Jerash is one of Jordan’s biggest secrets except for the fact that it’s not really much of a secret at all. Lack of reliable and time efficient public transportation in addition to more heavily marketed sites such as Petra and Wadi Rum have people and many tours overlooking these majestic ruins. This is good news for the independent traveler as you will most likely have the place to yourself, if you get up early enough, and is already included on your Jordan Pass (more details on this in a later post)
Jerash: Finest Roman Ruins Outside of Italy
It is not hard to imagine how important and significant this city was back almost 2,000 years ago. During its heyday, Jerash was a leading member of the Decapolis league, a group of powerful cities that made up Rome’s far eastern empire. Rightfully named The City of a Thousand Columns there are few ancient Roman cities outside of Italy itself that take your breath away like Jerash. Greeks and Romans weren’t the only ones to leave their mark in the area though. Walking through what remains of the city takes you through the city’s long history from Greco-Roman times, to Byzantine, to the Umayyad Caliphate, to the crusades, and finally to the Ottoman period.
Despite its impressive resume, Jerash remains Jordan’s most underrated sight. We were surprised to find so few people at the complex when we visited. During our four hours that we spent there, we saw two tour groups and a few other independent travelers. Given the size of the archeological site, it felt like we had the place to ourselves given the number of tourists that were there. Recently, only about 180,000 people visit the site each year (including domestic tourists). Take advantage of this ruined city before the already open secret becomes wide open.
What to See While in Jerash
After winding our way through the souq near the ticket office, dodging scarf and perfume sellers left and right, we flashed our Jordan passes and entered Jerash through the impressive Hadrian’s Arch. A triumphal arch built to honor the then visiting emperor, the arch serves as a grand entrance and introduction to the impressive ruins that lie after it. As we passed through the arch, we got our first glimpse of how extensive the site is. We looked in awe at the seemingly endless array of columns that covered each of the hills that gradually climbed higher and higher into the distance.
Directly after Hadrian’s Arch lies the rather large Hippodrome, with enough of the complex remaining to imagine the Chariot races that occurred here in front of 15,000 people its seats could hold. Around the edges of the Hippodrome you can explore the lines of stables that once housed the horses of those who braved the dangerous sport. Be sure to climb up into the stands where you can get a unobstructed view of the whole city.
The Hadrian Arch and the Hippodrome are not within the ancient city walls. The south Gate, one of the four entrances into the city proper, now serves as the only gateway into the wonders of the ancient city.
Passing through the Southern gate and winding our way through a vaulted gallery, we were led into Jerash’s most impressive monument that still stands today, the forum. The oval shaped plaza was the heart of the city. During ancient times, the Forum would be the main gathering place where many would meet to discuss politics and socialize among a bustling market place. Talk of politics and trade no longer dominate the square but the area still serves as a bustling place, as it is the only place where groups of tourists and locals tend to bump into each other. The 56 columns that surround the forum, with hundreds more leading out along the main road through the city’s Cardo Maximus, is a place to sit for a while in order to take everything in.
Temple of Zeus
Once you have gotten enough of the views from below, in order to truly appreciate the forum and its surroundings, climbing up to the nearby Temple of Zeus offers your best view from above. The temple, rising above much of the city, was one the most important in the area as offerings and sacrifices occurred here daily. For us, the temple served as a great escape from the heavy rain shower that soaked the whole area for a short period of time.
After dodging the rain, we made our way to the very well preserved Roman theater. After you think you’ve seen it all here, climbing into the upper seating of the theater and gazing down onto the once busy stage below and looking out into both ancient and modern Jerash in the distance strikes you into a state of awe once more. The modern city that surrounds Jerash, with its sprawling sandstone colored buildings, offers a perfect backdrop for the green space and columns, that make up ancient Jerash. As tour groups pass through, you can hear them surprisingly well from high above due to the great acoustics found in the amphitheater.
Temple of Artemis
From the theater, we made our way North through the lush green hills as we passed through less discernible remains of byzantine churches and settlements. Among these ruins, boys no more than seven years old tended to their family’s flock of goats and sheep which grazed unknowingly among the ruble of a time long past. After passing the South Decumanus, the road that leads to the Cardo Maximus, our eyes became fixed on the Temple of Artemis, standing prominently among the mostly destroyed remains of several Byzantine churches. The once marble clad temple, housing statues and treasure dedicated to Artemis, was picked apart after the Edict of Theodorius which allowed for the dismantling of pagan temples. Since then, parts of the temple were taken and used to build churches, while the temple itself was used as an artisan workshop by the Byzantines. During the 12th century, the Arabs turned it into a fortress which would be destroyed by invading crusaders, giving the current thick but damaged walls that form the current state of the temple today. Now, the temple serves as a sanctuary from the glaring sun for the tea sellers that occupy the temple’s interior.
The highlight of the Temple today is the 11 remaining sandstone pillars that stand tall in front of the temple’s entrance. The sun soaked pillars glow golden, making these the most beautiful set of pillars among the thousand or so pillars that occupy the site today. If you bump into another group here, be sure to wait around to have these pillars to yourself in order to truly appreciate their beauty.
Less impressive than its bigger sibling down south
Not far from the Temple of Artemis, is the Southern Theaters little sibling, the North Theater. Thought to be used for political meetings rather than for theatrical performances, the theater would have been able to hold some 2,000 people and retains a similar capacity today after extensive restoration.
Church of Bishop Isaiah and Roman Bath House
Next to the theater, the church of Bishop Isaiah retains some well preserved, albeit defaced, floor mosaics before making your way to what remains of the Roman bath house. The bath houses were largely destroyed by an earthquake, but the site is the most interesting to explore as you climb up and down through the remaining rubble. The site is also home to the earliest known example of a dome placed upon a rectangular room, a fine example of the engineering ingenuity of the Romans. The remaining rubble also provides nice views of the Northern section of the colonnaded Cardo Maximus.
Cardo Maximus and the Nymphaeum
Wrapping up our day in Jerash by walking along the Cardo Maximus back into the Forum was a perfect way to conclude our visit. Both sides of the main road are lined with columns, passing by what were once grand temples and fountains. The most impressive along the way is the Nymphaeum which was the largest ornamental fountain of Jerash. Much of the original carvings and elaborate stone work remains, giving you a sense of what this fountain must have been when water poured through the mouths of the seven lions that once lined the fountain. After marching down the main street, we made sure to take one last moment to contemplate all of the columns, ancient structures, and local shepherds tending their flocks before heading back the way came.
Get to Jerash Before the Crowds Find It
When visiting Jerash, it is hard to realize how such an awe inspiring site can still be so quiet and left unnoticed by most of the world. As tourism becomes increasingly important for the economy of Jordan, this ‘little open secret’ won’t remain quiet for long. Before rushing down to the delights of Southern Jordan be sure to check out Jerash, one of the many impressive sights waiting to be explored in Northern Jordan.