On a recent trip to Israel, we spent two days in the country of Jordan. While we initiated our visit with a visit to Mt. Nebo, we were particularly interested in two ancient ruins which date back at least two thousand years. One, Petra, is very well known as it now is commonly interested in current listings of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Nevertheless we felt the visit should be described in our blog as we were so impressed and awed at this site. The other, Jerash, is somewhat less widely known but perhaps almost equally impressive. Let me start with Jerash.
This is one of the best preserved and most original Roman cities in the Middle East. Located about 50 miles north of Amman, Jerash became an urban center during the Hellenistic period of the 3rd century BC. From the 1st century it drew considerable prestige for its’ status within the Roman province of Syria.It prospered greatly from its’ position on the incense and spice trade route from Arabia to Syria and the Mediterranean. By AD 130 Jerash was at its’ zenith, and flourished both economically and socially. After a decline it flourished again under the Byzantines, notably in the earl sixth century.
Entrance to the city is through Hadrian’s Arch. Alongside is the Hippodrome, where reenactments of the chariot races take place regularly. A notable feature of the city is the Oval Plaza, a unique monument from the Roman world. The plaza is 80 by 90 meters, enclosed by 160 ionic columns.
Beyond the plaza is the Cardo, a spectacular paved street about 600 meters long, lined with the city’s major buildings, shops and residences. Chariot tracks are visible in the stones.
Additional ruins include the 2nd century Nymphaeum, a lavish public fountain, the Temple of Artemis, several Byzantine churches, the Baths and the North Theater.
While we were there, we noticed fairly large crowds of schoolgirls who were presumably on a special visit to learn. They were very happy and crowded around us, wanting to speak English. They shouted “hello, Hi”.
Jerash is well worth the trip from Amman, and one should allow at least half a day for a thorough tour. It is one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world.
It is not known precisely when Petra was built, but the city began to prosper as the capital of the Nabataean Empire from the 1st century BC, which grew rich through trade in frankincense, myrrh and spices. Petra was later annexed to the Roman Empire and continued to thrive until a large earthquake in 363 AD destroyed much of the city. The earthquake combined with changes in trade routes eventually led to the downfall of the city, which was ultimately abandoned.
In 1812 a Swiss explorer named Johannes Burckhardt set out to “rediscover” Petra, and convinced his Bedouin guide to take him to the lost city. Petra since has become increasingly known as a fascinating and beautiful ancient city. Petra is also known as the rose-red city, taken from the wonderful and striking colors of the rock from which many of the city’s structures were carved. The Nabataeans buried their dead in intricate tombs that were cut out of the mountain sides, and the city also had temples, a theater, colonnaded streets and churches. Human settlement and land use for over 10,000 years can be traced in Petra.
After a 3-4 hour drive south of Amman, one starts a tour of Petra in the visitor center. The gateway to Petra is known as The Siq, a narrow gorge which resulted from a natural splitting of the mountain; it is 1.2 km long, and quite narrow in places. Water channels run along both rock faces. The Siq also holds many relics from Petra’s past, including a paved road and sacred stones.
The Siq opens up onto Petra’s most magnificent facade – the Treasury. It is almost 40 meters high, and intricately decorated with Corinthian capitals, friezes, figures and more. It is crowned by a funerary urn. The Treasury was probably constructed in the 1st century BC. The Street of Facades is the name given to the row of monumental Nabataean tombs carved in the southern face that lies past the Treasury.
Next one arrives at a place of worship on a mountain plateau called The High Place of Sacrifice, reached by climbing rock-cut steps to the top. This was used for important religious ceremonies. The views are spectacular.
Carved into the side of the mountain at the foot of the High Place of Sacrifice is a theater consisting of three rows of seats separated by passageways, all carved into the rock. Seven stairways ascend the auditorium and it can accommodate 4000 spectators.
Beyond the theater are a series of Royal Tombs, a Nymphaeum or public fountain, The Church, the Great Temple and the Monastery. The whole city stretches more than 2 km from the exit from the Siq. All this was carved from the mountain.
Petra has numerous hiking trails in and around the ruins, ranging from 3 km to 10 km in length and of varying difficulties. While one can get a real flavor of Petra in a day, one could spend several days here hiking and exploring. While most people walk into Petra from the visitor center – a hike of 2 km – there are horses and horse drawn carriages that will provide rides to the Treasury. Camel and donkey rides are also available within the city from the Treasury up to the Monastery.