Visiting Jordan’s Spectacular Roman Ruins With Kids

Jerash with kids

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.

Former shops in the ruins of Umm Qais
Former shops in the ruins of Umm Qais

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.

The black basalt amphitheatre of Umm Qais
The black basalt amphitheatre

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.

The view down to the Sea of Galilee from Umm Qais' viewpoint
The view down to the Sea of Galilee from Umm Qais’ viewpoint

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.

Colonnaded terrace at Umm Qais
Colonnaded terrace

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.

Ajloun Castle

View from Ajloun Castle
View from Ajloun Castle

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
The entrance to Ajloun Castle, over a dry moat

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.

Room in Ajloun Castle
One of the rooms in Ajloun Castle

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.

Staircase inside Ajloun Castle
Staircase inside Ajloun Castle

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

Hadrian's Arch from Jerash outskirts
View of Jerash from our restaurant. Can you see Hadrian’s Arch?

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
Hadrian’s Arch – the gateway to Jerash’s ruins

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.

Hippodrome at Jerash
Hippodrome and view to 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.

Forum at Jerash
The Cub walking through 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.

Cardo Maximus, the main street through ancient Jerash
Cardo Maximus, the main street through ancient Jerash

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.

The Nymphaeum. Photo credits: Jurriaan Persyn, Flickr
The Nymphaeum. Photo credits: Jurriaan Persyn, Flickr

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.

Modern Jerash seen from the Propylaeum
Modern Jerash seen from the Propylaeum

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.

Temple of Artemis, Jerash
Temple of Artemis

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.

Pillars of the South Decumanus and modern Jerash in the background
Pillars of the South Decumanus and modern Jerash in the background

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.

The Forum at Jerash
Looking down onto the Forum

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!


68 thoughts on “Visiting Jordan’s Spectacular Roman Ruins With Kids

  1. Only By Land says:

    I visited these places alone, also as part of a private tour. I didn’t take any kids with me but I told the driver to take me to the McDonald’s’ drive thru on the way back. I hope the kids behaved, my daughter would have been running around crazy, she is terrible two!

    • Emily Cole says:

      We’d have done the same if the kids hadn’t needed a rest and food! They weren’t too bad really, though they were worn out by the end!

  2. Nico says:

    So cool! I enjoyed reading your article about Jerash and the roman remains. As you said most of us only know Petra but Jordan has certainly more to offer. Have you been for a desert trip as well? I heard this is also a fantastic experience!

  3. Rashmi and Chalukya says:

    We were quite surprised to learn about the Roman ruins present in Jordan. The amphitheatre and the Ajloun Castle looks wonderful. And the Nymphaeum is incredibly beautiful. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Emily Cole says:

      I had no idea that there were so many Roman ruins, and didn’t realise the extent of the Jerash site. It’s worth a visit!

  4. Joe says:

    Much more to the monuments of Jordan than Petra, it would seem 🙂 These ruins remind me of places like Volubilis in Morocco, or Efes in Turkey – great, expansive and atmospheric Roman ruins that are truly impressive in scale. Sounds like it’s definitely worth checking out!

    • Emily Cole says:

      They are! I haven’t been to either of these – I’ll have to check them out! Probably Palmyra in Syria is/was similar too 🙁

  5. [email protected] says:

    It’s nice to know there are so many other sites in Jordan than Petra. It’s incredible how the Romans once ruled the world and that we still have the chance to witness their presence through these ruins.

    • Emily Cole says:

      Jordan is full of amazing sights to see. The Romans had a huge influence and it’s wonderful to be able to see their buildings so well preserved.

  6. Abby says:

    If I ever make it to Jordan, visiting Petra is on top of my list. But seeing your photos of these ruins got me curious. I’d definitely have something else to add to the list of things to see in Jordan.

  7. Traveling Bytes says:

    I didn’t know about Roman ruins in Jordan. Great to learn something new and extend proverbial bucket list. Pillars of the South Decumanus in front of Jerash reminded me of Sicilian Agrigento where I took a similar shot of ancient Greek city ruins juxtaposed with modern buildings. I guess it’s not such a rare sight in some parts of the world where Greeks and Romans roamed around, but still so irresistible for aspiring photographers.

    • Emily Cole says:

      I’ve never been to see any Greek ruins, but I will have to! Greek and Roman ruins aren’t something that I get to see much of. The contrast between the two sides of the town was what I liked about Jerash.

    • Emily Cole says:

      South of Amman is the Jordan that I imagined, also beautiful but in a very stark way. It’s worth going north to see the contrast.

  8. Amanda @ LVV Travel says:

    To answer your first question, no, I had no idea that the oldest Roman ruins were in Jordan! Some great info and beautiful photos that I’m sure have surprised a lot of people, myself included. Will definitely visit this place when I (eventually) make it to Jordan.

  9. Kaylene Chadwell says:

    I keep hearing great things about Jordan; I really want to visit! This looks like the kind of trip I’d enjoy, and what a cool place to take yours kids! I love your photos of the ruins; you really captured the beauty!

    • Emily Cole says:

      It was amazing; we have agreed that other than our honeymoon (South Africa & Zanzibar) it’s the best trip we’ve done.

  10. valisesetgourmandises says:

    Wow! It’s nice to hear about something else than Petra.
    I’ve been wanting to go to Jordan for a long time, but I must admit that the current situation in the region isn’t very attracting… It does sound like a wonderful country to visit though, and the photos are beautiful!

    • Emily Cole says:

      Unfortunately Jordan’s neighbours’ troubles have really hit the tourism industry there. It was super quiet. However we felt safe and welcome the whole time – probably the friendliest country I’ve visited (except perhaps Thailand).

  11. Nancy says:

    I never realized how much there is to see in Jordan beyond Petra. Even though Petra is high on my list of places to see I’d also love to visit Ajloun Castle too.

    • Emily Cole says:

      Until I started booking our trip, I didn’t realise either! Ajloun and Jerash could be done in a day trip from Amman as they’re quite close to each other. I wouldn’t miss Jerash.

  12. The Roaming says:

    Wow I never knew about all of these Roman ruins before! Like you said only Petra really comes mind when you think of Jordan, which makes it an even more fascinating place to visit with so much more to see!

  13. Brianna says:

    I’ve wanted to visit Jordan to see Petra, for a long time. Now I want to see even more! Thanks for showing us the other incredible sights this country has to offer. It sounds like you rented a car during your trip. How was your experience driving here?

    • Emily Cole says:

      It was a lot more beautiful than I expected. Lots of rolling hills in Amman and the north, and the vast expanse of the Wadi Rum desert further south.

    • Emily Cole says:

      Ha ha, travelling definitely changes after you have kids. Not worse, not better, just different! Glad you liked the post.

  14. Ali May says:

    The more I read about Jordan, the more i want to go! What an amazing walk through history -I’m so impressed that the kids handled such a massive day of exploring (those naps were well deserved at the end). I’d also love to visit Ajloun Castle too.

    • Emily Cole says:

      It’s a great country. Yes the kids did very well, but they’re quite good at travelling in cars as the motion sends them to sleep. Still they did better than we hoped!

  15. 2travellingsisters says:

    Roman ruins in Jordan is something I have never heard about, I could only link Jordan to Petra and its beautiful Wadis. The Jerash ruins looks very impressive and the Nymphaeum is one of favourites too. The fountain must have been a spectacular sight back in those days. As I love visiting historic sights, all three are going to be on my list when I visit Jordan.

    • Emily Cole says:

      My husband’s the same, fascinated by Romans (but I admit I didn’t know much about them). He thought Jerash was amazing, I’m sure you would too.

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