Always a bridesmaid. Second fiddle. Understudy.
You have to wonder if that’s how the impressive ancient ruins of Jerash feel when compared to their celebrity big sister, the rose red city of Petra.
For 6,500 years or so, Gerasa, as it was known in biblical times, has been occupied by the human race. Much of what we can see at the ruins today comes from the Greco-Roman period, when the city served as a bustling trading post between Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and was part of the Decapolis, a group of 10 influential cities that made up the Roman Empire’s eastern border.
Hadrian was here.
Why do you suppose Jerash, with its well-preserved arches and columns, is a bit of a sleeper on the ruins circuit?
I’d never heard of it until I saw it listed on my Jordan road trip itinerary, and yet Jerash is often called the “Pompeii of the Middle East,” referring to its size, extent of excavation and level of preservation. Similarities with Italy’s Pompeii stop there – while several earthquakes have ravaged Jerash over the years, it’s never been buried by a volcano.
In AD 129-130, Emperor Hadrian visited Jerash and this massive arch was built to celebrate his visit.
According to my guide Ibrahim, part of the reason Jerash is still Jordan’s best kept secret is that it’s not yet a UNESCO heritage site. Of course everyone thinks it should be, and the historic and cultural goods are all there to make it so, it’s just that when certain buildings were reconstructed, the reconstructors didn’t always follow the UNESCO guidelines.
So for the time being, it seems that Jerash is on the waiting list.
When worlds collide
Colonnade at the Roman Oval Forum
Only thirty miles north of modern capital Amman, Jerash served as the 2nd stop on my Jordan road trip. As Rami whipped his black SUV around corners on the way from the Citadel to Gerasa, we came to a crossing. We could continue on our merry way, or detour to Syria, Iraq or Iran.
So, yeah. I decided to stick with the plan and head straight for Jerash.
I’d rather face the ghosts of Rome than any of those borders right about now.
Scottish? No, bagpipes originated in the Middle East!
Excavation and restoration of Jerash has been almost continuous since the 1920s.
With ancient ruins as far as you can see holding the memories of layers upon layers of conquests, earthquakes and political upheaval, it’s striking to see the modern Middle East peeking through the columns. Having wandered these abandoned streets and run my fingers over chariot ruts in the stones, Jerash earns its reputations as one of the best-preserved Roman provincial towns in the world.
Jerash, Jordan’s best kept secret
When I visited Jerash in February, there may have been about a dozen other visitors, spread over the 800,000 square yards of ruins. It was quiet enough that I nearly had the space to myself, and could stop to reflect on what Gerasa might’ve sounded like 2,000 years ago when Roman carts rolled over the stone streets, plays were performed in the two theaters and Hadrian came to visit with all the pomp and circumstance you’d expect from the emperor’s arrival.
Jerash is truly a ruin that’s not so ruined. You can still walk the same streets and sit on the same benches that Roman citizens did – something that always amazes me.
The buildings here are preserved well enough that you can picture the town as it once was with very little imagination.
The Temple of Artemis
So what caused this bustling trading post to decline? The Persians invaded in AD 614 and a major earthquake in AD 749 contributed to the demise of the city, though it never died out completely. During the Crusades, some monuments, like the Temple of Artemis above, were converted to fortresses.
The Cardo Maximus
As I mentioned to more than one Jordanian during my road trip, if someone would just give me a shovel and enough hummus to sustain me, I’d be happy to live out my days excavating ruins like Jerash and Petra. The sheer number of monuments, homes, churches, colonnades, theaters and who-knows-what-else that lie beneath the sand boggle my mind.
Can you imagine what else we might learn about world history if only there were enough funding to keep on digging?
The Jerash Nymphaeum
If Jordan is the perfect introduction to the Middle East, Jerash is the ideal welcome to Jordan.
It’s not so overwhelming as Petra, but still big enough to warrant slack-jawed wonder and head-scratching as you try to piece thousands of years of history together in a way that makes sense. Definitely a must-visit!
My visit to Jerash was coordinated by the Jordan Tourism Board. All opinions, photos and daydreams are my own.