Saturday, December 7, 2013

Jerash: one of the world's finest Roman sites

The next morning we had a fairly uneventful drive through Amman, since it was Friday, the Muslim holiday day, like our Sundays. We passed by many five- or six-story apartments, many under construction. Every time we pass these it looks like there has been a huge population explosion in the past few years. Of course Jordan has taken in many Palestinian refugees and at the moment there are over 600,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.

We weren't looking forward to the drive on the highway, since it was never a smooth ride. The roads are tarmacked but they must melt in the heat leaving them in poor condition. Near the cities there are always masses of plastic, especially bottles, littering the roads and land. This time as we drove the land was more lush with lots of olive trees and much more greenery than we had seen previously.

We drove through some sprawling pine forests of the Ajlun-Dibbine area to reach the towering Ayyubid castle at Ajlun, which helped defeat the Crusaders eight centuries ago. Ajlun Castle was built by one of Saladin's generals in 1184 AD to control the iron mines of Ajlun, and to deter the Franks from invading Ajlun. It dominated the three main routes leading to the Jordan Valley and protected the trade and commercial routes between Jordan and Syria. Eventually, it became an important link in the defensive chain against the Crusaders, who unsuccessfully spent decades trying to capture the castle and the nearby village. From the towers you could look across to distant Gaza.

Back on the road we were headed to Jerash, a close second to Petra on the list of favourite destinations in Jordan. It boasts an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6,500 years.

Jerash lies on a plain surrounded by hilly wooded areas and fertile basins. Conquered by General Pompey in 63 BC, it came under Roman rule, and was known as Gerasa. The site is now generally acknowledged to be one of the best-preserved Roman provincial towns in the world. Hidden for centuries in sand before being excavated and restored over the past 70 years, Jerash reveals a fine example of the grand, formal provincial Roman urbanism that is found throughout the Middle East, comprising paved and colonnaded streets, soaring hilltop temples, handsome theatres, spacious public squares and plazas, baths, fountains and city walls pierced by towers and gates.

Jerash was a favourite city of the emperor Hadrian, who spent a year here. Of course there is a huge Hadrian's Arch built at the entrance to the city. One of my favourite sites was the Cardo, a six-hundred-metre-long colonnaded street built in the first century AD that runs the length of the city. You can still see ancient cart tracks in the stone. It was once lined with the city's major buildings, shops and residences. There is even a complex drainage system that lies below the stone paving.

The place I liked the best was the Agora, the food market with a huge fountain in the middle. You could clearly see the areas for the stalls particularly the butcher's stall. Here there were four large pieces of stone about four feet high. Three of them had carved goat's heads on the front. I imagined the goats' meat and camel meat on display, perhaps even a camel's head.

I don't think the Romans could have conceived that the Hippodrome would last until present times, still hosting chariot races, or that the South Theatre, an amphitheatre that seats 3,000 is still occasionally used for musical productions.

But now it was time for lunch. We stopped at a well known restaurant in Amman. It was quite interesting to watch the other tables filled with men in their pristine white robes. I wonder how they keep them so spotless? There were a few people smoking hubbly bubbly pipes or hookahs.

We opted for a glass of the lemon mint drink that the restaurant was known for and it was delicious, so much so that I had two. Lots of bread was brought to the table, which resembled naam bead and was made and cooked downstairs by a lady sitting in the lobby. We were served salad, hummus, tabbouleh or parsley salad, olives, cucumber salad and lots of other little dishes to eat with the bread. For our main course we had a choice of chicken, lamb or beef or a mixture of these. Since I'm not a big meat eater, I chose the chicken but it was nothing special. By now I had eaten more chicken in a week than I do in a year. Seamus had the mixed meat plate. Dessert was a piece of fruit that once chosen, the waiter would peel in some fancy way.

We returned to the hotel passing the ancient Roman theatre that seats over 6,000 people. Then we drove through densely populated areas past all the shops and through the barrio to look over on the king's castle as well as a lovely panoramic view of Amman.

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