Of the millions of visitors who come to Jordan each year to see Petra, most leave without heading north of Amman to Jerash. To do so is a missed opportunity to see an impressive 2,000-year-old city, executed at the height of Roman building prowess. Jerash is the city of hundreds of columns.
Romans began to build Jerash in 64 CE, as a commercial center along the trade route from Petra to Syria. Enter the city today through Hadrian’s Gate, the emperor who built several such monuments to his rule across the Roman Empire. Just inside the gate is the Hippodrome, where the race track is still well marked and the viewing stands intact. Looking up from the Hippodrome is a vista of columns, more impressive than any other Roman city. Lost in the desert sands of Jordan, covered with dwellings over time, Jerash has been excavated with care and impressively restored.
A wall surrounded the city of Jerash in the first century CE. Today that city is cut in half by a road. To one side of the road, the city has been meticulously restored. It is possible to walk from the Forum, a circular columned and paved courtyard, down the Cardo, the main columned boulevard and past the most important temples. Although the building site posed challenges, Roman architects were masters of city planning. Across the road, where modern, commercial Jerash still flourishes, remnants of magnificent baths can be seen among less majestic cement structures of today.
Every Roman town of merit had a theatre. Jerash had two theatres. The main Jerash Theatre is not as large as the theatre at Ephesus, although it is so well built and preserved, its stage façade so intricate and complete, that it could host drama today as though attendees were still wearing togas. A local military group performs daily to demonstrate the perfect acoustics. Romans of Jerash so loved the theatre that they built a smaller, theatre at the north end of town, at the opposite end of the Cardo, near some baths.
The focal point of Jerash, sited prominently at the highest point in town, is the Temple of Artemis. Still impressive today, the temple was built on a platform above a plaza, suitable for large gatherings in ceremony. Leading down from the temple are seven sets of stairs of seven steps each. Proportion and numerology were important to ancient Romans. The lower court leads to the Cardo, through arched passageways through which people passed depending on rank. In ancient Roman society, social rank was as ordered as streetscapes.
In the decline of the Roman Empire, Christianity grew. Sprinkled across Jerash are several churches and a cathedral. Altar sites to pagan gods along the Cardo were either repurposed or covered, enabling restoration of pagan/Christian monuments as though they cohabitated amicably in time. Along the Cardo, a mosque was built, indicia of active life of the city into the medieval era.
Visitors to Jordan expect to be impressed by Petra. Jerash presents a lovely surprise. Treat yourself to a half-day excursion to Jerash before you leave Jordan and double your memories.
Thanks are due to guide Aziz Azaizeh, for a masterful tour of Jerash.