The ghosts of Jerash
By Uma Balasubramaniam
03rd March 2013 12:00 AM
The sun isn’t kind in Jerash, around 50 km from the modern city of Amman, the capital of Jordan, where history lingers in the facades, cool rooms and walled gardens of porcelain buildings, made by the adroit use of marble and sandstone. The houses, lazily watching the tree lined avenues of Amman, are painted white, according a local law.
Even the highway to Jerash seems like a tunnel made of trees, which lies snug and sleepy in a quiet valley among the mountains of Gilead. As far as the eye goes, it is green—along with olive groves, gardens heavy with figs, and vineyards.
It is hot. The sun beats down mercilessly on the ancient Greco-Roman site in Jerash. It resembles a vast and open-air museum, where the impressive ruins of ancient Gerasa that was once called legendary Antioch are a testimony to the architectural beauty and grandeur of Greco-Roman culture. The heat shimmers on paved and colonnaded streets, unpeopled for centuries, preserved well since the Jordanians are proud of their history. Temples display elegant and intricate stone pagan carvings. The remains of Jerasa boast of handsome theatres, spacious public squares, plazas, baths, fountains and city walls. Conquered by Pompei in 63 BC, Jerasa’s name evolved from ancient Garsu to the Roman Gerasa and finally to the Arabic Jerash as we know it today. Early excavations date the city’s origin to the Neolithic period; however, it was during Roman rule that art and architecture developed and trade flourished here.
The ghost city is protected by the ruins of seemingly impenetrable Roman stone walls. Passing under the triumphal arch built in honour of Emperor Hadrian by the citizens of Jerash in 130 AD, the temporary shadow protects you from the Jordanian sun. Hadrian was determined to turn Gerasa into one of the empire’s finest cities and the grand ruins are his legacy. The historical site has been proposed to be declared a UNESCO world site heritage, and is considered by Jordanians as the country’s next best wonder after Petra, a “must see” for all those visiting Jordan.
Before the Romans came, the Greeks had built temples to Zeus and the Artemis which still remain as part of an ancient civilisation. Ornamental friezes in floral and figurative motifs in Nabatean designs can be discerned in the columns. A beautiful altar stands on the right of the wall of a staircase as part of it, leading to the temple of Zeus. It seems as if the old gods still guard the temple of Artemis as Corinthian pillars.
Christianity as a religion flourished under the emperor. In the 6th century, emperor Justin built churches all over Jerash; his legacy still stands as a few Byzantine churches that house extravagantly coloured mosaics. The south theatre—in the words of the tourist guide Hussein—“is the most splendid example of secular architecture and one of the best of its kind in the Middle East”. Stairs lead to the semi-circular auditorium, and it seems as if the phantoms of long dead architectural masters are still listening to echoes of theatre achieved by the perfect balance of harmony between acoustics and dialogue. A tympanum stands flanked by four columns raised on tall pilasters and intrically designed pediments.
A soft breeze blows across the wooded slopes bearing the fragrance of groves and gardens. The oval shaped forum—measuring 90 metres long and 80 metres wide—is circled by stunning Ionic columns. The floor is paved with heavy stones, laid, to follow the elliptical curves of the colonnades. It is perhaps, the earliest of its kind built by the Romans and must have once been the centre of activity in the old city. From here, it’s a long walk on the Cardo Maxim or the 800 metres long colonnaded street which is laid with heavy blocks of stone. They have survived wars, invasions and now tourists, and still bear the marks of the wheels of ancient Roman chariots.
As with all Roman cities, Jerash too had Roman baths, fed and sluiced by a water drainage system underneath covered by numerous manhole covers. The baths were not just for rejuvenating the body, but also the mind since intrigues and gossip was part of the aristocratic ritual of bathing in the sunken marble pools.
The sun has grown merciful, softened by history. The afternoon light gives the ruins a feel of amber—history trapped like a moth.
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