Jerash, October 3, 2009., Saturday

Trip Start Oct 01, 2009
Trip End Oct 10, 2009

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Where I stayed
"Hadrian Gate" hotel

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Jordan is a small country. Of course, not speaking from the perspective of the likes of Andorra or Luxembourg, but a small country. And roads in Jordan are fine indeed. So coming to Jerash from Amman was really no problem whatsoever. You could almost argue that half of the time I'd spent from the moment I’d left my hotel in Amman until I checked in a hotel in Jerash had gone before I had even boarded the van.

I decided to stay in the „Hadrian Gate" hotel, across the street from the Hippodrome of the Roman City ruins. Maybe I could have searched for some cheaper option, but it would have entailed time, and also who could have given me any guarantees that I’d find free rooms elsewhere? Besides, I didn’t plan to stay here forever. My time in Jordan was limited. And you could see that tourists were coming here in numbers. So I played it safe, booked my room and went out.

Jerash today is just a modest-sized town with a population of probably less than fifty thousand. But it’s obviously rather vibrant and doing quite nicely, thank you, because whoever intends to visit Jordan and is interested in seeing even a bit more than just Petra, they first come here.

And all that on account of the fact that back then, during the Roman Empire era, it was one of supposedly ten great Roman cities of the Decapolis – but there may have been as many as eighteen, in spite of that name - a network of thriving commercial cities in what today are Jordan, Syria and Israel. Spectacularly well preserved, the Jerash Roman ruins are almost a Rome away from Rome, revealing a fine example of the grand, formal provincial Roman urbanism found obviously pretty often throughout the Middle East, complete with paved and colonnaded streets, soaring hilltop temples, handsome theatres, spacious public squares, elegant plazas, baths, fountains and so on and on.

Of course, as many other modern-day cities in the region, Jerash too – or whatever the name the settlement might have carried at first – came into existence several millennia earlier, during the Bronze Age. And continued on after the Roman Empire had declined and later fallen apart. But not counting its present incarnation in Jordan, its heyday was in the first two or three centuries of the new era as one of the Decapolis League.

I crossed the street. Which sharply divided the modern city from the ruins, carefully ensuring that the one doesn’t encroach upon the other. They were probably as sharply aware in today’s Jerash that the continued preservation of those ruins may well be the lifeline of the town’s prosperity. And I got to the hippodrome.

They have live performances of the so-called Roman Army and Chariot Experience (RACE) twice daily there, at 11 a.m. and at 2 p.m., and I got right in time for the first one. In fact, when they realised the full potential of the place some thirty years ago, they launched a whole series of campaigns and innovations, all in order to attract tourists. So for example, they have been hosting, among other things, the so-called Jerash Festival, a three-week summer programme of dance, music, and theatrical performances. Seeing around a member or two of the royal family of Jordan during that festival is hardly unheard of. Also, roughly at the same time, they came up with an idea to set up this RACE thing. But whereas the Jerash festival is the main drawcard for those three weeks a year, RACE is held year-round, day in day out.

The sun was by now pretty high in the sky and the day was becoming baking hot. So all of us tourists, and we were a sizeable crowd, looked for a shelter on the roofed terraces of the hippodrome. There were very few local faces among us and when a voice boomed from loudspeakers, it never bothered with Arabic. It went straight to English.

So we were informed that the year right now was “130 A.D." and that the Emperor Hadrian was “on a visit to the city of Gerasa”. In his honour they were staging the games which we were just about to be witness of.

Right on the heels of that announcement, we saw a lone Roman soldier walking on top of the Hadrian arch to the left, above the gateway entrance. He was carrying what might have been some kind of an oversize, ancient Roman bugle. Having reached his position, right above the largest of the arches, he sounded his instrument. And on a cue, a unit of twenty four legionnaires, accompanied by two officers entered the hippodrome.

One officer, leading the unit, was carrying a standard which gave us to understand that the legionnaires belonged to the “sixth legion, unit F.” All the soldiers’ shields were decorated with the same symbol. While they were approaching us to take up a position right in front of the stands, another officer, probably the highest-ranking one, complete with that trademark helmet with the red crest in the shape of a broom, saluted the “Emperor Hadrian”, i.e. the crowd, in the old Roman way of stretching his right arm up and forward. All along, the recorded voice from the speakers offered us explanations as to what was at any given moment going on down there.

For the next ten or fifteen minutes, we were offered a selection of military drills, formations and fighting routines as demonstrated by modern Jordanian legionnaires. When they had taken us through all they had to show, it was time for them to leave the centre stage, as it were, and retreat into the background. Instead, the scene was taken over by a band of eight gladiators.

While gladiators marched in a single-line formation to the spot in front of us, a number of tourists returning by way of hippodrome from the rest of the ruins tried to the advantage of the opportunity and stay on to watch the rest of the show. Well, the organisers didn’t let loose any of the gladiators on them, but this was a paid show. And to the tune of twelve Jordanian dinars, not the cheapest one in town. Therefore two officials barked so fiercely at everyone who might have entertained an idea of staying on, stealing the show for a minute, that everyone understood the message well. It was pay or leave.

When the hippodrome was clear again, we were treated to some of the fighting, choreographed to resemble what such fights might have looked like two millennia ago. There were gladiators slugging it out with swords, as well as those who wanted to settle their accounts with a trident and a cast net against a short dagger and a shield. There were those who won and those who lost, and every time before possibly dispatching the loser, they turned to the crowd on the stands and asked for the final verdict. They inevitably got a thumb-up.

And finally it was time for a chariot race. Three two-wheel chariots rolled in, and held a seven-lap race, stirring a lot of dust on this hot day in Jerash. I have no idea if they had known in advance the outcome of the race, but the way I saw it, it paid to win, if for nothing else, then in order not have to gulp the dust in the wake of the leading chariot.

The end of the race marked the end of the show. The Emperor Hadrian was obviously very happy with how it was all staged and we the tourists now got a chance to have a photo taken with any of the participants on the hippodrome of our choosing. I jumped on the opportunity to clamber on one of the chariots, probably looking very period in my racing outfit of faded jeans, T-shirt and sun-glasses. I flashed a grin to the Emperor Hadrian and his retinue and left the scene.

I went up north along the paved road that clearly divided western, Roman section of Jerash from the eastern, modern part of the city. I reached the ruins, bought another ticket and entered the site through its South Gate.

The first thing you come to once inside the ruins from this side is probably the most impressive single item of all in the entire complex – the magnificent Forum, rather elliptical in plan view, but nevertheless breath-taking within an enclosure of numerous Ionic columns. As to how many columns there are, the sources I consulted widely disagree – from as few as 56 to as many as 160. I’m not entirely sure either number is correct even if it may depend on what you count. I didn’t do any of the counting, so I can’t throw in my two cents’ worth. But however many there are, I can say the whole place looks fantastic. Centred on a large fountain with its own pillar in the heart of the plaza, which was recently erected to carry the Jerash Festival flame, paved with some extremely high-quality limestone, you didn’t have to be a daydreamer to imagine the place bustling with vendors, buyers, political events, social gatherings and what have you.

The Forum of Philadelphia in Amman, another one among the Decapolis, may have sunk into the ground over the centuries, but this one clearly told you what that one was supposed to be like.

The most obvious way from the Forum was up north, up the Cardo, the colonnaded street running the length of Gerasa as its main drag and promenade, once lined with the city’s major buildings, shops and residences. That’s at least where vast majority of tourists were headed.

As for me, I went in the exactly opposite direction, wishing to first explore the Temple of Zeus which lay right next to the Forum, on its southern side. I’m not entirely sure why exactly it is called the Temple of Zeus as this guy obviously never carried Roman passport. Some sources claim that what we know today as the Temple of Zeus is simply a new structure built on the mound of an already existing temple of Zeus from Hellenic times, which would make sense to me. Other sources claim that it was built after the reign of the Emperor Hadrian had already been over, on the “ruins of earlier sacred sites.” Such sources are more numerous, but I don’t know why the Romans would build it and consecrate to Zeus.

Well, whatever the case, they say this particular temple is one of the most devastated pieces of history here in the ruins of Jerash. They erected it up on the summit of the hill to give it a prominent position, but in turn they exposed it to battering of winds and erosion, and put it on a very shaky ground which could hardly hold its own whenever there was an earthquake. Therefore, what you can see today, they say, is just a shadow of its former size and glory.

Next one in the row, next to the temple, was the older – and bigger - one of the two Roman Theatres, the South Theatre. A 3000-seater, it was somewhat smaller than the one I’d seen back in Amman, but so well preserved as it is, it was nevertheless an impressive sight to see. The locals seemed to share my view as this South Theatre is basically the primary venue for the Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts that I have already mentioned.

And they seemed to only continue the tradition as even in Roman times it had been designed purely for entertainment. And here, too, they had divided the stands in two sections, the lower rows of seats naturally reserved for the local bigwigs and dignitaries, and the upper section left to those without significant social clout.

They say this theatre has such a remarkable acoustics that you can stand at the centre of the orchestra floor, which is down at the very bottom of the theatre, say a word and they’ll hear you up there at the top row even if you never raise your voice.

Well, as I was seeing no performance, I couldn’t attest to any of it. All I could see were two local guys, dressed what to me looked like Bedouins, and they stood in for an orchestra or at least a band with a short gig. One of them had a bass drum, mounted on a chair, and the other one the bagpipes. They stood on the stage, one level up from the orchestra floor, waiting for around thirty of us tourists to finish the tour of the theatre and get ready for their mini-concert. When we did, they started playing and of all the songs decided to deliver – “Amazing Grace.”

When the rendition was over, the drummer slung the bass drum around his neck, then they climbed down to the orchestra floor and in the form of a two-piece marching brass band continued their performance with another song, circling the floor all along. And when the second song was over, those pipe-and-drum playing Arabs disappeared in one of the several passages leading out of the theatre interior, closely followed by the rest of the tourists, and I was left all alone.

I had basically seen all there was to see here at the South Theatre, but it was nice to be left on your own a bit. So I just wouldn’t hurry out myself yet, but rather stayed on to linger a while longer.

And then it was up a long dusty road past some ruins which probably mean a lot to archaeologists and “Lonely Planet” map listed them as the St. Theodore’s Church, Fountain Courtyard and the Cathedral. But to an untrained eye like mine they didn’t have a lot to show for. They fit into the whole with their contribution of stone blocks and columns, but an average ignorant like me didn’t find them particularly attractive in their on right. And since it was obvious that whoever was inside the Roman ruins right now belonged to the same ignorant group as me, those I have just named were completely on their own. Not a single tourists. Not even a stray one.

The first next thing I could identify as more distinct was the Nymphaeum. Certainly much better preserved than the one in Amman, it automatically rendered a much clearer picture as to what this dwelling place of nymphs might have looked like back then.

The next big one was the Temple of Artemis, the daughter of Zeus, who in her leisure time officiated as the goddess of hunting and fertility. Again I am a bit in the dark as to why exactly Artemis, all the more so as she was allegedly the patron goddess of Gerasa. I mean, she was a daughter of a Greek god and this was a Roman city, but then again, I fully own up to my ignorance and there must be an explanation which would put to rest even such an ignorant mind as mine.

All in all, they say this Temple of Artemis is seen as the most impressive temple in Jerash, even if an imperial edict from late 4th century A.D. permitted the dismantling of pagan temples in a bid to promote Christianity. In the process, a lot of material from the temple was taken away and used for construction elsewhere.

From the Temple of Artemis I descended down the Propylaeum, which was once a monumental gateway to the Temple, a stairway to a large extent of its length, flanked on both sides by two-storey shops, stretching all the way down to what is modern-day Jerash across the paved road.

The Propylaeum intersects the Cardo, the architectural spine and focal point of Gerasa. The colonnaded street is still paved with the original stones and ruts worn by chariot wheels are still visible. On either side there was a broad sidewalk with shops, which can still be easily imagined. An underground sewage system ran the full length of the Cardo, and the regular holes at the sides of the street drained rainwater into the sewers. Given the engineering prowess of ancient Romans, I wouldn’t be surprised if that sewer system was still operational.

North up the Cardo, there was the Northern Tetrapylon, a structure loosely resembling in shape l’Arc de triomphe in Paris or The Arch of Triumph in Pyeongyang. Both of them are much larger, but this one is infinitely older. And of course, the final verdict on them should be passed only if it were possible to see the Northern Tetrapylon as it was back then in its heyday when it probably served as a monumental entrance to the North Theatre.

Because, yes, Gerasa had another theatre on its northern end. And hence the North Roman Theatre.

But before I went there, I resolved to go up the Cardo, its full length, all the way to the North Gate. However, past the Northern Tetrapylon there was not much more to see. For the first time I saw workers and heavy machinery there, so I concluded that even here in Jerash, archaeological excavations were still a work in progress. I doubled back part of the way and at the Northern Tetrapylon turned right and up the street they call North Decumanus, which led me to the North Theatre.

In a way, when you’ve seen one or two, you have probably seen them all. Similar in form and layout, the only difference here was that this one was the smallest one of all I’d seen here in Jordan so far. And its purpose, according to experts, was more of political nature, like government meetings and city council gatherings, and less that of entertainment.

And that was it, as far as the Roman ruins went. I returned to Cardo for one final stroll, this time back in the direction of where I’d come from. Halfway down the Cardo, the Colonnade became larger and taller, marking the entrance to the Macellum or market place, a building to the right of the colonnaded street. When I passed it, I found myself at the Forum again. Tourists kept trickling in at a steady pace.

And I was going out.

And now it was time to cross the road, which stretched along what either looked like a very wide ditch or a very narrow valley between two hills. On the other side was the town, the other half of Jerash, that saw comparably few western visitors, but I wouldn’t leave without seeing for myself what the modern-day downtown looked like. It was between two or three in the afternoon and I had, let’s say, three hours left to go.

In order to cross on the other side, the easiest way was across a stone bridge with a mosque on its town end. You could see an odd person going either way, but you couldn’t accuse the pedestrian traffic between the two halves of being very heavy. It was almost as if two sides kept apart on purpose.

Once on the other side, I went up the steep Bab Amman Street crowded with parked cars, and this was immediately an entirely different world. Here was a real life, with shops on either side, small and not so small, with people going about their own daily business, but also socialising in that manner that we westerners see as typical of Arab world. There were shops selling fruit, fabric, shoes, electronic goods, clothes. There were small workshops, too, where you could see tailors, cobblers, bakers and butchers at work.

As opposed to the western side, I was the only westerner in sight here. And Jordanians were without exception very friendly, so I would say that if one wanted to start creating a good opinion of Arabs, then most certainly Jordan is the place to start with. I heard “welcome” from so many corners in Jerash that it probably beat all welcomes put together I heard elsewhere so far. Interestingly enough, even girls seemed to cast what they must have hoped were just secret glances at me. OK, I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that they did it because of me personally, as I’m sure they do that to any western tourist, but my point is, they did seem interested, if they tried to pretend not to notice.

And then, there were those two young guys who approached me while I was walking along the Al-Malek Abdullah Street. It started with a usual “hello.” I stopped, returned the greeting and we chatted. After they had asked me where I was from, I learned that one of them was training to become a pilot. He was dressed all in black, T-shirt, jeans and dark sun-glasses. Both were very friendly and at one point, the one all in black told me:

“You know, we are not terrorists here.”

“I know,” I said. “If I thought otherwise, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Then we took some pictures together, chatted on a bit more and finally they made me promise to send them those photos. That was never a problem for me, so we decided to exchange e-mail addresses. The young guy in black gave me his yahoo with the “Metallica Star” nick, and it was obvious that he was not only a future pilot, but also a Jordanian heavy metal fan, dressed true to the form.

As I went on, hellos and welcomes kept pouring in from all sides, and I shook a tidy number of hands along the way. On more than one occasion people were interested to even know if I was married. That was absolutely unthinkable over there in Europe. I wasn’t aware that this side of Jerash had any particular landmark to boast of, but the charm of Jerash was undeniable. So whatever it may have lacked in sightseeing attractions, this quintessentially middle-eastern town made up for with its authenticity.

The day was hot, and at one point I realised I’d have to buy myself some water. So the quest for a shop where I could buy it, and also maybe some basic provisions to boot, became my purpose for wandering the streets. I didn’t have any clear idea where exactly to go except to follow my nose. Sooner or later, I would have to stumble upon some kind of suitable shop. I always did, so there was absolutely no reason why it would be different now.

And so, while I was walking like that, somewhere in the King Hussein Street, a middle-aged guy stepped out of a door and said hello. I said hello back and he invited me to come in. I paused for a moment, but then thought to myself „why not?“ And so I followed him inside.

It turned out he was a tailor and the place he’d stepped out of was his own workshop. Inside, I saw two tables with sewing machines and a rather disorderly jumble of clothes, fabric being sewn and that still waiting to be used. At one sewing machine a pretty girl, probably in her late teens was working. She was dressed in traditional Arab fashion, in dark hijab and white headscarf, but she didn’t look uncomfortable at all upon my entrance.

And on the floor, having crawled behind some curtains, a young guy curled and blissfully slept, oblivious to everything going on around him. I gawped at him and both the man and the girl laughed:

„That’s my son,“ the man pointed at the boy. „And this is my daughter.“

It turned out the man had arrived in the same van with me from Amman in the morning. He recognised me, which was never too difficult wherever I went, and decided on a spur of the moment to invite me to his shop. I was offered some tea and, of course, he asked me if I was married.

In my turn, I asked if I could take a picture or two of his workshop. He said I was welcome. I thanked him and asked if I could take pictures freely, which meant including his daughter.

„No problem,“ he said.

But there was a problem. The girl smiled, then laughed, but wouldn’t let me take her picture. If her father hadn’t been there, I might have tried to persuade her. But this way I just once said „please.“ However, if smiling, she shook her head and I left it at that.

On my departure the guy gave me his postal address of his Okla-Atoom store, and I promised to send him the pictures.

Was this friendliness and hospitality due to the fact that perhaps not too many western tourists strayed to cross the bridge from the Roman City side of town to the town centre? I didn’t know. Maybe. But even if it’s the reason, then it’s only a part of it. Because I’d seen the similar thing in Amman, too. So I would say that at least to an extent people were just like that. Plain friendly.

And then I found the shop. I got in, picked some water and some biscuits and went to the cash register to pay. The guy manning it smiled, charged me the due amount and asked me where I was from. I told him. But he marched on:

“Are you married?”

“No, I’m not.”

He seemed to be almost horrified:

“Why not?!!”

“You know,” I said “wife, too many problems.”

When I said that, he stopped for a split second and then burst out laughing. And when he did, I winked:

“So you know what I’m talking about!”

He laughed more and said:


And so in an instant we had that male bond created. If I could come here the next day, the two of us would be friends. It was evident. This way, we just had a firm, friendly handshake and I left.

And then, around five I realised I was tired. So I crossed the bridge back to the Roman side and trudged back to the hotel. When I left my things in the room, the day was nearing its end and we were maybe half an hour away from the sundown. I came out onto the hotel terrace, and all alone sat on a chair, watched tourists across the road who were still visiting Roman ruins, and waited for the sunset.
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