not far from here is the obligatory Theatre, built to entertain the best 5,000 in town. A local was playing bagpipes inside to illustrate the acoustics which was a bizarre but not unpleasant touch. Probably should have got a photo. Another enduring sight is the colonnaded and cartwheel-rutted Cardo Maximus, stretching hundreds of metres off into the distance...

The Nymphaeum (no frolicking nymphs unfortunately but a highly ornate water fountain above left) is to the west as you wander down the Cardo, along with various chapels and temples dedicated to saints and gods respectively depending on the era they were built in. Most are in various states of disrepair but you get the gist - it would have been a pretty awesome sight in its heyday. Another colonnaded street (the South Decumanus) leads off the Cardo to one of the wild, unexcavated areas of the site in an westerly direction and through the fence and well into the new town to the east.

By the time you hit the northern tetrapylon (above centre) you're ready to duck into the domed baths and then round the back of small North Theatre to the remnants of various structures at the centre of the site.

The North Theatre has a nicely tiled floor and a homely feel. You can get into the bowels of it and look around if you like, so well preserved (or reconstructed) that it is. Would be a great little venue in the Jerash festival they have here in July each year.

The Temple of Artemis is the main temples of the site, fronted by massive columns topped with intricately carved frond (or feather) motifs. How they survived the ages intact I do not know, especially since the front part of the temple was used to house kilns and other industry in less salubrious times after Gerasa's decline. Still, they sit up there now in striking detail against the lazuline sky.

Churches in town seemed to have been levelled pretty well to their foundations but they are still worth a look for their mosaic floors. Obviously the elements and tourist feet have done their damage but despite this many of the intricate designs are still clearly visible and appreciable. I made sure I stood on the remains of the walls whilst doing so. I'm not sure what the toilet bowl-looking things carved from black volcanic rock actually are, but there was a line of them and I'd like to think that they came from the city's various public conveniences. They looked oddly out of place lined up against a temple wall and contrasted to the white of the general building material of the town, so they must have been hidden away somewhere...

And that is Jerash in a nutshell. The modern town's residential precinct seems to crowd in around the site which detracts from the effect somewhat, but the extensive remains of this ancient provincial town make it a major tourist attraction in Jordan. As it's only 45km away from Amman it is an easy and quick day trip that should be undertaken.

As I'd done with Jerash by early afternoon and still had a few hours before the last bus back, I grabbed a taxi to take me to an intriguing site 25km further out. Ajlun was an Arab castle built by a descendent of the great general Saladin in the late 12th century AD as a defence against the Christians on their Crusades.

What is left is an impressive and deceptively large example of Arab military architecture that has withstood time and seismic forces to remain largely intact. Perched atop the tallest peak in the area and ringed by a deep but now dry moat, defenders could monitor the countryside for miles in every direction making it an excellent and highly secure vantage point in one of the 'hot' areas of Crusader warfare.

Now many of the internals are tastefully lit to highlight the skilled construction and some beautiful finishings, especially in the arched windows and ceilings. Wind howls through the upper reaches of the castle, which are extensive and seem to lead into new rooms everywhere you may head. Walking on the crumbling battlements is a bit of a gamble due to the gale-force wind. Even inside you have to watch your step as there seems to be grated holes in the floor in most rooms you visit.

It never occurred to me that I might visit a castle other than a Crusader-built castle whilst I was here but this side trip on a side trip was well worth the expense of the taxi. Now I can further appreciate how the Arabs managed to reverse fortunes and eventually defeat the Christian Armies of the Crusades, and that the knowledge and experience to build strategic defensive castles was well and truly a two-sided affair. Ajlun would have been a very difficult position to take in its day and no doubt helped to secure this ultimate victory.

Next entry -> Floating on a Dead Sea

Words from the Wise #93

"When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful."

Barbara Bloom
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JMH on

the black volcanic 'toilet bowl' shapes look like mill stones to me - as seen in Pompeii

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