Advantages Surprisingly extensive roman remains
Disadvantages None - unless you like your sites over-commercialised. Facilities are limited.
|Is it worth visiting?|
On our whistle-stop tour of Amman we'd been steered away from the amphitheatre and the nymphaeum on the grounds that "there's better to be seen tomorrow". So we only saw the amphitheatre from high on the citadel hill and the nymphaeum as we wandered past it at street level."Trust me", Mahdi said – and already we did.
''Tomorrow'' in this case was to be Jerash. ''Roman ruins'' the itinerary said ''about 3 hours''. Now, I'm a lover of bits of old stone and can get quite excited about ruins. Three days in Petra (all still to come) sounded only just enough, but three hours in Jerash? I mean, how good can it be, if we've never heard of it?Long before we'd got even half an hour into our visit that question had changed into a totally astonished: how come we've never heard of this place???!
The next obvious question is: how come so much of it survives?The answer to both is that the historical gems had, quite by chance, escaped city re-development and, in so doing, escaped re-discovery.
There once was an abundant river, the Chrysorrhoas. It flowed through a valley that was a meeting point for caravans travelling from Petra to Syria, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. On the banks of the river there grew up a settlement (evidence of Bronze and Iron Age habitation has been found).Then, in AD64, came the Romans. Under the Emperors Trajan and Hadrian, Jerash (or Gerasa as they knew it) was to grow and prosper.
This was the heyday.With the decline and fall of Rome, Gerasa was left unprotected. Towards the end of the third century it fell to the Sassanid Persians. A Byzantine revival saw new life breathed into the city, but another Persian invasion in AD 614 saw the beginnings of the final fall. A series of earthquakes rocked the area, the river water levels fell and eventually over the course of the succeeding centuries the city was abandoned, being virtually non-existent by the 13th century.
Its original raison d'être of being on the trade routes remained however and in 1878 the Circassians founded a colony. That survived and became the basis of the modern town of Jerash. For our purposes who the Circassians actually were and why they came is less important than what they did when they got here. Specifically, they only settled on one side of the river, and it is only on that side of the now scarcely extant stream that the modern town thrives and spreads.Thus on the opposite bank the roman ruins, covered by a scarce few inches of sand and wind-blown soil remained unknown, undiscovered, undisturbed, until (in archaeological terms) very recently.
Sometimes you get lucky!And sometimes 'lucky' gets you a really huge, unexpected, WOW of a site. This, then, is Jerash....
Not a hot day, by any stretch, but several degrees warmer than the preceding two days, and bright, brilliant, blue skies put us in an optimistic frame of mind even though we had no idea what awaited us.Hard by the car park is the inevitable visitor centre, with its mini-souk selling souvenirs and sweets and everything else you'd expect. I hate to break the tone with practicalities this early on, but here too are the WCs and as they are the only ones on site, you'd be advised to take advantage.
On to the site proper and the first stop is the triumphal arch built to honour the Emperor Hadrian in 129AD. Standing well to the south of the city walls, it's suggested that the city was expected to grow such that this would eventually become the South Gate. Maybe, maybe not. Having it stand alone, unencumbered by linking walls just adds to the overall impression. The vast central archway has been reassembled to the front facade, one of the lower flanking entrances appears to have survived intact, the other mostly so. It's a solid simple structure, adorned by a couple of Corinthian half-columns, and no doubt the niches above the smaller gates held suitably referential statues of Emperors, gods or heroes, but mostly it just sits there saying unequivocally: this is the power of Rome. It still says it today, as you look through and see the ruins of a vast town stretching away ahead of you and beyond it the low-rising hills in the distance, a reminder of the contrast between this and life for most of the locals at the time.Passing through the arch we're on the main road into town and immediately to our left is the reason I feel the archway was never intended to be part of an extended-city-wall: the hippodrome. Naturally this would be beyond the main part of town, and putting the triumphal arch beyond even it, was a reinforcing statement... claiming those entertainments as part of the overall jurisdiction.
245 metres long by 51m wide and holding an audience of up to 15,000, this was a stadium intended for serious sport. Dated to somewhere between the first and third centuries AD, there seems to be some official doubt as to whether it was ever finished or used. That seems undue caution on the part of the archaeologists. The main stand rises to two or three-storey height with ranked seating facing the arena. Little of that remains, in most places the wall scarcely reaches to single storey height. There's little visible evidence of a similar structure to the west of the track, but if modern race-courses are anything to go by, that may well have been the original plan. Stables for horses and camels have been discovered within the walls, beneath the seats, as well as a large number of other rooms of undetermined use.(Like a room, once built, only ever has one use?!) Store-rooms, workshops, all that and more no doubt over time. Once Rome had fallen and its entertainments subdued, it's entirely possible that the hippodrome accommodated travelling caravans on their way into the city to trade, and the rooms provided ad hoc accommodation and markets for those involved.
Chariot races are re-staged during the tourist season, but we were too early in the year for the spectacle.Thence to the South Gate proper. Like many Roman cities, and indeed their military camps, Gerasa was built on a North/South axis, with another main thoroughfare crossing East/West at the two-thirds point and this main gateway is a smaller-scale version of the Hadrian arch, right down to the acanthus leaf decoration on the semi-columns. As Hadrian wouldn't have been too impressed at his monument being a copy of the local gateway, one can only assume that this is not the original and post-dates the arch, built in reflection of it.
To the left are the Temple of Zeus and the South Theatre. The original layout of the temple is largely educated conjecture ... and the theatre was held over for delayed gratification as we pressed on to the Forum. This market place is a large stretched oval, surrounded by 56 Ionic columns surmounted by tripartite architraves. A lonely column stands centre-piece to the whole. The paving is complete, original, virtually intact, all 90 x 80 metres of it. It stands as it has stood for centuries.Or not.
The columns are original, but they have been re-erected. We were told how, sometime in the latter half of the twentieth century (my memory says 1970s, but I may have that wrong) the area was all overgrown. The army were on a training exercise and decided to camp just outside of town. They tried to hammer in a tent peg or two and hit rock.(I sympathise; I've been on campsites like that!)
Cursing no doubt, they shifted a few yards away, same thing, and again... but which time it occurred to them that maybe this was something which needed to be looked at. And so was discovered the expanse of limestone slabs laid in concentric ovals, getting ever smaller towards the centre.The current central column is not original. The podium is believed to have originally held a statue, which was later removed to accommodate a water feature whose plumbing is still extant below it. Nowadays the column holds a brazier to support a torch lit every year at the Jerash festival as a symbol of the arts and culture. (The festival brings the old town alive again with its theatres put back into use and oratory in the market place. That's got to be seen – a reason to return).
On from the market square and into the main street.The Cardo Maximus runs for about 800 metres (SW/NE) from the Forum to the North Gate, and is known to have been marked out between & 67 AD. It is colonnaded along its entire length. Having some of the original Ionic versions replaced in the latter half of the second century provided the opportunity for 21st century tourists to learn the difference between the two. The defining decoration was easy enough to remember with the austere scrolls on the Ionic and florid acanthus on the Corinthian, but I'm sure there was also something about one being properly perpendicular and thus 'disappear' when viewed along the row and the other having a bulge at mid-height with the result that they can be viewed in perspective. (?)
Sometimes I'm too taken with what I can see to be listening properly to those trying to tell me what it is!The paving of the road survives, with evidence of chariot wheel wear and in places a paved sidewalk along the shop fronts.
Two main intersections are marked by Tetrapylon, four-arched gateways with domed roofs, decorated and be-fountained, serving no real purpose other than civic pride.Temple of Dionysus / The Cathedral
The temple of Dionysus has vanished beneath the Byzantine cathedral (4th century). How quickly we become accustomed: steps and columns and pediments so soon cease to be impressive.
Roman enthusiasts can ignore the pink marble font – it is a Byzantine addition.
In size and (imagined) glory it certainly does but Amman's offering to shame.
More interesting is what we were discover on our return route. Passing above the Nymphaeum you get to see the engineering that went in to bringing the water to the fountain, the system of aqueducts and sluices that controlled the flow from the higher ground west of the city.
Beyond the stage facing the auditorium is another, this one facing outwards, with a magnificent staircase down to the road beyond. Was this the main entrance? A grand statement of the experience to come, echoed down to our own time in the grand opera houses. Or was it another stage, with another purpose? Was this a space for political oratory, where the crowds could gather on the plaza below?Of course we'll never know. And that's the point. There is so much we will never know for certain. That's why I love wandering around places like this. You get to play "I wonder..."
And if, as I was, you do it with a knowledgeable local guide and a disparate bunch of intelligent people, you get theories and counter theories. All of which simply make you look harder and wonder some more!
When we did just that, approaching from the upper levels of the site, it was no less impressive. If, from below, we'd got the pilgrim or peasant's eye view of a temple meant to impress, from up here we could see exactly how the architects had set about it: and were no less inspired. The seven-layered columns crowned with their acanthus soared above us. The blocks for the walls were precision cut.If we felt that all of this engineering had to be rock-solid to withstand an earthquake, Mahdi set about proving otherwise. From the local tea-brewers, he borrowed a spoon and inserted it, handle-wise, into the gap between two column blocks. As the wind rocked the masonry, unseen to the naked eye, the spoon moved with it.
What happens in an earthquake was around us all to see, but we were left wondering whether the movement was an unintended consequence of the building method or whether, like modern-day Japanese shock-absorbers under quake threatened buildings, it was a deliberate, built-in tolerance.We were on the homeward leg by this stage, and the local entrepreneurs set up with their primus and thermos and offering "tea with mint, tea with sugar" were a welcome sight for some in the party. It was a small glass for the statutory 1JD, but for those who hadn't believed the site really would occupy us this long, they were warmly welcomed.
Although rightly it is the Roman remains that attract, the Byzantine era of Jerash cannot be overlooked. Hard by the Temple of Artemis and behind the Cathedral are three small chapels ( a representation of some eleven known to be on the site). They're dedicated (as can be seen from the mosaic floors still visible) to Saints Cosmos and Damian, the medics, S John the Baptist, and St George. Why three so close together? Apparently a Christian church at the time could only celebrate a single mass per day, thus between them they could cover at least the three main hours of the day.The churches date from the early 500s and are known to lie above Roman remains, but who'd want to take up those magnificent mosaic floors just to check what is below. Perhaps one of the arts of archaeology is knowing when to stop.
But there is one last treasure to share.
No, I don't mean Paul's rendition of Ozymandias as well-declaimed and suitably theatrical as it was. I mean the theatre itself. It's the largest and best preserved of the two that remain to be seen on the site.Pause. Think about that for a minute. Two theatres. And a hippodrome. That speaks to the wealth of this city, does it not?
It was built during the reign of Domitian (1st century AD). Thirty-two rows of banked seats rise steeply from the floor, many still marked with the Greek numbers (you didn't think a ticket with a numbered seat was a new invention did you?). It's hard stone seating, but I'm guessing that there'd be a few enterprising souls outside selling cushions to those who'd forgotten to bring their own. Capacity: an astonishing 3,000. The main floor is backed by a raised stage, with stone backdrop of doorways, and niches. This is just what remains. Basic unadorned construction survives to suggest a storey above the stage... what was there? A gallery of the gods perhaps? But there's no need for fantasy. The remains are impressive enough.It's on a North-west/South-east axis so that the sun is out of the eyes of the audience, allowing them the shade of the building, whilst lighting up the stage. The acoustics are perfect. The spoken word from the floor can be heard on the top tiers. A marked spot indicates the perfect resonance – a step to either side diminishes the effect. Our own orator confirmed this from the point of view of the speaker, but in the galleries we couldn't tell the difference.
Perhaps I need to go back during the festival and see a full-blown performance.
I could easily have spent a whole day here, but if you've only got half a day, our approach seems to work fairly well: head up the Cardo Maximus taking in the sites that immediately front it, then swing left on the path that cuts in front of the North Theatre and work your way back along the upper reaches.You'll miss whatever's to the east of the main thoroughfare, and only get tantalising glimpses of the modern town. But that won't matter, because you'll have seen most of the known site and also have an inkling of how much is still undiscovered and you'll know you're going to come back.
On-site facilities are limited to the visitor centre, which is effectively a small collection of indoor market stalls selling postcards, books and the usual touristy souvenirs, along with a few snacks and cold drinks.Tea sellers are ensconced in the Temple of Artemis. It's a simple Bedouin brew with no fancy cakes or pastries, but no less welcome for all that.
The toilet facilities were subject to charge (as they are throughout the country) – charges are honour based but "should never be more than one JD" we were told. No more than a quid to go to the loo?! I should think not. But you get used to it, and sometimes it even seems worth it... when you get western style lavatories, and hot water, and plentiful paper. Other times... let's not go there. This isn't one of those. Like I said: make use.Yes, this means the 'catering to the tourist' bit is very limited. There's even a distinct lack of interpretation boards as you walk the site. Occasionally, there'll be an acknowledgement to the University funding that bit of investigation, but no more. And you know what? I love it for that. I love the fact that it could easily be a couple of weeks after it was abandoned... bits have been re-erected, much lies where it fell. I hope they don't do too much reconstruction here, I hope they don't ever need to start roping it off and erecting signs.
Which means I hope they manage to keep this place a tiny bit secret for a good while yet.
I travelled with Ramblers Worldwide during March 2012
Thanks to them, my fellow travellers and especially our guide Mahdi.... for making the trip what it was.
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