Early this year, the Jordan Tourism Board hosted me and a few other bloggers to see the wonders of Jordan.
I got to see the unbelievably beautiful tombs in Petra and the red sands of Wadi Rum, floated in the Dead Sea, checked out where Jesus was baptized in Bethany, appreciated the deliciousness of Jordanian cuisine, and of course, went back in time in the Roman ruins in Jerash.
Jerash is only a 45-minute very scenic drive from the capital, Amman. On the way, you’ll see mountains dotted with goats, sheep and boulders, and lush hills covered in wildflowers. Upon reaching Jerash, you’ll be greeted by market gardens and provincial streets.
On the other side of the city wall, however, it seems like a totally different world. You’ll find Gerasa (the old name of Jerash), the well-preserved ancient ruins of a Greco-Roman city which had been in existence since 3200 BC.
The archaeological site in Jerash is one of the largest, most complete, and best-preserved examples of Roman architecture outside of Italy, prompting the Jordan Tourism Board to hail the city as “Rome away from Rome.”
Because the structures are fairly intact, it’s easier to envision the city’s illustrious past. You get to walk on the same streets that Roman carts jostled along on thousands of years ago. You get to climb to the upper rows of an amphitheater and hear how amazing the acoustics still are.
The best way to start piercing together the story behind the ruins of Jerash is to learn more about its history.
Jerash was once a flourishing city with a strategic spice and incense trade route. It experienced its golden age after coming under Roman rule, during which the city became one of the ten great cities of the Decapolis League and a favorite of Roman emperor Hadrian.
The city fell into decline during the 3rd century, as the city’s trade routes became less and less lucrative. The Byzantine Empire took over by the 5th century, turning Jerash into a Christian city.
A Persian invasion and then a Muslim conquest followed in the 6th century, and a series of earthquakes in the 7th century left the city in ruins. Jerash was largely uninhabited by the time of the Crusades in AD 1112. And so the city remained abandoned—and buried in sand—for centuries.
In 1806, during an exploration in the areas of the Jordan River and Lake Tiberias, German traveler Ulrich Jasper Seetzen stumbled upon the ruins of Jerash. He reported the city’s existence in a diary that was published in 1810 and has since been credited with the rediscovery of Jerash.
Having been reintroduced to the world, Jerash caught the attention of other explorers like Johann Ludwig Burckhardt and James Silk Buckingham, who visited the city in 1812 and 1816, respectively.
While explorations provided descriptions of the city, it wasn’t until excavation and conservation work began in 1925 that Jerash would rise from the rubble.
The best part: many of the structures that were uncovered were either in exceptional condition or have been restored to their former glory, so you can expect a range of glorious sights and extraordinary experiences when you visit.
One of the first things you’ll realize when you get there is not only how impressive the ruins are but how extensive the site is. Which structures should be on your must-see list? Here’s a quick roundup.
Hadrian’s Arch, or the Arch of Triumph, is an imposing and striking arch that’s quite impossible to miss, as everyone goes through it coming from the Visitors Center.
It was constructed in honor of Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Jerash in 129 AD and now marks the southern boundaries of the walled city.
Just behind is the Hippodrome, a 254m-long, 52m-width stadium that seated crowds of up to 15,000 for Roman chariot races.
You will also see the Oval Plaza, or Forum, a paved limestone plaza surrounded by Ionic columns and considered distinct because of its shape and width. Oval-shaped plazas were a rare sight during the Roman era, and at its widest point, the structure measures up to 80m.
Northeast of the Forum is Jerash’s main street, Cardo Maximus. Commonly known as the Colonnaded Street, this runs for at least 600m.
While you won’t get to see all the buildings that used to line the street, you’ll be able to walk on the original stone paving and find several chariot tracks or ruts. (Well-preserved chariot tracks that are thousands of years old? Mindblown!)
Along the Colonnaded Street, you’ll spot a Byzantine church that’s often referred to as The Cathedral. Climb the steps (which belonged to a Roman temple) to reach the shrine of St. Mary, where a painted inscription to Mary and archangels Gabriel and Michael is located.
Just as interesting is the Nymphaeum, an ornamental fountain that was the central jewel of the city, where water once cascaded through the lion heads carved into the structure.
There are also two theaters on site. The smaller one, the North Theater, was originally constructed as a hall for performances (involving poetry and music) and council meetings and could seat up to 1,600 spectators.
The two-story South Theater, on the other hand, could accommodate 3,000 or so spectators. What’s particularly remarkable about this auditorium is its acoustics, and you can hear this for yourself by climbing to the top row when bagpipers, in Jordanian military dress, stop by to perform.
The Artemis Temple (150 AD) is also worth checking out. It was the most important monument in Gerasa, as Artemis was the designated guardian of the ancient city.
A magnificent staircase leads to a terrace with the foundations of an open-air altar. The Corinthian columns make for an impressive structure, too.
Excavation work on Jerash continues to this day, so there’s probably a lot more architectural and historical treasures waiting to be unearthed. As it is, however, this ancient Roman ruins in Jerash does not run short of sights to marvel at. Definitely a must-see in Jordan.
What do you think of Jerash? Does this post make you want to visit? It certainly makes me want to go back to Jordan!