RACING INTO THE PAST IN JERASH
My footsteps reverberate along the long colonnaded street in the ancient city of Gerasa. Known to the modern world as Jerash, the Greco-Roman city in Jordan was founded by Alexander the Great and his general Perdiccas.
The well-preserved ruins allow visitors a glimpse into this age old city which according to recent skeletal finds, dates back to Neolithic times. With Roman archeological sites that rival those in Italy, this fascinating metropolis has had a long history of invasion and occupation. As I wander among the ruins, I visualize how life once was for the occupants—chariots rumbling along the old stone-lined streets and gladiators in their armour clanking as they make their way to the Hippodrome. The thought comes to me: would I have liked to be part of that world? I wonder!
As I enter the North Theatre, the security guard says, “Would you like to sing? The acoustics are amazing.” I smile, shake my head, and take a seat in the empty theatre. In my mind’s eye I see the amphitheatre filled with beautifully robed residents enjoying local entertainment. Then suddenly, my attention is caught by a woman who walks in and stands in the center of the stage. She begins to sing in Arabic, and though I cannot understand the words, her voice as it echoes through the theatre, is hauntingly beautiful. She raises her arms to the sky as she lingers on the last note of her song. I clap as loudly as I can. She looks up at me, smiles, bows, and leaves. Astonishing!
Next up, I am invited to attend the “Roman Army and Chariot Experience” (RACE) which reenacts life during Roman times. A man dressed in armour stands atop the stone arches and sounds his horn, signalling the start of the show. Dozens of legionaries march into the Hippodrome, clouds of sand and dust rising from their sandals. Light glints off their armor as they raise their spears and shields. They stand in formation, ready for battle.
The gladiators, their expressions fierce, then enter the Hippodrome. They draw their swords and begin combat. The reenactment demonstrates how gladiators sometimes battled to the death in this ancient venue. Although not all battles were fatal, most fights were bloody and horrific—and while some gladiators were professional fighters, many were unfortunate slaves.
After this exhibition, a team of chariots enters the Hippodrome. With two enormous horses leading each carriage, the three chariots line up to begin their race. Dust billows in their wake as they gallop around the arena. The crowds cheer as they complete their laps.
A winner is declared and as I approach him with my camera, he obligingly strikes the pose of a noble charioteer. He then looks down at me and asks if I would like a ride on his chariot. This is a thrilling once-in-a-lifetime offer, so I climb aboard eagerly and ask whether we could compete with the other chariots. The other drivers smile and agree, so we line up the chariots again and prepare to entertain the crowds with a second race.
The horses charge as the race begins, and I am stunned by their sheer power as they gather speed. I feel like a child with one fist in the air and find myself screaming “Faster! Faster!” The rumble of their hooves seems to reverberate through me, and I am exhilarated by the swirling dust and the wind in my hair. I hold hard onto to the front of the chariot imagining myself a modern-day Athena!
Suddenly, however, the chariot feels unstable, and as we approach the first corner of the ancient Hippodrome the wheels lift as we enter the hairpin turn. My fingernails dig into the edge of the wooden chariot terrified that the chariot might flip. Thankfully it doesn’t. I fall silent as I have abruptly lost my warrior spirit and am relieved when we finally complete a lap of the Hippodrome and the driver reigns in the horses. I thank him and jump off the chariot—euphoric at having survived the race!
Jerash is an amazing city, and I carry with me memories that will last a lifetime.
IF YOU GO:
In addition to the ancient city of Jerash, the entire country of Jordan offers an incredible variety of things to see and do—world heritage sites, luxurious spas and desert adventures. http://www.visitjordan.com/
For more information:
PHOTOS: by Donna Yuen
1. A security guard sits along a colonnaded street in ancient Gerasa
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