About an hour outside of Amman is the ancient city of Gerasa (now called Jerash), the largest Roman city remaining outside of Italy. Much of it is still undiscovered, and the modern city spills over a large piece of the underground ruins preventing their excavation.
Even so, what has been uncovered is startling. Having been to Rome, Split, Aosta and others I’ve seen a number of Roman ruins and ruined cities.
This is something special.
Arch of Hadrian
You enter through the Arch of Hadrian, built for the visit of Emperor Hadrian in 129-130, and it dominates the scene. Carved columns and tall archways give you a sense of the scale and regality of a Roman city.
Once inside, on your left is the Hippodrome. Only one surrounding wall and stands remain, and daily horse racing shows allow you to get a glimpse of what it could have been like to be a citizen of Rome and watch the games.
Continuing north brings you to the southern gate, the Philadelphia Gate (leading as it did to Philadelphia, or modern day Amman). Less ornate than the Arch of Hadrian, it is more of a military structure than a work of art, it was a primary entrance to the city, and the start of the Cardo Maximus, the main arterial street of any Roman city.
A cardo maximums runs through every roman town or street. Almost all are going North to South. (Petra being one exception which goes East to West), as the Romans were nothing if not lovers of consistency. The paving slabs are laid at a diagonal to the streets direction to allow carts, wagons and carriages to travel along them with a minimum of bumps from the road. It is a tribute to Roman engineering that the streets they paved, after two thousand years, remain relatively flat and usable.
One of the central meeting points of Jerash is the Oval Plaza, a single column marks the centre, with a majority of the oval still lined with columned arches all the way around. From here you can follow the cardo to the north gate, the Damascus gate, or as we did, travel up the hill to the Temple of Zeus and the Southern Theatre.
Temple of Zeus
The temple of Zeus, sits on a hill, its profile vivid against the sky. Hidden from the world, the pagan mysteries were performed here seen only by the acolytes of Zeus.
Next to the Temple of Zeus is the Southern Theatre, one of the two theatres uncovered in Jesrah. Used for plays and music a pair of Bedouins have licence to perform there. Expecting local Arabic music, tourists are taken by surprise by the clear rendition of Greensleeves played on bagpipes. The Beduins have adopted the instrument quite some time ago
The theatre has remarkable acoustics. Concave stone surrounds the seating area to direct sound, to the point where if you put your head in one, you are able to have a quiet conversation with someone with their head in the opposite indent across the theatre.
Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian
Less well preserved than many of the Roman structures, the remains of three churches are just north of the theatre. All three have detailed mosaic floors, a skill that has persisted in the region for thousands of years and still is a key part of their identity. Outlines of the primary donors to the erecting of the church are given pride of place by the altar, and local animals and plants decorate the floors.
Temple of Artemis
One of the jewels of this remarkable place is the temple of Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Most of the columns remain and soar to the sky, and whilst the ceiling is gone, the walls remain and a number of the steps that would carry you up past the Terminus where your animal sacrifice was made. Inside the columns various enterprising locals have setup stalls offering tea and coffee (only for those with a strong enough stomach to enjoy the local water) and various souvenirs. They’re also willing to take your photo with the columns, and do a very good job at it, for a modest fee.
Church of Bishop Isaiah
Also in relatively poor repair, the Church of Bishop Isiah is surrounded by wooden walkways and railings to allow you to get close enough to see what remains.
Larger than the Southern Theatre, but less in perhaps poorer shape, you can climb to the very top of it, above the seating and see much of the city that remains, and how it backs on to modern Jerash. You can only enter from the south, as it rises up and the walls have no exterior access.
A final sight, the Nympaeum, is a fountain along the Cardo Maximus, it was a large basin of free flowing water in a desert city.