Jerash is a beautiful, sprawling complex of colonnaded streets, monumental arches, plazas, baths and theatres. One of the best preserved Roman sites in the world, it is often overshadowed by Petra, and given a miss by the time pressed traveler, in favour of Jordan’s other attractions.
This is a pity, as Jerash truly holds its own in the network of Roman cities – as it did in antiquity, so it does today.
Like many other Greco-Roman cities, Jerash is a stunning example of urban living spaces going through different civilizations in history. From its early days as the Arab/Semitic village of Garshu, to its flourishing under Alexander the Great, as one of the great cities in the world’s first globalised empire, the ruins hold layers upon layers of stories from one century through the next.
It was during its heyday that its most impressive monuments were built, namely the temple of Artemis, who was the Greek goddess of hunting and the city’s patron goddess, and the temple of Zeus, which stood diametrically opposite, also upon a hill. My favourite was the street of columns, in the exuberant Corinthian style, that ran from North to South, connecting with streets that passed through East to West, all linked in at the South Tetrapylon, an ornamental construction at their junction through which trade flowed from the Orient to the cities of the Mediterranean and beyond.
Standing in this plaza, and strolling down the boulevard once lined with shops that stocked goods of the finest craftsmanship during antiquity, I couldn’t help but feel a bittersweet melancholy over how far the city had fallen since. Once a living, thriving metropolis, now reduced to ruins only to be admired and studied, as so many other Roman cities are.
As with Petra, a guide was highly recommended for our visit to Jerash. This guide truly made the visit for us, as a lot of the magic would have been lost without its history being explained as we went along.
At the Nymphaeum, our guide spoke to a group of refugees from Syria. Elegantly dressed, well educated men admiring the fountain whilst speaking about the horrors of the war. Lining the wall of the basin were the sculpted stone heads of lions, one of which had its face hacked off, stolen, to be traded god-knows-where. I asked our guide what had happened to it. He replied: “Thieves”. One of the Syrians then looked towards me and said: “Its head is off, but who will cut the head of our lion?”.
As they walked away, I came to the realization that the ruins of Jerash are the scars of ancient battles, a once great city built with the best abilities of man and destroyed by the worst.