Jerash: Rome’s outpost in the Gilead

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

In a country packed with biblical and historical sites, Jordan may be best known for its blockbuster attraction at Petra, one of the New 7 Wonders of The World. Close to a million tourists a year flock here to hike through the site's labyrinth of steep canyons and to marvel at its towering  cliffside “Treasury” building (a la Indiana Jones and the last Crusade).

 So what's the country's second most-visited site? The spot on the Jordan River  where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist? Mount Nebo, where Moses first saw The Promised Land? Or maybe the biblical hangouts of Abraham, Aaron, Joshua, Lot, Ruth and Elijah. Or perhaps the castles of crusader knights or the desert camps of the Arab army of T.E. Lawrence.

Roman legions once paraded down Jerash's Lane of Victory. The answer is, none of the above. Jordan's No. 2 tourism hot spot is a place many foreign visitors, particularly Americans, never heard of before they got here.

Petra's runner-up is the ancient Greco-Roman city of Jerash, about 30 miles north of what was once called Philadelphia (today Amman, the country's capital) in the balm-rich hills of Gilead. Sightseers pour off the tour buses here to sample a jump back to the days when these sprawling ruins were run by emperors with names like Trajan and Hadrian.

 Tour guide Mahmoud Iwaissi says, “Most visitors to Jerash are surprised by how big this place is and how well preserved it is. It doesn't take much to imagine yourself among 30,000 people cheering the return of a victorious Roman legion parading down the streets.”

Hundreds of pillars are still standing.  You'll give your camera a workout snapping the city's colonnaded avenues, temples, arches, theaters and baths. Allow plenty of time to get good shots of the temples of the Greek ubergod Zeus and his daughter Artemis (the patron goddess of the city), Hadrian's arch, the Forum and the Hippodrome.

 An optional part of the tour – but one well worth seeing – is a feast of sight and sound in the Hippodrome in which 45 Roman “legionnaires” in full combat gear show off their battle tactics against the brassy blare of trumpets and rattling shields and swords. Other parts of the show include mock gladiator fights and  chariot races a la Charlton Heston in the 1959 movie, “Ben Hur.”

Tourists watch reenactments of Roman training drills. Ticket prices for the show are about US$17 for adults and US$3 for youngsters 5-12.

 More information about Jordan and Jerash: Visit the Jordan Tourism Board   www.visitjordan.com

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