In Jerash, History and Music Among the Ruins

North of Amman, the Roman ruins at Jerash have become a major attraction and the site of a popular music festival

By / June 2019

Jerash is known as the “city of a thousand columns.” Located 35 miles north of Amman, the city contains the largest and most complete vestige of Roman ruins in the Middle East. My friend Sammy, whose Arabic name is Saed Sbeih, used to live near the ruins. He knew the area well, so on the first warm day of spring we drove up from Amman.

We were not the only ones who had been waiting for a nice day to see the sights. A dozen large tour busses had already unloaded passengers. The chauffeurs, in their company uniforms, were congregated under a large palm tree smoking cigarettes and drinking gaahweh, Turkish coffee. You could tell they were a tight fraternity by the way they greeted one another with an Arabic-style kiss (one peck the right cheek and three on the left).

Jerash is the second most popular attraction in Jordan. According to the department of antiquities, more than 260,000 people visited the old city in 2018, an increase of 30 percent from the previous year. A decrease in conflicts in the Middle East, combined with innovative promotions by the ministry of tourism have made the country a popular destination. Recently, Lonely Planet listed Jordan as one of its top-ten places to visit.

After passing through metal detectors, Sammy and I entered a large bazaar where we heard the voice of Frank Sinatra singing “My Way” over the sound system. Eager yet polite merchants took a guess at our nationalities and called to us in the language they thought we understood. I envied the multi-lingual vendors (some just teenagers) who could switch with ease between Arabic, English, French, Spanish, German and Italian. I concluded that commerce is the best language teacher of all.

A lot of tourists were purchasing keffiyehs, the red and white-checkered head scarves that are a symbol of Jordanian heritage and culture. It seemed to me the keffiyehs were popular for two reasons: first, as a memento; second, because the one-yard-square cotton scarves provided excellent protection against the piercing Middle Eastern sun. On that warm, clear day we met a lot of fair-skinned foreigners with keffiyehs draped over their bare shoulders and wrapped, turban-style, around their perspiring foreheads.

The region around Jerash has been inhabited for over 6,000 years. Fertile soil and ample water supply provided an excellent environment for agriculture, apiculture, and animal husbandry. There was also an abundance of iron ore for the production of tools, building materials, and weapons.

The city of Jerash was founded between 175 and 164 BC. by ancient Greeks from the Seleucid Empire. It quickly evolved into an economic power because of its location on the trade route between Damascus and Petra. When Rome gained control in 63 BC, Jerash joined the Decapolis, a ten-city syndicate linked by commonalities in language, culture, location, and political status. The municipalities were governed by the Roman Legate of Syria and served as influential centers of Greek and Roman culture.

Jerash reached its pinnacle of wealth and influence between 98 and 106 A.D. when Emperor Trajan built new roads and incorporated the city into the province of Arabia. During this time the population swelled to more than 25,000 and the walled-in portion of the city covered over 200 acres. Jerash continued to thrive for nearly 500 years through Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, and Abbasid regimes.

Catastrophic earthquakes in the 8th and 9th centuries destroyed much of Jerash’s infrastructure. Fighting in the 12th Century between Crusaders and Muslims left the old city in ruins until archaeologists began excavations in 1925. After ninety years historians say they have exhumed only about fifty percent of the remains.

Sammy and I left the bazaar and entered the southern side of the park though Hadrian’s arch. Three boys about 10 years of age stood in the archway selling post cards, water bottles and small flutes. The persistent young peddlers attached themselves to passing tourists and followed them around until they made a sale. Once a transaction was complete, they returned to the entry for the next customer.

Jerash is known as the “city of a thousand columns.” Photographs by Danny Wright. 

The southern amphitheater, with its excellent acoustics, is still used for concerts during the Jerash Festival.

The arch was built to honor Hadrian, who ruled Rome from AD 117 to 138. It is 30 feet wide, 124 feet long, and 27 feet high. The main doorway is approximately 25 feet tall and 12 feet wide. It is flanked on each side by smaller arches 10 to 12 feet in height. The structure is decorated with Corinthian-styled columns, entablatures, and capitals and has four niches decorated with smaller columns and capitals. The arch is crowned with an attic containing inscriptions detailing the date of dedication, the purpose of the arch, and a list of important names and significant events.

We entered an old hippodrome located a few yards north of the arch. On the south end stood a partially reconstructed stone wall with one large arch in the middle and five smaller arches on each flank. Along the eastern edge of the track lay remains of the stadium and the crumbled walls of stables and pottery workshops. At its apex, 15,000 race fans crowded into the ancient arena to watch their favorite charioteers speed with abandon around the 1/3-mile oval track. As we walked around the hippodrome, I concluded that chariot races must have been the inspiration for NASCAR.

We continued our northward stroll and entered an oval-shaped plaza surrounded by 56 Corinthian columns. The 295-foot by 262-foot plaza was built in the 2nd Century AD and served as a connection point between the Cardo Maximus (main road of running North to South through Jerash) and the temple of Zeus. At the center of the oval stood remnants of statues dedicated to Hadrian and priestesses of the Roman pantheon.

The Great Temple of Zeus, built in AD 162, stood on a southern hill looking down on the oval-shaped forum. Erosion and earthquakes destroyed much of the temple but there is enough of the building remaining to allow visitors to appreciate how splendid it once was. Many of the columns lay scattered in a straight line down the hill like Legos pushed over by a giant toddler.

Sammy, who is close to six feet tall, stood near one of the toppled columns. The diameter of the base was 2/3 of his body length. I was amazed that first century engineers had figured out how to tow the massive buttress to the top of the hill and then stand it upright. Eight Corinthian columns and a series of niches decorated the façade and outside wall of the temple. Zeus was the most important deity in ancient Greece.

At Jerash’s zenith, 500 white limestone columns lined the ½-mile-long Cardo Maximus. The columns were anchored to three-foot square bases that were approximately two feet thick. The tops of the columns were tied together with decorative stone beams. Some of the beams were hollow and served as an early warning system in the event of an earthquake. When the cross-pieces rocked together they made a gonging sound to warn the public of the pending danger.

Near the western end of the Cardo Maximus stood the nymphaeum, an impressive fountain dedicated to water nymphs. The twenty-foot tall monument, built in AD 191, was decorated with Corinthian columns, elaborate capitals, and a half-dome covering. The most well-preserved part of the monument was a massive pink-granite basin located at the foot.

A culturally eclectic group had converged around the nymphaeum when we arrived. Local guides stood talking to each other while their British, Italian, and Spanish tour groups climbed around the monument taking pictures. A few visitors haggled with vendors over the price of trinkets displayed on white plastic picnic tables. Members of the park’s maintenance crew sat in the niche of a broken wall eating their lunch of hummus and falafel while at the same time watching a group of Koreans pose beside the granite basin. The Koreans were the most practically dressed for a warm clear day. Most wore wide floppy hats and many carried umbrellas to block the mid-sun. Their leader had a red sash tied to her umbrella so her group could find her in a crowd.

A small boardwalk branched off of the Cardo Maximus and led to the temple of Artemis. Artemis was the goddess of animals, vegetation, and child birth. She was also the patron of Jerash and during the 2nd Century her temple, placed on the highest and most prominent hill, was the most important and beautiful in the city. Eleven of the twelve Corinthian columns that lined the temple portico remain standing but much of its ornate masonry was stripped to provide materials for the churches that were built in the 4th century when the city adopted Christianity. In the 12th Century, a Turkish military garrison converted what was left of the temple into a fortress. That facility was burned by Crusaders in 1122 AD. The ruins were excavated and partially restored in the 1930s.

After leaving the Cardo Maximus Sammy and I visited Jerash’s two amphitheaters. The cozy northern auditorium once had an occupancy of close to 1,600 people. The more spacious southern theater would seat 5,000. Both of the concert halls were built in a circular configuration which gave them excellent acoustics. A person standing on the stage could speak in a normal voice and easily be heard on the top rows.

Sammy, who is an architectural engineer, pointed out that the original materials used by the ancient Romans were more tolerant to heat than the materials used in modern construction. To test his claim, I found a sunny spot on the wall of the amphitheater and put my hands on one of the stones. It was cool to the touch. However, when I put my hand on a chunk of modern concrete it was radiating heat.

The southern amphitheater is still used for cultural events like the Jerash Festival, which has been held each summer since 1981. Nearly 100,000 people attend the two-week event to watch folk dances, ballets, music concerts and plays. The southern amphitheater is beautiful in the evening with its backdrop of ancient Roman architecture and stars overhead. It can be surreal to see the 2000-year-old auditorium hosting a modern concert with massive speakers, multi-colored spot lights, fog machines, and 3,000 admirers waving their glowing cell phones in rhythm to the music.

Sammy and I stood at the top of the southern amphitheater talking about Jerash when two middle-aged men dressed in traditional Arab attire began playing a bagpipe and a drum. They had set up a wooden box a few feet from the stage for tips. On the first shrill note of the bag pipe everyone in the auditorium stopped what they were doing. I was expecting Middle Eastern music but instead they played “Amazing Grace” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” They certainly knew their audience. Commerce is the best teacher.


Danny and Sherry Wright are EthnoTraveler contributors. They live in Amman.