Did you know that some of the world’s best preserved Roman ruins are not in Italy, but in Jordan? Then you know more than I did when we went on our family trip to Jordan! Jordan’s other ancient attractions have to live in the shadow of the mighty Petra, and so not many people have heard of them. We spent a long but utterly fascinating day visiting some of these wonderful, but lesser-known sights.
The Decapolis city of Gadara
From our hotel in Amman we drove north, towards the Syrian border and Umm Qais.
Jordan is quite green north of Amman, which surprised me. I was expecting it to be desert across all the country, but there were olive groves and fruit trees scattered all over the hills. It had an almost Mediterranean feel, but made me think of Malta rather than Italy. We saw olives for sale at lots of roadside stalls. Other vendors were selling fruits and vegetables and our driver, Nabil, stopped for us to try some deliciously sweet bananas and mangoes.
Umm Qais (or Umm Qays) was once the Decapolis city of Gadara. The Decapolis was a group of Roman cities throughout the Middle East which had strong trade links and a small measure of autonomy. These cities eventually lost their trading ties after the Umayyad Caliphate moved their centre to Damascus. Some, like Philadelphia (modern day Amman) survived, but others, like Gadara, fell into ruin.
Umm Qais differs from many of the other ancient Roman cities as it was built from black basalt. It was a lively town and the remains of shops and baths can be seen among the colonnaded streets. It was also a cultural centre as it was home to several philosophers and poets. The most complete part of the ruins is the lovely amphitheatre.
Not much of Umm Qais is left but it does have an interesting setting. It’s perched on the top of a hill which gives some amazing views over the surrounding countries. From here you can see Jordan, Syria (gulp) and Israel. The main things to look for are the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberius). If you’re lucky you might also see Mt Hermon. Though it was a sunny day, the view was very hazy and we could only just make out Lake Tiberius in the distance.
The ruins at Umm Qais were all but deserted. We saw four other Western tourists, some archaeologists and a group of Jordanian schoolchildren. The only sign of a nearby war zone were a few garrisons that our driver pointed out to us. Despite setting eyes on Syria itself, we felt safe. You wouldn’t have any idea a war was going on over those hills.
We moved south, on to Ajloun Castle, or Qa’lat ar-Rabad, where we were again treated to some wonderful views over the countryside. These stupendous views became something of a theme during our trip – we couldn’t believe what a photogenic country Jordan is. None of the views were ever the same, either.
Ajloun Castle was built by one of Saladin’s generals during the Crusades in 1184AD (so this section isn’t about Roman ruins!). The hill it sits on is very steep and so it is unlikely that anyone ever bothered to try to invade it – it would have been impossible! However, it was partly destroyed by the Mongols in 1260, although it was rebuilt quickly afterwards. Today it is partly in ruins as it was hit by two large earthquakes in 1837 and 1927.
It is structurally safe to enter, and so in we went. The kids loved this castle. There were large rooms to scamper about in and a beautifully lit staircase. While the rooms were empty, there was a room full of artefacts from various periods in the castle’s history.
The Cub soon found some admirers and friends and we spent quite a while posing for selfies with some other families. It was fun to meet some Jordanians and we managed to have a chat despite the language barrier.
The Astounding Ruined City of Jerash
After a short drive, we reached the city of Jerash. We stopped for a much-needed rest and lunch at a restaurant on the outskirts, where we sat in the shade and looked out over the town. Lunch was a typical Jordanian buffet with breads, salads, rice, and meats for the husband. As a vegetarian, I managed fairly well at these buffets throughout our trip. The Cub will only eat about three things, one of which is rice, so she was able to find something too. But I digress.
Modern Jerash is mainly built on one side of a valley, while the Roman ruins are on the other. These ruins were once part of the Decapolis city of Gerasa. The preserved ruins were those of Gerasa’s commercial and civic hub and the houses were built where modern Jerash now stands. There are inscriptions which tell that Jerash was founded by Alexander the Great, or perhaps one of his generals. It was most successful between the first and third centuries AD, and had strong trade ties with the Nabateans as well as being part of the Decapolis.
But how did such a large city fall into ruin and lie buried, forgotten under the sands for so long? Jerash was destroyed by an earthquake around 749AD. As a consequence, its population decreased. Some also say that the remaining inhabitants believed the town to be cursed so it was not rebuilt. Gradually, the city was buried by sand, and lost to memory. The ruins were discovered in 1806 and have been excavated and rebuilt for decades, but it is estimated that only a third of the city has been uncovered so far.
Hadrian’s Arch is the first part of Gerasa (as Jerash was known) that you see as you drive into town. This was built to honour the visit of the Emperor Hadrian. You enter the site through this spectacular gateway and to your left you will immediately see the Hippodrome. A show is performed in this former sports field and chariot racetrack twice a day. Roman soldiers demonstrate a variety of military manoeuvres and it is apparently very good. From here you can get a lovely view up to the rest of the ruins.
We were running late though and Nabil was keen to get us to the main ruins quickly. In winter Jerash closes at 4.30pm and the shadows were already lengthening. We hired a guide at the South Gate and walked into the Forum.
At 90m long, the oval Forum is nothing short of magnificent. Most of its columns and the beams across the top still stand, with only a couple having been restored. The original paving radiates out from the centre in circles (well, ovals). This would have been used as a marketplace and commercial centre to the city. The Cub had a good run around here, and even she seemed to appreciate that she was somewhere quite special. Bee, on the other hand, had passed out in the baby carrier and was oblivious.
We were directed through the Forum to the main street, the Cardo Maximus. This long, straight avenue was also lined with pillars and remains of shops either side, like the ones we’d seen earlier in Umm Qais. The original paving survives on this road too; cart-tracks were clearly imprinted on the stones which were set at a diagonal angle so as to not break the wheels of the carts.
The Cardo Maximus has two tetrapylons, and we walked by the South Tetrapylon. Four giant pillars would have marked the intersection with the South Decumanus, another large pillared street. The ruins at Jerash are in such a good condition that it was easy to imagine how it would have appeared, how people went about their business, and a glimpse into what life might have been like. The city must have been stunning at the height of its power, there was obviously a huge amount of wealth here.
We walked about halfway along this street (as time was short) and stopped by the beautiful Nymphaeum. This wonderful fountain was dedicated to the water nymphs and was my favourite part of the city. The Nymphaeum would have been covered in plaster and painted beautifully. There is a tiny piece of plaster left with green and yellow paint, but of course all other trace of the decor has been lost. At the top is the remains of the half-dome which would have covered the fountain. The water poured out near the base through lions’ heads into the pool where the townspeople would have drawn their water. I imagine that this would have been a great social hub with people catching up and gossiping with friends, a bit like a giant water cooler at work.
Just next to the Nymphaeum and roughly halfway down the Cardo Maximus was the Propylaeum, the enormous gateway to the temple of Artemis. We walked up the steps, the Cub beginning to flag. Looking back there was a lovely juxtaposition of ancient Gerasa framing modern Jerash across the river.
The sun was now sinking fast so we couldn’t linger here for long. Behind the temple we could see where the excavation of Jerash has slowed. Pillars were just poking out of the sandy hill by the temple. Our guide told us that while excavations are continuing, they are usually done by students and semesters are very short.
We were now able to look down over the ruins as we turned and walked back towards the Temple of Zeus and the South Theatre. The pillars and the modern town behind were taking on a gorgeous glow in the fading light. We just had time to look around the South Theatre which was putting on a bagpipe show, of all things. It finished just as we arrived, and the site was now closing so we had to head back to meet our driver. Exhausted, we all slept on the way back to Amman.
Know before you go
We visited Jordan on a private tour so we had a driver to take us to the sights. Many tour operators will offer a similar itinerary. You won’t be able to see all three of these sites in a day if you’re going by public transport, it will simply take too long.
While Umm Qais was interesting, don’t visit it after seeing Jerash or you will be disappointed.
Allow plenty of time for Jerash. There was a fair bit of this ruined Roman city that we didn’t manage to see, which was a shame. If we’d visited in the summer we would have had longer as the site is open until about 7pm rather than 4.30pm in November. If we had not had our children with us we would have skipped lunch and gone straight to Jerash. As it was, our visit was a little rushed and you always go slower when you’ve got little ones with you. I would say you would want a good 3 hours here, possibly more if you like to linger and soak up the atmosphere.
I wouldn’t have missed Jerash for the world – if you’re going to Jordan, make sure it’s on your itinerary, and leave plenty of time to look around!