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Tuesday, 04 March 2008

Ancient Rome Comes Alive in Jerash: Jordan's Roman City

Written by Habeeb Salloum
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Ancient Rome Comes Alive in Jerash: Jordan's Roman City

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.

Ancient Rome Comes Alive in Jerash: Jordan's 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.

Ancient Rome Comes Alive in Jerash: Jordan's Roman CityAfter 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.

Ancient Rome Comes Alive in Jerash: Jordan's Roman CityThe 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.


Today Stellan Lind dons a toga as a group of retired former Jordanian soldiers and police officers between the ages of 35 to 45 act out the roles of Roman legionnaires, gladiators and compete in chariot races. As trumpets blare from a loudspeaker, the show begins and helmeted legionnaires in belted brown togas and ankle-high leather boots march up to the center of the hippodrome, one hand clutching a pilum or heavy javelin, and the other branding a shield.

Ancient Rome Comes Alive in Jerash: Jordan's Roman CityI sat fascinated as a pitiless centurion, shouting commands in Latin, and a proud flag bearer precede them. In perfect harmony, 40 legionaries, a small replica of a Roman army, perform offensive and defensive techniques, and re-enact battles against an unseen enemy described by a narrator as ‘hordes of barbarians’.

A young man dressed in a toga narrates the battle telling the spectators how the Roman legionnaires lived, worked and fought. He explains the use of their weapons, how they trained for war and that the Roman Army was the longest existing institution in human history.

The show continues as the legionnaires make room for gladiators. With the words ‘we who are about to die salute you’, moving in pairs, deliver a ruthless savage fight armed with classical weapons – the trident, net and gladius swords, kicking and punching each other until one is pinned to the ground, prompting the spectators to decide if he will live or die by giving the thumbs up or down.

Ancient Rome Comes Alive in Jerash: Jordan's Roman CityThe show concludes with a seven-lap chariot race, the most Roman of all sports. Having paraded before their audience, they take up their position in the carceres. The starter is announced by a fanfare of trumpets and as he drops a white handkerchief the race takes off. The chariots burst forward into the first of seven laps, jostling for position at each turn.

The enactment has become a tourist spectacle par excellence and is becoming well known worldwide. The brainchild of one man, it brings to life the story of ancient Rome in a colourful and appealing fashion.

Ancient Rome Comes Alive in Jerash: Jordan's Roman City

©Habeeb Salloum

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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