21 May 2004
Forty minutes north of Amman is the Roman ghost town of Jerash. Allegedly the largest set of Roman ruins outside of Italy, Jerash stretches some three kilometers over treeless rolling hills of arid brown. Dirt footpaths cut through the carpet of wild dry grass, connecting ancient amphitheaters and temples to baths and chariot tracks. Enormous sections of stone pillars lie scattered about like giant imperial Lincoln logs, the result of an earthquake in the 7th Century, A.D. Ornate tops of toppled Corinthian columns rest askew nearby, providing a rest area for the occasional sprawling gecko, perching bird, or tiring child.
Jerash has belonged successively to the Romans, Byzantines, Turks, and Arabs. In the time of Jesus, it was part of a ten-city chain in the north of what is now Jordan that made up the Decapolis. Christ delivered his message on this piece of ground. Today, the call to prayer from a nearby mosque interrupts the silence five times each day.
Entering the city through Hadrian’s arched gateway in the south, one immediately encounters the remnants of the Hippodrome. A 15,000-capacity stadium containing a large oval track, this is where ancient enthusiasts would watch their favorite charioteers compete against each other. In what may have been called Near East Stock Chariot Ellipse Racing (NESCER), sandal-and-toga-clad Jeff Gordons and Dale Earnhardt, Jr’s would challenge each other lap after lap for the lead, while fans guzzled vino from wineskins and waited for a wooden wheel to fly off or for two teams of horses to collide.
Moving north, past a colonnaded circular plaza reminiscent of St. Peter’s Square, is the southern amphitheater. Most of its Roman grandeur remains. The acoustics are superb. Where once Latin echoed off of the stone bleachers, the modern visitor can hear French, German, English and Japanese being spoken by the local tour guides. The theater is so well preserved, that it is quite easy to imagine our predecessors packing the seats and chatting away before a performance of a revival of the even then ancient Prometheus Bound or Oedipus Rex. One can even picture a tardy ticket holder saying “pardonus mei” as he scootched past put-off patrons craning to get a glimpse of their favorite lion tearing apart an early Christian.
The Christians did have their day. Moving north along a ridgeline, one comes to the roofless remains of three old Byzantine churches, each containing once-marvelous, colorful floor mosaics now in various states of disrepair. Weeds now sprout up where ancient parishioners used to get on their knees and pray to a god the current residents of this area call Allah.
Beyond the Byzantine churches, is the temple used by the ancients to pray to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Eleven of its pillars survived the earthquake that damaged much of the rest of Jerash. Silhouetted by a bright blue sky, they sway with the wind in a dance that has lasted the better part of the past two thousand years. The movement is imperceptible, except when one wedges a stick or a key in the slightest of gaps between a column and its pedestal. The shiv moves up and down dramatically as the massive stone weighing many tons rocks back and forth atop its foundation. This is something of a miracle. Maybe there’s something to be said for old Artemis.
The north amphitheater (nearly identical to its southern counterpart) marks the turn around point for the tourist. One gets back to their car by walking south along the beautiful Colonnade Street. Many of its pillars are still standing. Chariot tracks are visible in the worn stone avenue. Ancient baths and fountains, now dry, make for good photo opportunities. In courtyards where fancy Romans once stopped to gossip, a small herd of goats rests in the noonday sun. Little Arab children approach the obvious foreigner with “Habla espanol?,” “Parlez-vous francais?,” “Do you speak English?” Once the correct vernacular is established, a request for a small donation is made.
In its heyday, the Roman Empire must have seemed permanent and eternal. That was a comforting illusion. Strange to think that someday Chinese children might be selling postcards while sitting on a collapsed Lincoln Memorial or a toppled Washington Monument. Jerash, while beautiful, is a sober reminder of what happens to everything we assume will last forever.