No sooner had we sat down than a large body of Roman legionaries appeared and the rattling of shields, swords and armour clamoured amidst the blaring of trumpets and martial music. Roman soldiers drilling, gladiators fighting each other and chariot races all followed, depicting the days of Roman splendour.
This is the only genuine Roman show to be found in the world today. It’s in the semi-reconstructed Hippodrome at Jerash, Jordan’s Roman city, a massive arena that once seated 15,000 spectators. It is a unique and exciting historical experience, especially for those enamoured with the history of ancient Rome. A living testimony to its majestic past, visitors can experience a Roman army performance in this ancient and magnificently preserved Roman city.
Visitors sit where the Romans once sat and see what the Romans saw nearly two thousand years ago. Jerash, previously known as the Roman city of Gerasa, is approximately a fifty-minute drive to the north from Amman, Jordan’s capital and displays some of the finest, most extensive and best-preserved remains of the Roman Empire.
After excavations began in 1925, a well-preserved Greco-Roman city emerged. Ancient city walls enclosing colonnaded paved streets with chariot tracks worn in the original stone, a dramatic oval plaza defined by a colonnade of Ionic columns, a complex of baths, theatres, the temples of Dionysus, Artemis and Zeus, and a superb hippodrome, after being covered with rubble and sand for a millennium again saw the light of day. 500 seats from the 15,000 in Roman times have been restored.
The show is the brainchild of Stellan Lind, a Swede who made a career in the pharmaceutical industry. In 1977, he saw the classic movie Ben Hur, with its famous chariot race and decided that somewhere, sometime and somehow he should recreate the races. During a visit to Jordan in 1998, he saw the Jerash hippodrome with 10 starting gates, the original stone seats for the spectators and the ongoing restoration work. During that same year he teamed up with an English friend, Jeff Cullis, who was just as interested in classical history and even more enthusiastic about the project. From then on, they worked on the dream of re-enacting the Roman battles.
Their creation became known as ‘The Roman Army and Chariot Experience’ or simply RACE. Stellan and Jeff met with the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities and presented the idea to form a private company to give the shows. Their idea was enthusiastically received by the Jordan Tourism Board who quickly gave its support, realizing that the re-enactment of Roman entertainment would add to the attraction of Jordan as a tourist destination. Sixteen partners formed the company, including the Jordan Hotel Association, and began in 2000. Now with some fifty employees, RACE is one of the largest employers in Jerash.