A trumpet strikes a triumphant note and two dozen stony-faced soldiers, dressed in red tunics and armed to the teeth, come marching toward us, breastplates glinting under the fierce Jordanian sun. A nasal voice rings out across the arena: “The year is 130 AD…” At least, for the next 45 minutes it is.
For years, visitors have journeyed to Jerash, almost 50 kilometres north of the capital city of Amman, to walk through Jordan’s greatest Roman ruins and picture what life was like before the glory faded. The difference today, as centurion Lucius Maximus barks another Latin command and the Legion VI Ferrata go through manoeuvres, is that the images are real. For it’s here in the hippodrome of ancient Gerasa that a re-enactment group called the Roman Army and Chariot Experience is bringing history to life.
At one point in the twice-daily show, it looks as though the legionaries are preparing to lob their spears into the crowd, which is arrayed across six tiers of granite bleachers in the arena’s southeast corner. They don’t of course – the quest for authenticity falls short of spilling the blood of either actors or audience, unless, as the narrator warns, anyone is caught using his mobile phone.
It’s a matter of viewing etiquette that would no doubt have baffled the spectators for whom this arena was originally constructed. Perched on the western rim of the wadi that divides it from the sprawling modern-day town of Jerash, the ancient city of Gerasa was founded in the era of Alexander the Great, later flourishing in its role as a far-flung trading post of the Roman Empire. With Rome’s collapse, the town fell into decline, its once-grand structures crumbled by earthquakes and entombed by centuries of shifting sands.
Today, the ruins feature alongside the world-renowned Nabataean tombs of Petra among the supreme highlights of Jordan’s historical circuit. Though much of the old town remains undiscovered, a century of excavation and restoration has unearthed a swath of broad marble plazas, ornate temples and terraced theatres, all stitched together by ceremonial archways and endless ranks of Corinthian columns.
However, it was the hippodrome, a sand-floored arena with an oval track 228 metres long that most interested Swedish entrepreneur Stellan Lind during a trip here in 1998. He had dreamt of recreating chariot races since watching Ben-Hur in a Stockholm cinema 20 years before, and the stadium was just the location he had been looking for. “I quickly realized that this was the ideal venue,” he says. “Not only would we have races, but races in a real Roman circus with starting gates and original seating.”
Within a few years, Mr. Lind and his business partners had hired a cast of local ex-soldiers to act out the roles, and accumulated a mass of authentic props, including bucket chariots modelled on the original Ben-Hur designs. The resulting performance is an homage to history’s biggest spectator sport.
Back in the hippodrome, the gladiators – whose theatrical duels make up the show’s middle section – have taken the stage, looking understandably cross at the prospect of fighting to the death (so to speak) for our amusement. True to history, the baying mob of day-tripping families and sunburned tourists get to decide the loser’s fate with a thumbs-up or -down. Most go for an upward thumb. “Friendly lot,” the commentator complains.
As a third defeated gladiator is spared by the audience only to get a dagger (actually a “gladius” – the show is educational as well as entertaining) in the gut anyway, a galloping soundtrack strikes up to introduce the spectacle for which this arena was built in the second century. Through the western gate rumble three two-horse chariots, their drivers donning team colours of red, blue and green. They don’t race so much as hurtle around five choreographed laps, but they still make for a majestic sight, drawing collective gasps from the crowd as they stampede around the tight hairpins, kicking up a miniature sandstorm across what was once the smallest hippodrome in the Roman Empire.
It’s all a big step from the clichéd Roman ruin staple of men dressing up in togas to pose for tourist photos. “One day, I hope to fill the Jerash site with Romans,” Mr. Lind enthuses, “with civilians milling around, dignitaries in the municipal meeting place, actors in the theatre and more.”
For today, it falls to the charioteers to provide the show’s hands-on finale. As the performers gather in front of the grandstand, the audience is invited down through the vividly named vomitorium passageway and into the arena for an opportunity to take a spin in a replica of the vehicles that once carved ruts into the cardo, Gerasa’s main thoroughfare, just north of here.
“Hold onto the side,” Ragheb, the green-clad charioteer, says as I climb aboard. Seconds later, his chestnut chargers take off down the sand, so fast that all signs of the 21st century fade into a blur. And just for a moment, I can hear the distant applause.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Jordan’s capital, Amman, is served by a number of European carriers. A cheap option is to fly in via London to take advantage of a new route with budget carrier Easyjet (easyjet.com), which runs three times a week from London Gatwick to Amman from $168 return. Jerash is easily reached from Amman by bus or taxi, and tours can usually be arranged through your hotel.
Entry to the ruins costs eight Jordanian dinars ($11). The Roman Army and Chariot Experience shows run at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day except Tuesdays. A ticket costs 12 JOD ($17). See visitjordan.com for more information.
Where to stay: Amman’s most comfortable hotels are chain-owned, such as the Intercontinental and the Marriott, which both offer rooms starting at $175. If you’re after something with more character, a double room at the Toledo Hotel (toledohotel.jo) costs $98 a night. Budget accommodation can be found throughout downtown.
Where to eat: Widely considered to be Amman’s best restaurant, Fakhr el-Din (40 Taha Hussein St., Jebel Amman; 962-6465-2399) serves up a wide range of mezze and succulent grilled fish and lamb dishes in the grand setting of a converted 1950s villa. The much earthier Hashem Restaurant (Al-Amir Mohammad Street) is a cheap and atmospheric local institution that boasts the city’s tastiest falafel.
Don’t miss: Located on a hilltop with sweeping views of Amman’s rolling cityscape, the Wild Jordan Centre is the place to go to get information on the country’s exceptional nature reserves and to stock up on high-quality handicrafts. The accompanying café serves healthy and delicious food