Americans call a building old if it stands for 50 years. Europeans consider 500 years a very respectable age. But in the Middle East nothing is considered really old unless it goes back at least 3000 years.
By those standards the ruined city of Jerash, a city in northwest Jordan, halfway between the capital city of Amman and the town of Ramtha, near the Syrian border, is only relatively ancient. It was built by the Romans sometime about 65 B.C.
Actually, Jerash—known as Gerasa originally—was settled as early as 5,000 or 6,000 years ago, but it did not become a city of any importance until about the third or fourth century B.C. About then, according to some sources, Ptolemy II of Egypt founded a city. Others believe it was Alexander the Great or one of his generals. In any case, by the time the Romans, under Pompey, came to Jerash, the city was probably a rather prosperous community, being an important stop on the caravan route which led from South Arabia to Damascus via Petra. But if prosperous, it was not attractive—at least in the eyes of the new masters, who almost immediately began to enlarge and beautify it as only history's city planners and builders par excellence, could.
As an important city in the province of Syria, the wealth and influence of Jerash developed swiftly. But as an outpost of the Empire its economy depended to a large extent on the mighty state's well-being. Thus when the Empire's imperceptible decline began—toward the end of the 2nd century—it was inevitable that Jerash would feel the consequences, especially since overland caravan traffic had begun to succumb to the competition of faster and cheaper sea routes.
But Jerash was a healthy city at heart and in spite of slowly worsening conditions, it managed to hold its own for a long time. It even staged a number of comebacks. Then, in the year 614, almost 50 years after the end of the reign of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian I, Persian forces invaded Jerash and destroyed large sections of it. Some 20 years later the Arabs attacked and after that there were earthquakes. Still Jerash survived, though by then a largely ruined city with only one-third of its original population left. The death blow came when Baldwin II, Crusader King of Jerusalem, invaded Jerash sometime between 1118 and 1131 and demolished it so thoroughly that the Arabs coined an expression, "like the ruins of Jerash," which is still used today to describe a scene of utter destruction.
Like so many of the ancient cities of the Middle East, Jerash was then buried in the sand and rubble that sifted in from the desert day by day for 800 years. Part of the ruins were still visible when some European travelers, including Burckhardt, discoverer of Petra, passed through the area in the beginning of the 19th century. But it was not until 1920 that the government of Trans-Jordan started to excavate and restore what the experts say is the best-preserved city of Roman times in that area.
Today, reborn Jerash is one of Jordan's main attractions. It is also one of the easiest to reach. It lies on the main route from Damascus in Syria to Amman and Jerusalem in Jordan. The road, in fact, runs through it, and travelers coming from Syria get an unexpected and overwhelming view of its most memorable feature: the huge, elliptical, colonnaded Forum.
Driving from Amman or Jerusalem, the first important landmark one sees at Jerash is a large, triple triumphal arch built in A.D. 129 to mark the visit of the emperor Hadrian. Then comes the Forum—with its unique elliptical shape outlined by curving lines of columns—then the main street, and, after a short climb, a single pillar marking the site of the Temple of Zeus. Admirably restored is the nearby.
South Theater with a seating capacity of well over 4,000. Its acoustics are excellent and even the famous, though often shyly whispered words, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears..." come through remarkably loud and clear.
Like the Forum, the main street of Jerash is paved with large slabs of stones and lined with columns. About 100 of these columns, partly in the Ionic, partly in the Corinthian order, still stand. Prominent on the surface of the road are the ruts carved by chariot wheels, and sunk into the surface are manhole covers leading to the drainage system. Off the main street are numerous sights: a ruined Christian cathedral and numerous churches, the South Tetrapylon and the Nymphaeum, which used to be a temple as well as an ornate public fountain. Then comes the Propylae, the beautiful entrance to the most important antiquity in Jerash: the Temple of Artemis, the city's patron goddess. From ground level grand stairs rise to a spacious platform measuring 530 by 400 feet. Toward the center, on another platform 132 by 73 feet, stands the temple proper with a few majestic pillars, remnants of a superb colonnade, still standing. They are almost 54 feet high. Off the main street too can be found other ruins: the North Tetrapylon which was dedicated to Julia Domna, wife of Emperor Septimus Severus; the remains of Jerash's second, smaller theater, the North Theater; and the West Baths.
These are the main antiquities of Jerash, nearly all of Roman origin. Very little is left which was built, added or changed by those who inhabited Jerash after the Romans left and one wonders what the reason could be. Did the Romans have more qualified craftsmen than the others? Did they use better materials? Was it simply a question of money or time? Or could it be that the Romans possessed in abundance what neither their predecessors nor successors could imitate or improve on—the quality of grandeur?
Jan van Os, formerly with Aramco World Magazine is now an assistant editor of the Dutch edition of the Reader's Digest.