The Wonderful Roman World of Jerash

The restored Roman hippodrome at Jerah, Jordan

Jerash is the best-preserved example of a Roman city in the Middle East. Its now-restored hippodrome is again home to gladiators, chariot races and fully bedecked army legions.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

THIS COUNTRY’S great archaeological wonder is, of course, Petra, the ancient city carved out of the desert rock. Petra deserves its pre-eminent status, but it’s almost sad that it leaves in its shadow a site that, in most other countries, would be the number-one visitor attraction.

Jerash is the best-preserved example of a Roman city in the Middle East: temples, baths, theatres, colonnaded streets, monumental arches and a restored hippodrome where the chariots again race.

Jerash is easy to explore and easy to reach—just 50 kilometres north of Amman, Jordan’s capital. Ancient Jerash’s eastern half, which was the residential district, has been built over by the modern city, but the western section, where the commercial and public structures were, has had the sand swept from it, revealing paved streets in which you can still see the ruts of chariot wheels. Much is still hidden, but excavation work is ongoing and every year a little more of the old Roman city is returned to the light of day.

This was a wealthy trading town. The avenues visitors walk along were laid out in the 1st century A.D., when it was coming into its own; much of the architecture lining those avenues is from the 2nd century, when Jerash was at the high of its power. The temples of Artemis, the city’s protector, and of Zeus, were both built then.

Nicomachus, one of the ancient world’s foremost mathematicians, was from Jerash, but it’s best known for its association with the Roman emperor Hadrian. Hadrian wintered here in 129-130, making this effectively the capital of the Roman Empire during that time. Hadrian’s Arch, erected in his honour, is the first sight you have of ancient Jerash as you drive north from Amman. Even at its current height, 11 metres, the tribute is impressive. When it was built it stood twice as tall.

As the troops go through their paces Adam al-Smad, who plays Gaius Victor, commander of Legion Six, provides a commentary for those seated in the stands. He explains that each army line fought for eight minutes, then fell back to let the line behind it take over. There were, he says, 5,000 in a legion; a sub-unit, the century, was 80 soldiers. There’s about half-a-century on the field today.

“I want you all to try to imagine yourself a horde of barbarians,” Gaius Victor, marching back and forth, bellows at his audience. He has a British accent and there’s a slight titter among those who are fans of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but the majority are carried along by his enthusiasm. A display of how Rome disposed of barbarians is followed by gladiatorial contests, then chariots wheel around the stadium in great plumes of dust. A bit kitschy, perhaps, but it certainly brings the place to life.



For more information on the shows at the Jerash hippodrome visit

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