Deep grooves in the worn cobblestones under my feet tell of horses with heavily laden wagons that have rolled here for hundreds of years. I am standing in the city of Jerash, a former junction between the two great trade routes of the Middle East. The city that under the Roman Empire had an abundance of wealth and comforts, but where everything was destroyed overnight in a catastrophic earthquake.
Well preserved Gerasa
The city Gerash (now Jerash) in northern Jordan is one of the world's best-preserved Roman cities outside of Italy. Although most of the city is in ruins today, it is not difficult to imagine the city's former grandeur. Every single stone holds so much history that it is difficult to take in all the impressions from the vast area. The well-decorated stone columns of the city's temples still rise to the sky, the acoustics of the southern theater are still perfect and the mosaic floors are as beautiful as they were 1000 years ago.
Thousands of years of history
The city's history began already in the Stone Age. In an area with plenty of access to fertile land and water, a small town emerged.
In the year 200 BC, Alexander the Great began the development of the city that became the Jerash of which we see the remains today. When the Romans then conquered the area in 63 BC, Jerash became an important provincial city for the entire Roman Empire's trade and one of the Middle East's most important trading cities. A city full of beautiful buildings and wealth, unaware of the impending disaster.
Jerash earthquake and fall
Jerash is sometimes called the Pompeii of the Middle East, due to a catastrophic earthquake in 749. The earthquake was huge and destroyed cities in a large area of present-day Israel and Jordan. People were buried under the destroyed houses and the few inhabitants who survived the disaster left the city.
For Jerash, the earthquake came to mean the beginning of the end. No buildings were rebuilt and the area was covered in sand and forgotten until excavations began in the 20th century.
For archaeologists, Jerash is a difficult city to explore and only a fraction of the area has been excavated so far. The Bronze Age buildings were demolished by the Greeks and the Greeks' buildings were demolished by the Romans. The entire city is made up of layers upon layers of millennia and civilizations and there is probably more history beneath the shell we see today, but it is difficult to examine what lies beneath the surface without spoiling something. As a visitor, however, the visible ruins are more than enough to experience the impressive city.
Hadrian's Arch and the Hippodrome
The first encounter with the city is usually via the impressive Hadrian's Arch, a triumphal arch built on the southern outskirts of the city around the year 130 in honor of the visit of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. This is one of the largest triumphal arches of the Roman Empire, and the building still today displays well-preserved decorative elements of floral wreaths and leaves. Today the arch stands quite alone, but originally the idea was that this would be the city's main entrance surrounded by walls. It never became a wall, but it's still an impressive building to pass through on your way into the city.
Next to Hadrian's Arch is the ancient hippodrome, where wild horse races and gladiatorial games took place in Roman times. In Roman measurements, it is a small arena for 15.000 people, "only" 245 meters long and 45 meters wide. The arena is still used today for plays and horse shows.
The oval plaza
We head north and soon see the oval plaza surrounded by interlocking columns that provided covered walkways around the square. This was the center of the city, once a place for traders, statues and even a fountain.
The oval plaza is a grand square, surrounded by 56 tall columns. Here the main road was linked with the stairs up to the temple of Zeus and it is also from the temple that you get the best view of the plaza.
Temple of Zeus
The Temple of Zeus stands as a watchful protector on a hill above the oval plaza. The temple was built in 162 and was one of the city's most impressive buildings. This was an unusually large Roman temple, with a well-decorated ceiling and, in its heyday, painted in bright colors.
On the way up to the temple, you pass several boulders with reliefs of flowers, fruits, patterns and leaves. Stones that were part of the temple before they began to be taken down in the 5th century to be reused for a Byzantine church.
The two theaters
The sound of Amazing grace on bagpipes bounces between the walls of the southern theater. Being greeted by bagpipes in Jordan may sound strange, but the bagpipe became an instrument in the Jordanian army during the first half of the 20th century when the area was a British protectorate.
The Southern Theater is the largest theater in Jerash and in its glory days up to 5000 people could sit here in the stands. Plays and music were performed here and clay tickets have been found in the excavations. The further down the stand you had a seat, the more significant person you were in society.
The theater has fantastic acoustics and even today you can hear just as well from the top row as from the bottom.
The North Theater is not nearly as large as the South Theater and was probably not a place for pleasure, but a place where the city's decision makers gathered for advice. It is still possible today to find personal names carved in specific places in the stands.
Temple of Artemis
In a meadow of blooming spring flowers lies the Temple of Artemis – one of the best preserved buildings in Jerash. The temple was dedicated to the goddess Artemis who in Greek mythology was the goddess of the hunt and mother of all living things.
Despite its exposed location to the elements, 11 columns with decorated capitals still stand and bear witness to the building's heyday almost 2000 years ago. It is easy to imagine the temple's former splendor with its marble, large statues and painted ceiling.
Main street Cardo maximus and nymphaeum
As a straight line straight into the heart of Jerash goes Cardo maximus, the 800 meter old main road. The street is lined by a row of pillars and has an advanced underground drainage system hidden beneath the street.
Along the way is one of the street's most beautiful sights and a sign of the area's wealth. The city's nymphaeum is still impressive today. Here water flowed down marble-clad walls with ledges of figures and through the mouths of large statues of lions. The water was collected through advanced aqueducts and pipes and put on a show for the city's visitors. This was probably the place where the city's residents got all their drinking water.
How to visit Jerash?
Jerash is about an hour's drive north of Amman. The Roman city extends over a large area in the middle of the present city of Jerash.
I visited Jerash for half a day with a guide, which felt like too short a visit to be able to take in everything that Jerash has to tell. I would recommend at least a full day visit. There are signs in English in the area, but to get an overall picture of the city, it is good to have a guide.
Most tourists visiting Jerash have bought Jordan Pass and enter for free, but it is possible to buy admission on the spot (cost 10-12 JD for tourists in 2023).
Do you want to read more about Jerash?
- General information about Jerash at Visit Jordan
- Interesting (more in-depth) article i National Geographics
Have you been here? What did you think of the destination?
Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.