Jerash and Umm Quays - ancient Rome a la Jordan
09.04.2012 - 09.04.2012 29 °C
It’s 8am, the 3rd day of our holiday and the first without a pre-booked hotel. The only thing we know for certain is that we want to see Jerash, a second best known Jordanian tourist destination after Petra.But other than that, we are pouring over our map and a travel guide, plotting what else we might want to see, whilst knowing from past adventures that we tend to be over-ambitious, typically resulting in the need to cut itineraries short and search for hotels in the dark.
Escaping Amman this time was almost easy - we only knowingly took one wrong turn, from which we recovered quickly. The drive to Jerash was through a mountainous and much greener landscape than the previous day’s excursion to the East , and it was not long until we spotted the huge antic site from the road.
Finding the visitor car park and entrance took a little longer though, as thanks to the misleading signposting, we took a detour right through the middle of Jerash’s souks and then circled the entire place before stumbling on the entrance almost next to the spot where we first spotted the ruins half an hour earlier. On the other hand, this unplanned tour gave us some good views over the old and new town and a photo of a typical Jordanian U-turn traffic light.
We barely left the car when we were already solicited by a local restaurant owner patrolling the carpark for potential customers. We politely declined by promising we would come after we explored the site and headed for the entrance. We had especially picked Monday for the Jerash visit as we thought there would be less people than on the weekend – but masses of shoving and pushing school children proved us wrong. By the time we reached the ticket booth, we were a bit apprehensive if we were going to have an enjoyable visit here.
However, the site itself is so vast that once inside, people quickly disperse. We didn’t even mind the couple of hundred kids that somehow mistook M for a celebrity and kept welcoming her to Jordan whilst asking to have a photo taken with her. Now to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t just school kids. Throughout the entire visit, teenage boys and grown women alike, all decided to ogle at M and kept bombarding her with snippets of English questions and requests for a private photo shoot. Slightly torn between feeling left out and bathing in the exuberant friendliness of the locals, I concentrated on taking in the fantastic sights all around us. So lets dwell a bit on where we spent the next 5 or so hours.
We entered the historic area through the recently restored Hadrian’s Gate and immediately stood next to the Hippodrome – the old Roman “sports” arena. This building is outside the old city walls and open to the public, which is apparent by the many salesmen offering water, souvenirs and a regular Hippodrome show. After learning that an upcoming show included Roman soldiers, I hesitated half a microsecond and bought us tickets. A bit pricy and M thought we could have just sneaked in for free at the side, but I definitely didn’t want to miss it and decided not to take any chances and secure us prime view seats.
We had about 45 min before the show and used the time to explore the Hippodrome arena. This chariot racing venue would have seated 15000 spectators, i.e. half the towns population in its time – which actually made it a small venue back then! Many of the old structures had collapsed over the centuries and so we were able to just wonder out on the west side, where we stumbled upon some stables with a couple of chariots lying outside.We started chatting to one of the guys looking after the horses and discovered that he was one of the chariot drivers in the show. Super friendly, he tried to teach us a few extra words Arabic and revealed that he had 3 kids and four days ago a chariot racing accident where he suffered a groin injury and needed 15 stitches. Today he would race anyway, but there would be only two rather than the usual three chariots and he would take it a bit easy – nevertheless, he kept on raving on how fast these chariots pulled by 2 horses go and thus building up our expectations.
A little later we got ourselves seated on the East terraces and watched as Roman Legionaries started to gather on the far side preparing for the show. Some schoolgirls started talking to M and inquired about her name and whereabouts, only to be completely puzzled by this totally alien country called Czech Republic – they were rescued by the start of the entertainment.
The show itself had three parts, all nicely accompanied by a narrator. First came 20 or so Roman Legionaries marching and exercising, demonstrating roman army fighting techniques and their weapons – heaven if you like that sort of thing as I do.This was followed by some mock gladiator battles which audience participation – albeit limited to thumps up or thumps sideways (not down!). Finally the chariots entered, and whilst they were flying down at great speed the full length of the arena and did daring tight turns, it wasn’t done as a proper race, so we felt a little let down as we couldn’t cheer for ‘our’ driver.
Time to head to the historic town inside the old city walls. We entered though the south gate, and here M’s time of glory really kicked off. We could barely move 10m before another schoolchild approached her, friendly inquired about her name and whereabouts, before welcoming her to Jordan and asking for permission to have her picture taken with her.The most amazing moment was when a whole group of girls approached M for happy banter, resulting in one of them singing the Adele song ‘someone like you’ to her in an X-factor worthy performance. In the end they all posed for a fantastic group shot.
M definitely looked the part of a beautiful celebrity with long open ginger red hair, big sunglasses and floating trendy clothes, but we never before experienced such overwhelming, warm and friendly openness, as we did from those local Jordan teenage girls.
The surroundings also helped to make this totally special. Let’s talk about a few of the highlights we spotted whilst wandering around the vast areal of ruins. First there is the Oval Forum, with the 700m long Cardo (Jerash’s ancient main road) leading from the Forum to the North Gate, both lined with hundreds of columns.Then there is the massive Artemis Temple ruin complex, with multiple levels connected by impressive Hollywood style steps. You can’t miss the remains of the very heavily damaged Zeus temple offering fantastic views over the Forum and the Cardo. There are two amphitheatres at opposite ends of the town, with the north theatre being furthest from the entrance offering a great place to sit and have a quiet mini picnic – when we did just that we got to chat to a local policeman happy for any distraction and a private singing performance by some American girls for which the big empty stage was just too big a temptation to miss. There are ruins of several churches build in the 5th and 6th century dotted across the areal, one with an almost perfectly preserved mosaic floor – thanks to being protected for centuries by a collapsed roof on top of it, whilst fragments of ancient mosaics were accessible for close examination in church ruins nearby.
A fate common to many of Jordan’s historical sites is the regular occurrence of heavy earthquakes causing havoc to building structures, often resulting in towns being abandoned for decades or centuries after the devastating events. The impact of these earthquakes is visible all around Jerash, with the one of 747 being thought to have started the decline and subsequent abandonment of the city. Rediscovered in the 18-hundreds, half of the antic Jerash survives today as ruin field, attracting a million visitors a year, whilst the other half has been built over and is now the modern day town – both being separated by a main road and the Jerash River.
Leaving the historic town, M was once more unexpectedly complemented, this time by the toilet lady over her hair, whereas I had to content with comments form young male shopkeepers on how lucky I am having her.
We had almost reached the car, when the aforementioned restaurant owner spotted us and reminded us of the promise made hours earlier. Having been won over by the Jordanian friendliness during our visit, we complied and had coffee and juice in his establishment.
Refreshed we set off to our next stop in the far North, Umm Quays (Gadara) at the boarder to Syria and Israel. The drive was uneventful, but took longer then we thought and it was already half past four by the time we arrived. Smaller and further from Amman, Umm Quays has a sleepy feel. The site offers great views over the Jordan Valley with a glimpse of the sea of Galilee, however, the main attraction are its ruins out of black basalt, including a small amphitheatre. A highlight are the ruins of an 6th byzantine church – even though only a few basalt and sandstone columns and some tiled flooring remain from its past glory. What made the site odd though was a large number of abandoned buildings that looked as if they were constructed out of ancient ruin material in very recent times.
Whilst Umm Quays would have been a fantastic place to explore on any normal day, we were by now a little ‘ruined out’ and cut our explorations short, skipping the further outlying buildings suggested by our travel guide. By now it was nearing six pm, we didn’t have a clue yet where to stay for the night and started to get hungry. Whilst we had spotted a sign for a hotel in Umm Quays as we approached the museum complex, we decided not to follow up and head back south towards the Dead Sea before stopping near Pella, so that we would have less driving the following day.
Simple plan, just drive down to the Jordan valley, follow the road along the Jordan River and find a hotel, hopefully before it turns dark. Step one – establish which way to drive from where we are and maybe even get a tip for a hotel. After 15 minutes wandering around the Umm Quays site, trying the deserted ticket office, the deserted tourist police post and having a couple of unsuccessful attempts to talk to tourist stall attendances who where totally startled being confronted with a map, I eventually found a driver in the car park who could at least tell me which way to leave the site in the right direction. Needless to say, didn’t quite get to the point of asking for a hotel recommendation.
Not put off by this little starting difficulty, we set off in the suggested direction and after 15 minutes hit our first armed military checkpoint. An initial nervousness from being asked by an armed post where we were going accompanied by rather long stares trying to confirm our passport picture actually matched us, was followed by the question where we were from which inevitable led to a little uneasy discussion as M convinced the solider that the Czech Republic actually exists and is in Europe. A minute later we were let through with a warm “Welcome to Jordan”. We took this as a positive sign that we were on the right track down into the valley and toward Pella.
There were a couple of further armed checkpoints along the way and down in the valley lots of farmland and greenhouses, with long columns of colourful mini trucks packed to the brim with vegetables on the road, seemingly all heading for the Israel border crossing points. Here we also passed a roadside shanty town that we could only assume was an established refugee camp.We saw little village bustling with life outside the small shops, lush green next to dirty dust fields where the irrigation no longer reached and little boys playing by the road on their bicycles and donkeys. A couple of things we didn’t spot though: the Jordan river and any sign of a hotel or B&B, which started to bother us a little as the daylight started to fade.
Eventually we were passing the Pella junction and decided to up our game. At the next town we stopped and I went into the first shop to ask for a hotel. The first person I talked to understood me well enough to call a colleague from the back. He suggested turning around and heading to the Pella site and there would be a hotel. 2 minutes later he stopped the traffic for me to let me back on the road, as during the brief stop a rush hour gridlock traffic jam had formed out of nowhere just where we had pulled up.
Driving up a steep road to Pella, we didn’t see any signs of a hotel and after 5 minutes we stopped at the entrance gate to the historic site, wondering if we missed something. The security booth at the entrance was deserted, but a local farmer walked on the street and I asked him for directions to the hotel. Surprisingly he didn’t know of any hotel nearby, or he just didn’t understand me. Getting back in the car, we decided to drive further along the road to look for the hotel and after only 200m we were lucky – there was a sign for the Pella Countryside Hotel, and standing right in front of it was the owner. He got in the car and we drove up a little alley past his house to the small hotel.
After getting a functional en-suite double room, we got invited to his house for dinner – a part of the overnight package at the only family hotel in Jordan, as he later proudly told us. Desperate for a shower after a long day on Jordan’s dustiest sites, M insisted on having a shower before heading to the family house for traditional Jordanian nibbles. Despite being sure we were at the right house, it took a while before we eventually attracted the attention Mrs. Hotel owner and got shown to a beautifully flowering garden with a couple of laid tables.
The food started to appear soon after and it became clear, that try as we might, there would be leftovers. Traditional Jordanian mezze were absolutely delicious, flushed in with freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice and our compliments to the lady and man of the house earned satisfied smiles.
One of the highlights was the opportunity to talk to the owner Mr Theeb Hussein Jawahreh and his wife about life in Pella, their family and his experience as a travel-guide contributor. It is always fascinating to find out how people live, but admittedly we were not a little surprised when the proud parents informed us that many of their children are doctors, architects, lawyers and engineers in Jordan and other countries, where many of them now work.
Soon upon our arrival, our host informed us about an Austrian photographer – old tree expert – author – biologist, who might be joining us for dinner at some point. Not before long, a noise at the gate gave away the arrival of this special guest, who turned out to be not Austrian, but Czech and a capacity in the field of trees and nature photography – Tomas Micek. Needless to say that M didn’t need any prompting to make sure everyone was aware that Tomas is actually Czech.
With so many diverse and interesting people around the table, the conversation flew until quite late at night, at which point we decided to call it a day and head back up the hill to our room.