Queen Alia International Airport doesn’t stand to the romantic notion that its name seems to suggest. Nor is it impressive enough, it feels more like the IGI of yore, its pre-T3 avatar. But we notice lots of construction in progress and are suitably convinced that the new edifice will be modern and imposing. Another six months to completion, we are told. Picking up our luggage we head for Jarash, our first stop in Jordan, that rightfully deserves to be called an exotic kingdom.
Jarash is grand, to say the least. Acknowledged as the largest and best preserved Roman city outside of the erstwhile Roman empire, it is a fascinating archeological site, less than an hours drive north of Amman, Jordan‘s capital. Its ruins are a testament to the architectural height and geographical expanse reached by the Romans.
Built around 60BC, Jarash flourished as a major trading and economic centre for several centuries before being passed on to the Byzantine empire, by when it had lost its significance. In the 6th century AD, the expanding Arab rule in the middle-east region gained control of Jarash, culminating in Jordan becoming a muslim country.
As you enter the ruins, the first glimpse from the visitors’ centre is that of the three-arched South Gate. Ancient Romans entered the city through this gate the way we just did, informed my guide, Mahfouz. An elongated building to the left is converted into a Museum
housing excavated rocks chiseled with designs of flowers, animals, tools and other artifacts of the Roman times. Further on is the vast open space of the Oval Plaza. And the Temple of Zeus is to the west overlooking this Plaza. Zeus is known as the King of Gods in Greek religion. To the west of this temple is the South Theatre, presumably a place for entertainment and stage events. Post restoration its acoustics are as refined as originally meant to be. Test it out by standing at the centre, marked by a low curve in a stone, and hear your voice carry through to all corners of the theatre which can still seat 3000 people. Check out the steps to see seats numbered in Greek letters, which would match with the tickets issued to spectators during events. As you ascend its steps, you get an imposing view of the theatre with the modern town in the background. Prayer and country flags adorned the theatre when we arrived, in preparation for a festival.
Back at the Oval Plaza, proceed north on the colonnaded street known as Corda, retracing the steps taken by caravans of traders on the silk route. The indents made by chariot wheels are visible as tracks on the paved stones. Ancient road planners used the angle of these stones to mark places for pedestrians to cross the road, akin to modern day zebra-crossings. Make your way further down till you reach the entrance to the Temple of Artemis. Artemis was the daughter of Zeus. Wide sweeping layers of stone-stairs lead up to the temple, which reveals itself as you climb the last flight of steps, and then a short walk through an esplanade which leads to the temple itself. Tall massive Corinthian pillars indicate how magnificent the temple must have been in its hey days.
At the north end of the Cardo is another theatre, the North Theatre. Other than being a place for performance, it has names of tribes inscribed on its seats, which means it may have also been a place for political or administrative meetings. Walking back on the cobbled path, Mahfouz bent down and moved a stone, making way for a hole in the middle of the road. As we knelt down, we could hear the flow of the river under the road. This city was built on top of a river so as to avoid the river being polluted or destroyed.
Other sites of interest include the Agora, a Cathedral, the Nymphaeum, the triple-gated Hadrian’s Arch and the Hippodrome, a colossal arena for athletic events and chariot races.
With a combined past of the Nabateans, Romans, Byzantines and later the Muslims, Jarash is a historian’s paradise. Visiting these ruins is like taking a stroll through time. Two thousand years of history, spectacular size of its columns and vast spread of the city play on your mind long after you have left the place.
Jordanians love their King, his photo omnipresent at all sites and establishments. Don’t be surprised to see his photo along with the Roman ruins. It helps put things into perspective as Jordan attempts to leverage on its history and culture while presenting a modern face of development.