Jerash and Ajlun Castle

Called Hadrian’s Arch, this is the first gate you walk through to enter the ancient city of Jerash. It is 36 feet high and built in honor of Roman Emperor Hadrian’s visit during the winter of 129–130 CE.
Detail in the Arch of Hadrian.

We went to bed early but are still not adjusted to the time zone. I was up a lot during the night. Margaret got out of bed at 5:00 am, and I gave up trying to sleep and got up at 5:30. This gave me plenty of time to post in my blog. I took full advantage of it because our Internet in the room has been weak and unreliable, so I’m never sure when I’ll get another chance. We certainly don’t get access to Internet anywhere during the day.

After an hour drive into the rolling forested hills of the country north of Amman, we arrived at the ancient city of Jaresh. The city was founded in the 4th century BCE and had its golden age under Roman rule from 63 BCE to 400 CE with a population of 20,000. There was a protective city wall 3.4 km long. The city was ruined by earthquakes in 749 CE and abandoned. The newcomers assumed there would be tombs in the old city and they did not want to live on top of the graves, so they built off to the side. This was lucky for us because it’s easier to excavate there now.

South Gate of Jerash. Likely constructed in 130 CE and would have held a door in each archway.
Stones showing elaborate carvings
Chariot ruts worn into the stone of the main street through Jerash.
Carved stones line the streets.
Lizard sunbathing on a doorway above me.
M hippodrome
Nashat and me walking beside the Hippodrome. Photo by Margaret Campbell

The city is enormous! We ditched our driver, Nashat, who had a crisis to deal with in one of his other jobs. We spent hours at Jerash, walking the city streets, exploring side streets and buildings everywhere. We never even made it all the way to the other end because we kept getting diverted to new stuff. I could happily spend another two days in Jerash. One of the first things we stopped to look at was the hippodrome, the chariot racing track. It is the smallest known Roman hippodrome, but also the best preserved, though it was ruined in the 749 earthquake like everything else. We were impressed with the large asymmetrical paved plaza surrounded by pillars, called the Oval Plaza. It is unusual in its shape, which follows the contours of the land and served to unite several roads. The Cardo, the street leading away from the plaza, is remarkable. It’s lined entirely by columns. The design is interesting because it was almost entirely rebuilt from its original Roman design by the Byzantines. Beneath the street is a sewage system that probably dates from the middle 3rd century.

The cathedral, built around 450 CE, is the oldest known Byzantine church in Jerash.
The Nymphadeum, a fountain dedicated to nymphs (divine female spirit).
Me, standing at the Propylaeum to the Temple of Artemis.

At the far end of town were some baths, one of them still topped with a domed ceiling that is apparently the only surviving structure of its kind. We looked down onto them from a hill and couldn’t decide at first which direction to go: downhill to the baths and the far gates, or uphill to a low building that multiple other people were headed toward. We voted to follow the others. To my astonishment, the low “building” was actually a bit of wall at the top of a big theatre that we entered from the back. After checking out the theatre, we wandered up to another wonderful structure where a helpful local person showed us all the best places for photos (working for tips, of course!) of red columns coloured by iron in the stone. Then we came across a 6th century church with a well-preserved mosaic floor that I really loved. So often depictions of any living forms were destroyed in this region because of the Islamic belief that it is a sin to “mimic God’s creation” by creating art that shows living things. This floor is believed to have survived because the area was abandoned (and I think it must have been buried or it would have been destroyed anyway).

The surprise North Theatre, and in the distance, the North Gate, that we did not get close to.
At the Temple of Artemis.
Panorama of Jerash.
Margaret and me (and some lady) at the Temple of Artemis.
Mosaic floor of Church of St. Cosmas and Damianos (two Arab physicians). Click the image for a close up. It’s so cool!

We were going to skip the second, larger theatre, except that we kept hearing bagpipes. Before I came to Jordan, I had seen a video that showed bagpipers and drummers performing here, so I knew what it was. Margaret and I decided it was worth seeing another theatre to see what the music was all about. Inside the theatre we found Nashat again! He encouraged us to stay for another bagpipe performance and we did. The rest was nice after so long on our feet.

Bagpipers and a drummer entertain us in the South Theatre.
Looking up at the pillars of the Temple of Zeus.
From the Temple of Zeus looking down onto the Oval Plaza.

Beside the theatre is the Temple of Zeus, built in 162 BCE. I climbed it to get a great view of the Oval Plaza. Nashat showed us a small museum that we explored before we finally left Jaresh.

Next we went to a wonderful fortress on a hill called Ajlun Castle. Built in 1184 CE, this place sits on a hill at 1123 meters (3684 feet). It was a perfect military site, supply center, and message center. One of the towers held messenger pigeons. At one point in history, the advancing Crusaders were fought back from here. It was used as a military fortress until the time of Ottoman rule. I thought this medieval castle was great to explore because it was a new type of construction from all the Roman stuff we had been seeing, and also because much of it has been restored, so we could actually walk through rooms and halls and climb stairs.

Room inside Ajlun Castle.
Ajlun Castle hallway.
Miss Margaret and me in Ajlun Castle.
I was trained in anthropology: I can never get enough clay pots.

After Ajlun Castle we went to the site of two Byzantine churches, which wasn’t much to see today, but important in Biblical history. It’s called Tell Mar Elias, and the churches are dedicated to the Prophet Elijah, who is said to have been born in the small town at the base of the hill. I think the main draw for me would have been the possibly magnificent views. However, the day had been very humid and hazy, and the clouds had built at that point. We even felt a few droplets of rain. There wasn’t much of a view.

Site of the New Church, which is still so old it’s gone. The potentially grand vista was limited due to haze.

We went back to Amman and for one of the most exciting parts of the trip. Nashat and his wife invited us to their home for dinner! Margaret and I were beyond delighted. Their cousins have a restaurant and sent over a meal that Nashat had been talking about: a huge pile of seasoned rice topped with tasty chicken. We added a cold tomato sauce that reminded us of gazpacho, and also yogurt. The food was so amazing. I ate until I could barely move. We met Nashat’s wife and son. We met one of his brothers who lives in the area, and were very lucky to also get to meet his mother, and another of his brothers, who were visiting. We stayed and talked after dinner, and we ate sweets and drank tea. Nashat’s son entertained us with some drumming, and I was seriously impressed. Finally we had to beg forgiveness and go, as we were falling asleep due to the time difference for us.

Our driver taking the photo, his wife, me, his brother, Margaret, his mom

On the way back to the hotel, Nashat gave us a tour of a ritzy downtown area called the Boulevard, that was all built up by foreign investment. Margaret and I agreed that, while it was beautiful and clean and classy, it looked like any other similar section of any other city, and we preferred the older character and uniqueness of the rest of Amman.

13 thoughts on “Jerash and Ajlun Castle

  1. Roman ruins do have a certain look, Crystal. Fun photos of you and Margaret, obviously having fun. I particularly liked the one of the two of you with the towers looming overhead. Very artsy! –Curt

    1. Thanks Curt! I can’t claim credit. A helpful man at the site guided us to many photo opportunities. I am pretty sure his intent was to make tips, so I gave him a little bit of money for his trouble. He did help us take some super neat shots.

    1. Jordan is an excellent place to visit. Have you and your wife been here? If not, please consider it for your next journey. Safe, clean, reasonably priced. Another bonus: the vendors are not very aggressive, and often happy just to chat with you. I hope I can keep taking great photos. With all the sun, it’s more tricky, and I’m not that knowledgeable with the camera.

  2. I love the randomness of the bagpipers! This was a fun adventure to ride along on– can’t wait for the next entry!

    1. Random bagpipers!! Yes, that was funny, and fun. They got everyone in the stands clapping along, and lots of the tourists danced with them. Speaking of riding along…I’m apparently going to ride a camel out to watch the sunset tonight. I hope you’ll ride along with me then, too. 😉

    1. Lovely hosts. Being invited into their home was certainly a highlight of our trip. I still feel very honored, and they treated us like we were so special, though I’m pretty sure we’re no more amazing then their other clients. It’s a gift when hosts can do this for their guests.

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