Ajloun is a maze of stairways and vaulted antechambers.// © 2010 Janice Mucalov
Jordan is famous for its ancient rose-red city of Petra. But who knew that the country also boasts one of the best-preserved Roman cities in the world and fantastic crusader castles? Clients can explore both on a day trip from Jordan’s capital city, Amman.
An hour’s drive from the capital lies Jerash, nestled in a valley carpeted with yellow mustard flowers in springtime. An urban Greek center in the third century B.C., Jerash later flourished under Roman rule for about 200 years. Today, its theaters, fountains, temples and colonnaded streets are still so magnificent that even jaded travelers who loathe to visit another ruin get excited.
Stepping through the imposing city walls, I immediately took in an enormous stone-slabbed forum, surrounded by tall Ionic columns, where meetings, markets and celebrations once took place. I followed the colonnaded Cardo or main street, which extends for almost a mile, and I saw chariot wheel ruts worn into the limestone blocks, along with drinking troughs for the horses. At ankle level, there are small niches for the oil lamps that were used at night for street lighting. I also noticed stone drain covers that accessed an underground sewage system. On either side of the street, whole shops were clearly visible, too, and it’s easy to imagine the ancient townspeople bargaining for spices, silks and fruits.
It’s especially interesting to learn that the “moving columns” lining the Cardo were built as barrels, one on top of another, so that they could absorb earth tremors. When I placed my fingers between two barrels and our guide pushed the column, I could feel my fingers being gently squeezed by the movement.
Continuing along the Cardo, I came to the Nymphaeum, a grand ornamental fountain dedicated to water nymphs and decorated with carved lions’ heads. A diversion then took me to the 3,000-seat South Theater, which has beautifully carved doorways to what were once the actors’ dressing rooms behind the stage. The acoustics were wonderful — we listened to Arab performers playing bagpipes.
A highlight is the Temple of Artemis. It’s reached by climbing 49 massive steps; a marble statue of Artemis, the patron goddess of Jerash, would have stood at the top. Clients should also not miss the performance of gladiator contests and chariot racing staged in the ancient Hippodrome.
After lunch, clients can visit the castle of Ajloun, a short journey from Jerash. Built atop a mountain by an Arab general during the Crusades in 1184, it was one in a chain of fortresses that transmitted messages by pigeon post between Egypt and Turkey. We entered across a wooden moat bridge, where we then wandered through a maze of rooms, linked by winding stairways and vaulted passages. Piles of stone catapult balls are still heaped about.
If clients peek through the arrow slits in the thick walls, they will get a glimpse of the surrounding pine forests and rolling hills. But for full-on, glorious views of the Jordanian countryside, they should climb to the top of the imposing medieval castle.
At the end of the day, clients are likely to return to Amman amazed that Jerash and Ajloun aren’t more widely known.