JERASH Where touristy souks and the sprawling cultural centre of the Roman Decapolis of Gerasa, complete with amphitheatres, temples and baths, happily co-exist
Walking into the ruins at Jerash feels a little like tumbling down the rabbit hole with Alice.
One moment you’re in a grossly commercial, touristy souk at the heart of modern-day Jerash, the next, you’ve been transported to 1 AD, to the unexpectedly sprawling cultural centre of the Roman Decapolis of Gerasa, complete with amphitheatres, temples, baths and more.
Rightly touted as one of the largest, most well-preserved ruins of a Greco-Roman city, the remains of Gerasa are remarkable in more ways than one. The sheer size is mind-boggling — we plan to spend an hour there, expecting to saunter casually through a cluster of old buildings. Instead, we end up trekking for close to four hours in the mid-day heat through ancient, colonnaded main roads, the smooth stones of which still bear the marks of chariot wheels that travelled over them thousands of years ago.
On either side, the towering columns bear beautiful Greco-Roman carvings, as do the stone water troughs placed at regular intervals (for those hard-working chariot horses). So does the ornate fountain and intricately-worked Nymphaeum (a monument to water nymphs) we pass along the way. We climb up and perch, almost dizzy, at the topmost seats of the soaring Southern Theatre, and listen in fascination to the old Jordanian bagpipers at the smaller Northern Theatre.
We stand and marvel at the gorgeous Oval Forum, surrounded by tall columns, once the bustling marketplace of the city. We go up the endless steps to the beautiful temple of Artemis at the highest point of Jerash, past its palatial portico and up to the sanctum sanctorum, as our guide fills our ears with stories of the mighty goddess of the hunt.
This is no museum; Jerash is one of those rare locations where history comes alive vividly. As you walk down those uneven stone pathways between rolling, grassy plains, you can see the city as it must have been thousands of years ago, a thriving, wealthy trade hub that flourished between the first and third century AD. You can almost hear the horse-drawn chariots clatter over the stone streets; the hawkers selling their wares at the the main street; the clamour of toga-clad men filling the forums during political debates…
Perhaps the most striking aspect is how well-preserved the city is — buildings, roads and all. The story goes that Gerasa, which was one of a confederation of 10 cities of the Roman Empire known as the Decapolis, was buried in sand for centuries, accounting for how well it seems to have withstood the ravages of time.
Indeed, Jerash was little more than a sleepy village for the longest time; the magnificent city under the sand was rediscovered only in 1806 by German traveller Ulrich Jasper Seetzen. Excavations and painstaking preservation work continues to this day, and, little by little, Gerasa reappears from its hiding spot. What remains is, however, mostly the cultural and administrative centre; the area where most of the houses were was mostly destroyed, it is said, in a series of earthquakes that rocked the city in the Eighth Century AD.
Our final stop is the majestic temple of Zeus, and we pause to look down upon the sprawling grass-and-stone vista — the grand oval of columns that is the Forum, the main street, the arches and amphitheatres — that somehow survived those quakes and still stands magically in the midst of the thriving modern city of Jerash. And, we’re just grateful we took that tumble down into this historical wonderland.
* Getting to Jerash is easy. Just an hour’s drive away from Amman, the capital city of Jordan, it is reachable via road by car or by bus.
* Make sure you give yourself enough time to explore these ruins and the small museums within — at least half-a-day is recommended.
* Carry plenty of water and wear comfortable shoes — there aren’t many rest stops once you’re in the midst of the ruins.