Touring through the ruins of old Jerash is like walking through 10,000 years of history. Set inside modern Jerash – Roman columns against the backdrop of tan buildings stacked like Lego blocks – Jerash was oddly…quiet. In more ways than one, actually. This was my first time hearing about it. My tour group and I stepped off the bus, blinking into bright November sunlight, jet-lagged after having come halfway around the world, and found ourselves in the marketplace leading into the ancient city. I was too tired to tip the attendant in the bathroom, so I decided to will my bladder into submission. People called out their wares. “Water! Scarves! Souvenirs!” Vendors approached us with unfurling packages of postcards. I was instantly overwhelmed.
Then we started our ascent to Hadrian’s arch and the world behind us vanished. The only people we had to step around were unknown members of an unknown film crew.
Jerash is a former Greco-Roman city established in 8500 BC. As you move through the site, you’ll note where societies fuse. The column capitals change from Doric to Corinthian; there’s a wall at the South Gate where the architectural style is a blend of Arabic, Roman, and Greek. There’s space dedicated to chariot races, with spectator seating, and a massive Roman forum originally established by the Greeks.
In other words, my nerves were shot alive with antiquity awe.
We wandered into the South Theatre, climbed to the top, and listened to the perfect acoustics of the Jordanian band playing at the bottom. The Romans must have been nimble, because it was fairly easy to pitch forward and tumble down dozens of steep steps. The theatre was stunning, but back then, everything would have been decorated in fine marble.
“The marble, unfortunately, ended up as the locals’ kitchen counters,” said our guide, Mohammad.
If it weren’t for him and his breadth of knowledge, we’d never be able to pick out the finer details: the table in the meat market with sheep’s and lions’ heads carved into the table legs, or the stone tablet used as a cutting board with prehistoric knife gouges still etched on its surface. Ruts caused by chariots dug deep into the cobblestone roads. Mohammad pointed out the three churches side by side.
“In case there was a baptism, funeral, and wedding all in one day,” he said.
By the second half of the first century AD, Jerash had become an incredibly wealthy and important centre for trade. The sprawl of the place serves as a good testament to its prosperity.
It took hours to walk around the area. Our last stop was the Temple of Artemis, the largest structure in Jerash, built to protect the city (and dedicated to a woman, hooray!). The size of the thing is staggering — columns 12 metres high with massive Corinthian capitals, a hexa-style portico, sturdy temple walls. The columns are so big that they absorb water.
“The columns have pulses,” Mohammad told us. He stuck a spoon into the base of one, and told us to watch it slowly move up and down.
A few Jordan vendors were selling tea, and another approached us with what was apparently ancient Greek and Roman coins for sell. I refused, skeptic that I am. I regret it just a little. (I would later pocket a piece of pottery, though.)
One of the finest and best preserved Roman towns in all the world, and hardly a person to share it with. It was the first of many surprises in Jordan.