Roman echoes in Arabia

Magnificent ruins: The theatre at Jeraish.   | Photo Credit: Photos: Hugh and Colleen Gantzer


Jerash, world’s best preserved Roman city in Jordan, still has many messages to convey across two millennia.

A city enshrines the character of its people. This is not always apparent in a living city...But a well-preserved, but abandoned, city allows such insights to home in.

Expats cosset themselves with nostalgia. The British in India comforted themselves with their clubs, golf courses and hill-stations in which they re-created the county towns of ‘home’. The Romans, millennia earlier, had done much the same, as we discovered in Jordan. Here, 2,000 years ago, they had changed the character of an Arabian town to make it into a Roman provincial city with baths — those warm-blooded people loved bathing — fountains, colonnaded streets, theatres and a temple to a goddess with a suitably complex ancestry. Also, in this cloned provincial city, they spoke fashionable Greek but traded in Latin. They even changed the name of the town from the Arabic Garshu to the Roman Gerasa. It is now known as Jerash.

We drove the 48 km from Jordan’s capital, to Jerash. The terrain changed from fairly barren, scrubby hills, to groves of grey-green olive trees and a verdant valley through which the year-round Wadi Jerash stream flows. We parked in a lot where an eatery offered sweet, cardamom-flavoured, coffee, and enormous nan-like breads baked fresh in a gas oven.

From here we strode up an inclined road, got a glimpse of the modern town massed below, and stepped into A.D. 50 when this, now the world’s best preserved Roman provincial city, began to grow under skilled Roman architects and engineers.

The distance of time

A city enshrines the character of its people. This is not always apparent in a living city because the white noise of its inhabitants drowns out such fine perceptions. But a well-preserved, but abandoned, city allows such insights to home in. So, as we trudged around, and allowed the impressions to filter through, we realised that we still have a lot in common with the people who lived in Jerash two millennia ago.

Hadrian’s Arch soared, commemorating the visit of the Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 129. It was meant to be the southern gate but the civic authorities lost their incentive when the Emperor passed on. Our Public Works Departments also have a short motivational span. A short walk away is the Hippodrome. This enormous arena could hold 15,000 frenzied spectators, as the charioteers raced around, whipping their steeds, making and breaking fortunes in this major, and very prosperous, trading town. They were the progenitor of our F1 races roaring around the tracks of the world. Gambling has always provided safety valves for the pressures of excessive wealth. Moreover, in those uncertain days, the movers and shakers of the economy had as much need to be protected as they have today. We walked past the massive City Walls and through the South Gate. The space in front was empty but when the city was at the height of its fame, this was the open market square where owners of push-carts and canopied stalls offered bargains from all over the world, including silks from China and spices from India. Jerash was linked with Petra which was a hub of the East-West caravan trails.

Visually, the most impressive space is the Oval Plaza ringed by a colonnade of Ionic pillars. As the sun moved, the pillars throw striations across the plaza and a family of visitors rested in their shadows. This was, clearly, a public meeting place, a concourse, where citizens exercised briskly in the morning, met and conversed through the day, and strolled around and relaxed of an evening.

Arrowing out from the Oval Plaza is the impressive Colonnaded Street. This main thoroughfare of Jerash still carried the marks of chariot wheels, the preferred vehicles of those days. Broad pavements once held shops and we noticed stone manholes to drain water into underground sewers. Presumably there were no flooded roads in Jerash! Halfway up this road, the columns become broader. This is the entrance to the Macellum, a covered marketplace: appreciably more organised than a bazaar or a gallery of street-shops. The British could have replicated this idea when they created their named and covered markets all across their Empire.

At a cross-road on the Colonnaded Street there are four pedestals. While their purpose has not been established, we feel that they probably held statues of VIPs. This is an affliction we still have to bear with!

Beautiful monument

Then we came to a monument that must have been very appealing in its time: the Nymphaeum. This beautiful fountain, dedicated to those graceful, semi-divine women, the Nymphs, must have been a source of as much delight as the Trevi and other sculpted fountains in Rome are today. Sadly, that other monument to the Roman obsession with water, the West Baths, collapsed in the great earthquake of January AD 749 and was never rebuilt.

For some strange reason, neither the North nor the South Theatre seemed to have been damaged by that seismic disturbance. The North Theatre was smaller and could have been used for civic meetings and not only for theatre. The South Theatre’s stage has been reconstructed and the acoustics are still superb as we heard when a bagpiper and drummer, in Bedou robes, filled the air with their music. Though an American tourist loudly questioned the existence of bagpipes at the time that the theatre had been built, he was wrong. Bagpipes could have been in moaning and groaning as far back as 100 BC. But even in those distant days some people were more equal than others: their stone seats were reserved and Greek letters were inscribed on them to make sure that others did not occupy those high-status places.

As in all trading communities, to this day, the people of Jerash placed a fair amount of faith in their very human gods. The columns of the Temple of Artemis, the Temple of Zeus, the father of Artemis, and the ruins of the Church of the physician brothers Saints Cosmos and Damian, are a strong pointer in that socio-spiritual direction. To this day, great achievers often become more than human after they die: or even before.

As Jerash showed us: the more things change, the more they remain the same.



Getting there: By air by Royal Jordanian Airlines from Mumbai and Delhi to Amman and then 48 km by road.

Getting around: Taxis or hired cars. We were driven around by a vehicle of Benz Rent a Car, Telefax: 009626-5821181; Email: >

Accommodation: Best to make Amman the base for day trips to interesting places around. The capital has hotels to suit all budgets. We stayed in the 5-star Landmark Hotel, Tel:962 6 5607100; Email: >

For more information: >