Jerash: The other amazing attraction you should visit in Jordan

The Greco-Roman ruins at Jerash in northern Jordan are what you might call a fixer-upper. A few minor repairs here, a lick of paint there and, before you know it, they'll be as good as new.

It's quite a revelation. As we walk along a road lined with hundreds of beautifully preserved classical columns, I half expect to find stalls groaning with "vinum Romanus" and a note saying "quinque minuta tergum" (back in five minutes).

It's this surprising intactness which lends Jerash the same fascinating sense of lives interrupted as Italy's Pompeii, but without the volcanic ash, and the running and the screaming and the dying.

About an hour's drive north of Amman, Jordan's capital, Jerash is one of the largest, best-preserved and most complete set of Roman ruins outside of Italy. The second most visited site in Jordan behind Petra, it still only played host to 330,000 tourists in 2018 (Pompeii visits topped 3.6 million).

The site can be traced back to the late Stone Age but it was the Greeks, under Alexander the Great at first, who lobbed around 300 BC and, by 175 BC, had turned it into a thriving city at the nexus of a full compass of trade routes.

Finally, in about 63 BC, the Romans arrived and by 106 AD Jerash had entered what became known as its golden age. Many of the structures there now date from the second century AD, including the triumphal arch, built in honour of Emperor Hadrian, through which we enter the site.

The size of the place isn't obvious at first, but the existence of the hippodrome, a semi-restored chariot-racing arena, begins to dispel any doubts that it is something special. To stand in this 245-metre long and 52-metre wide stadium, our guide explaining how up to 15,000 spectators used to cram in to get their Ben Hur fix, is to begin to understand that there's more here than meets the immediate eye.

In all, the ruins of Jerash cover about 800,000 square metres (Disneyland in Anaheim is a piddly 650,000 square metres) and contains two large amphitheatres, an 80- by 90-metre circular forum ringed with ionic columns, churches full of mosaics, marketplaces, and that 800-metre long road which was the city's main thoroughfare, known as the cardo maximus.

Position yourself in the breathtaking oval plaza, look down the colonnaded length of the cardo and you immediately step back in time. Unlike some places, where you must squint sideways and go cross-eyed to get an idea of what the place used to look like, Jerash requires no such mental gymnastics.

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Here the paving stones, worn by time and sandals, are also marked by the wheel ruts of the primitive vehicles that for centuries jostled along its length. This is where we saunter among the remains of the agora, the city's food market, and take a moment to admire the Nymphaeum, an elaborate public fountain which looks like it's just a day or two away from being finished.

Above the cardo, on the low-lying hills, are the remains of two temples, one to Artemis the other to Zeus, which dominate the city. The best view is from the Temple of Zeus, looking over the oval plaza and right down the barrel of the cardo maximus to the other end of the site.

Just as a side note before you go: during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Jerash was renamed Aurealia Antoniniana, a state of affairs thought to have led directly to 1200 locals swallowing their tongues.  

TRIP NOTES

Keith Austin was a Guest of World Expeditions.

MORE 

traveller.com.au/jordan

visitjordan.com

FLY

Emirates flies to Queen Alia international airport, Amman, from all major airports via Dubai. See emirates.com

TOUR

World Expeditions' 10-day Jordan Trail Highlights tour costs from $4870 a person, twin share and is 100 per cent carbon offset. Prices include day treks, a 4WD jeep tour, seven nights in hotels and guesthouses, two nights in Bedouin camps and all meals. Visits to Wadi Rum, Petra, Dana Nature Reserve, Jerash and the Dead Sea are included. See worldexpeditions.com 

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