Speak it quietly, for this is heresy: for my money the glorious Roman city of Jerash is a serious contender for Petra’s spot as Jordan’s number one historic attraction. I had this revelation while sheltering from the sun in the shade of a Ionic column, taking in the sweeping vista of the Forum with views down the colonnaded Cardo Maximus. It’s a sight to make the heart sing.
I was still having this thought when I found myself surrounded by a group of teenagers on a school trip, their teachers content for them to have an informal English lesson. In the absence of oil reserves Jordan has invested in education to build a knowledge economy. It appears to be working. These young men and women were smart and funny, a couple of the girls spoke near fluent English.
The girls wanted to know what I thought of Jordan and its people, where I’d been, what I’d seen; the boys wanted to know which football team I supported. Boys! When they were finally called away by their teachers to visit Jerash’s South Theatre, they left me feeling uplifted. What might be possible in the Middle East if young people like these are given the opportunity of peace and stability?
Jerash was a revelation. To say it’s worth visiting is a huge understatement. This is a spectacular place, one of the best-preserved Roman provincial cities in the world, with a continuous human history dating back 6,500 years.
The foundations of the city were planted by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Conquered by Roman general Pompey in 63 BC, the city went on to flourish as one of the ten Roman cities of the Decapolis League, trading throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Jerash’s importance was underlined by the visit of Emperor Hadrian in 129 AD, for which they built an enormous arch at the entrance of the city.
Despite the decline of Rome, the rise and fall of Byzantium, and the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate, Jerash prospered. It was only when an earthquake devastated the city in 749 AD that it was largely abandoned. There was a brief occupation during the Crusades, after which it sank into obscurity, its glories only rediscovered hundreds of years later when Circassian refugees arrived from Russia.
I arrived in Jerash in the late afternoon and it was raining. After getting entangled in heavy traffic in the downtown of the modern city, I eventually found my way to the Hadrian’s Gate Hotel (the only hotel in Jerash according to my guidebook). I was lucky to get the last room, even luckier that it was an apartment with rooftop views over Hadrian’s Gate and the modern city.
After a relaxing evening watching a giant rainbow over the town, sipping wine on my roof terrace and eating fabulous food at the nearby Lebanese House Restaurant, I woke early the next day full of expectation. From the moment you walk through the giant arch of Hadrian’s Gate you enter a different world, one full of history and extraordinary beauty.
I arrived early, well before any tour groups from Amman or the Dead Sea resorts – the majority of visitors to Jerash come on day trips. I found myself walking alone through the Hippodrome towards the Forum, little knowing how huge the city is or that it would take me most of the day to explore…