Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 4, 2009

The Many Lives of Jerash

A Sense of Empire

Wandering through the extensive and very open Roman ruins of Jerash, you get a profound sense of empire. Located just under an hour from the modern capital of Amman — and in a very Middle Eastern environment and landscape — Jerash also makes you begin to realize what an enormous and precarious construction any human empire is. And as we know through the luxury of historical hindsight, “in the great scheme of things” empires come and go. This, I suppose, is part of the fascination of Jerash and the lesson that you learn here — we are mortal and our societies and civilizations are ultimately also just moments in time. But while they last, and even long after they have declined, there is so much in them to experience, appreciate, and enjoy.

As Roman ruins go, Jerash is the most beautiful and best preserved that I have ever seen, and as far from Rome as I have been in what was once one of the greatest empires on the planet. It is this geographical distance and context that also makes Jerash all the more remarkable.

In part, the great beauty of Jerash is due to the light and expansive terrain of the Jordanian desert environment, but it is also the sight lines and the way this ancient Roman city can still be visualized which gives Jerash its timeless and out-of-time quality.

Jerash is also a metaphor for the transience of human civilizations that leave great treasures in their wake. Jerash — occupied for more than 6500 years — is the embodiment of the Greco-Roman world that once dominated the Mediterranean basin; an empire suspended in time. It is also the remains of the Roman Empire that was eventually assimilated into an Arabic civilization.

The visitor enters Jerash almost triumphantly, Roman-like, through Hadrian’s Triumphal Arch. Yes, that Hadrian. The same guy who built the wall in that other far away Roman province of Britannia to keep the tribes from the Scottish north from invading and destabilizing another frontier of the empire. And although Jerash itself has a history that pre-dates the Romans, its Golden Age occurred under Roman rule.

Located in a peaceful valley among the mountains of Gilead, Jerash and its origins are open to some historical conjecture. It is speculated that the founding of the city may have seen the hand of Alexander the Great, with a little help later on from Ptolemy II who changed what one day would be the city of Amman into a Hellenistic city, naming it Philadelphia. Archeological evidence shows that Jerash was a Neolithic settlement about 2500 BCE. Much later (after the decline of the Roman Empire) it became a target for the Persian invasion of 614 AD. During the time of the Crusaders who came to wrest this part of the world from the “infidels” (history is replete with ironies of all kinds), some of the city’s most beautiful monuments, such as the Temple of Artemis, were converted into fortresses. By the middle of the fourth century, Jerash had a large Christian community and at least 15 Byzantine-era churches have been uncovered in the city, which emphasizes once again the cultural layers and cross-cultural nature of Jerash. One of the Byzantine churches, referred to today in Jerash as “the Cathedral,” was actually a second-century Roman temple of Dionysus, the god of wine. Jerash has also known its Umayyad Period, a dynasty of caliphs of the eventual Islamic empire in the region. And Circassians who immigrated from their homeland in the Caucasus Mountains also settled here in 1878. (A security guard I interviewed at one of our hotels is a recent arrival from Circassia, part of the Russian Federation. His family, like many others who are practising Muslims immigrated to Jordan seeking religious freedom.) Jerash has also known upheaval of another kind; earthquakes have refashioned the city numerous times over the centuries.

The Fine Details of Jerash

From an archeological and aesthetic point of view, it is the immediacy of Jerash that is so powerful. This is certainly true of many other great Roman archeological sites, but there is far less of a sense of detachment from the past here than I have experienced in other sites. It may have something to do with the fact that Jerash is not on the “tourist route” to the same extent as the Coliseum in Rome or the Pont du Gard in Provence. But it is also due to the preservation of the fine human details of this site. (The city was buried for a long time under sand before it was re-discovered in 1806 by a German traveller named Ulrich Jasper Seetzen.)

At Jerash you feel the human presence from the Roman time the moment you walk under Hadrian’s Arch. And as you circumnavigate the elegant and marvelously symmetrical oval Plaza, or proceed down the telescoped Colonnaded Street, or gaze at the intricate detailed carvings in the Nymphaneum, your senses and your cognition will fill in the bits and pieces that have been lost in time and “complete the picture” as in no other Roman ruin I have visited. And if you are fortunate enough to be invited to test the acoustics of the Roman theatre — yours truly performed a quick rendition of Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose to a near empty theatre (the story of my life) — you will hear the resonance of history. You may even be tempted to take your turn and pronounce, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him; .”

In Jerash you risk being transported.

slideshowiconTo view a slide show of Jerash, click here.

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