From the ground up

From the ground up

The Greco-Roman city of ruins can be nothing less than an enchanting revelation, writes Chitra Ramaswamy

Ancient Jerash was an open city of freestanding structures ornamented with marble and granite.

Think Jordan and the mind conjures up images of people floating in the salt-dense Dead Sea, or of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery bursting forth from the Siq in Petra in the climactic final scenes of Indiana Jones and the Crusades. But there is much more to the country than these oft-visited sites that have become synonymous with Jordan. The ruins of Jerash, 50 km from Amman, the capital, is a mesmerising revelation.

Dubbed variously as ‘Pompeii of the East’ and ‘Rome of Jordan’, the Greco-Roman city had been inhabited since the Neolithic Era and boasts an unbroken chain of human occupation that goes back 6,500 years. However, Garshu, as it was known in Arabic, came under the sway of the Romans 2,000 years ago. Not only did the conquerors change the Arabian town into a Romanesque Mediterranean centre with their trademark collonaded spaces, fountains, baths and amphitheatres, they also Romanised Garshu or Gerasa to Jerash.

The downfall

Ancient Jerash was an open city of freestanding structures ornamented with marble and granite. Thanks to its well-advanced engineering knowledge, large parts of the city still survive today. Reputedly the best-preserved Roman city outside of Italy, Jerash is replete with temples, churches, forums, theatres and other structures from Greek, Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim eras. The city witnessed its golden era under the Romans when it reached its pinnacle of prosperity, economically and socio-culturally. It reaped rich revenues from its trade, especially in incense and spices.

However, invasions and earthquakes left devastating effects on the city. In fact, notwithstanding a brief 12th-century occupation by Crusaders, Jerash had fallen and lay deserted by the 13th century. Its magnificent monuments remained buried under sand and soil for several centuries until its rediscovery in 1806 by Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, a German explorer. Several excavations have followed since, and continue to this day.

We leaf through the pages of history and travel back in time to 50 AD as we enter the huge sprawl through the massive triple-bay Hadrian’s Arch, one of the largest known arches of the Roman Empire. The grand structure, which was built to commemorate Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Gerasa in 129 AD, was the gateway to Philadelphia, as Amman was then called. Today, the locals simply call this triumphal arch as Bab Amman (meaning Amman Gate in Arabic).

Visions of riders whipping hapless equines to charge faster flicker before us as we come upon the Hippodrome, a fairly well-preserved edifice. It is the smallest known stadium of the Roman Empire, measuring 265-m long and 50-m wide. The arena, built in the 3rd century AD for chariot racing, could accommodate 17,000 spectators. It served as an amphitheatre for gladiator contests and other sports in subsequent centuries. The death knell sounded for the Hippodrome in the 6th century when it was used first as a quarry and then became a mass burial ground when the city reeled under the grip of a plague epidemic, and finally when the great earthquake of 749 AD lay waste large sections of the structure.

A short walk from the Hippodrome brings us to one of the most distinctive sites of Jerash, the limestone-paved Oval Plaza ringed by a colonnade of 56 ionic pillars. Evidently, this was a public meeting place that doubled up as an exercise ground for walkers and joggers, and a social centre for citizens to enjoy their evenings. In the middle of the 90-m-long plaza stands a central column, a recent addition that holds aloft the annual Jerash Festival flame.

The sight of the collonaded street Cardo Maximus, as it stretches out from the Oval Plaza, is enchanting. The ruts of chariot wheels are still visible on this main stone-paved thoroughfare, the backbone of Jerash. The broad sidewalk of the 800-metre-long road was lined with shops during its days of glory. That engineering skills were put to good effect to keep the environment clean is evident from the stone manholes that appear at regular intervals on the street. They served as drains to channelise rainwater to the underground sewage system that runs the length of the street.

From the Oval Plaza, a staircase leads up to the temple to Zeus, placed on a low hillock. Built in 162-63, it is must have been ridden with Corinthian columns, as palpable from its ruins. The mind-blowing view of the city spread below is a veritable onslaught on our visual senses. We tear ourselves from the trance into which the sight has propelled us, to continue our explorative sojourn of Jerash.

In the centre of what appears to be a street junction, we come across a solid and solitary monument, the Tetrapylon, with four pedestals ornamented with niches. Each pedestal, we learn, originally supported four pink granite columns that were transported from Aswan in Egypt.

The columns are wider as we move towards Macellum, Jerash’s food market. Set as an independent entity between the plaza and the Tetrapylon, the Macellum reveals a unique design. The octagonal structure was a covered marketplace with shops organised in an orderly fashion and based around a paved courtyard. It is obvious that a few of them were butchers’ shops, as seen in the short pillars of these stalls that have sculpted heads of sheep, pig and even lion on them. As with other monuments in Jerash, the Macellum too was a victim of looting raiders who set it ablaze towards the final decade of the 3rd century.

The imposing Nymphaeum, the monumental fountain that adorns the Cardo, must have been one of the most impressive structures in ancient Jerash. With a semicircular central apse that is topped with concrete vault, its twin-tiered façade was profusely adorned with sculptures, marble panels, paintings and Corinthian columns. The fountain, with its red bowl, was a tribute to nymphs, the young and graceful female deities associated with Greek and Roman mythologies.

The South Theatre is the biggest of three theatres in Jerash. The inscription of Greek letters in some of the stone seats were obvious pointers to the fact that VIPs were assured their rightful place in the tiered galleries. The front wall of the theatre is embellished with five richly decorated niches, each connected to the other with a row of columns. While the theatre yet retains its evocative flavour, it has been reconstructed in parts to suit the requirements of the Jerash Festival of Culture & Arts, which is held for two weeks in July-August every year. The amphitheatre is set ablaze with artistes from across continents displaying their musical, theatrical, acrobatic and dancing skills.

Aura & aroma

The Propylaeum still carries the aura and grandeur of its heydays. The ornamented gateway leads to the Temple of Artemis, the patron goddess of Jerash. A monumental stairway that once had high walls on its sides, leads to an oblong square terrace that reveals the foundations of an open-air sanctum. Most noticeable here is the colonnade of several Corinthian columns with all but a pair having their capitals that are aesthetically embellished with acanthus leaves.

Having spent the best part of a sunny morning weaving our way through the mesmerising ruins of Jerash, we take a breather at the temple as a Bedouin pours us refreshing cups of black tea aromatised with lime and mint. Vegetarian lunch at Artemis Restaurant, a few kilometres away from the ruins, is appetising with typical Arab fare. As we await our order, we watch in fascination as the chef turns out, with a flourish of his hand, hot naans, one after the other, from tandoor clay ovens.

Still entranced by its grand ruins, we wind our tour of Jerash after making halts at a couple of churches and have a quick run through its museum and souvenir shops at the entrance to the walled city.