Jerash, a Rome away from Rome*

If Jerash were almost anywhere else in the world, it would be mobbed by tourists. Yet Jordan’s unfortunate place wedged between Syria and Iraq means a lot of the people who should have been walking down Jerash’s wonderfully preserved Roman streets were holidaying somewhere else. I started my Indiana Jones-style explorations early, and for much of the time it felt like I had the city to myself.

After marvelling at the enormity of Hadrian’s Gate, and the profound statement it made about the power of the Roman Empire, I walked through the vast space of the magnificent Forum beneath the old Temple of Zeus, and down the extraordinary colonnaded Cardo Maximus. A journey made by countless feet over the thousand years that this city flourished.

Forum and Cardo Maximus from Temple of Zeus, Jerash, Jordan

Forum and Cardo Maximus from Temple of Zeus, Jerash, Jordan

Jerash, Jordan

Jerash, Jordan

Jerash, Jordan

Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus, Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus, Jerash, Jordan

Courtyard of Fountains, Jerash, Jordan

Courtyard of Fountains, Jerash, Jordan

I diverted off the Cardo Maximus, passing through Jerash’s Byzantine cathedral and a group of early Islamic-era houses on my way to one of the city’s most eye-catching sights: the Temple of Artemis. Dating back to the days when the Romans still worshiped the old Gods, the temple sits on an elevated site and has grand views across the ancient city to the modern city.

Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan

Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan

Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan

Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan

Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan

Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan

Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan

Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan

I saw some people inside the temple, young Jordanian’s setting up a coffee stall and selling jewellery. It was early so I had coffee and a chat while sat on a lump of ancient carved rock. The guy who ran the coffee stall was learning English from YouTube videos that taught a very British type of English.

He’d written down lots of phrases and we had fun discussing the meaning of sayings like, ‘Bob’s your uncle’, ‘Dog’s dinner’, ‘Sweet fanny adams’; weird British words like ‘Codswallop’, ‘Gobsmacked’ and ‘Shambles; and why he probably shouldn’t call anyone a ‘minger’. Afterwards he refused payment for the coffee, and I felt like I might have prevented him from inadvertently offending someone.

Cardo Maximus and Northern Gate, Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus and Northern Gate, Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus and Northern Gate, Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus and Northern Gate, Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus and Northern Gate, Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus and Northern Gate, Jerash, Jordan

Gateway to the Temple of Atremis, Jerash, Jordan

Gateway to the Temple of Atremis, Jerash, Jordan

Nymphaeum, Jerash, Jordan

Nymphaeum, Jerash, Jordan

Wandering down hill I arrived back on the Cardo Maxiumus, the main street in any Roman town, near the city’s main water supply, the ornate Nymphaeum. I continued north along the arrow-straight street towards the Northern Tetrapylon (a gateway with four entrances) and the Northern Gate, which is impressive but can’t compete with Hadrian’s Gate.

As I walked back uphill towards the Northern Amphitheatre I was barely able to absorb the wonders of this place; so well-preserved is Jerash that you really get a feel for how the city functioned. Inside the amphitheatre I clambered up to the top row and was rewarded with spectacular views. I sat in one of the theatre seats, where countless others have sat over the centuries, and just drank in the atmosphere.

Northern Amphitheatre Jerash, Jordan

Northern Amphitheatre Jerash, Jordan

Northern Amphitheatre Jerash, Jordan

Northern Amphitheatre Jerash, Jordan

Northern Amphitheatre Jerash, Jordan

Northern Amphitheatre Jerash, Jordan

Northern Amphitheatre Jerash, Jordan

Northern Amphitheatre Jerash, Jordan

Jerash, Jordan

Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus, Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus, Jerash, Jordan

My revery was broken some time later by a small group of Chinese tourists who’d made their way to the furthest reaches of Roman Jerash. We said some quick ‘hellos’ and I realised that time had flown and it was way past lunchtime. I wandered back out into the city to explore a bit more and went to find something delicious to eat in modern Jerash.

* This inventive wordplay is the work of Jordan’s Tourism Board

Jerash, Iconic Ionic

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.

Hadrian's Gate, Jerash, Jordan

Hadrian’s Gate, Jerash, Jordan

View over the Forum and Cardo Maximus, Jerash, Jordan

View over the Forum and Cardo Maximus, Jerash, Jordan

Forum surrounded by Ionic columns, Jerash, Jordan

Forum surrounded by Ionic columns, Jerash, Jordan

Forum, Jerash, Jordan

Forum, Jerash, Jordan

Southern ampitheatre, Jerash, Jordan

Southern ampitheatre, Jerash, Jordan

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.

Forum, Jerash, Jordan

Forum, Jerash, Jordan

Columns, Jerash, Jordan

Columns, Jerash, Jordan

Forum, Jerash, Jordan

Forum, Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus, Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus, Jerash, Jordan

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.

Cardo Maximus, Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus, Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus, Jerash, Jordan

Cardo Maximus, Jerash, Jordan

Colonnaded street, Jerash, Jordan

Colonnaded street, Jerash, Jordan

Columns and the Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan

Columns and the Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan

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.

Hadrian's Gate, Jerash, Jordan

Hadrian’s Gate, Jerash, Jordan

Hippodrome, Jerash, Jordan

Hippodrome, Jerash, Jordan

Hippodrome, Jerash, Jordan

Hippodrome, Jerash, Jordan

Rainbow over modern Jerash, Jordan

Rainbow over modern Jerash, Jordan

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…