Monday, September 24, 2007

Jerash - Roman City

Since the time I was a kid I wanted to walk around Roman ruins. There was something magical about all those columns. It was a desire fuelled even more when, for a year at high school, we studied Roman art and architecture and columns and plinths, capitals and inscriptions in detail. A year of Ancient (Roman and Greek) history at university kept the interest alive. And in their own quaint way the pictures of Asterisk and Obelisk continued to pique the fascination. Fortuitously I arrived back on a day with all the offices shut and a few hours of sunlight left. I grabbed a taxi driver (so to speak) and directed him to Jerash. No side trips to souvenir shops run by a distant cousin. To Jerash only. No, it’s not too late in the day. Heaps of time. Less talking more driving.


Jerash is a well preserved and partially restored Roman city on the outskirts of Amman. I happily wandered its streets for hours (and the driver seemed content to wait which was very decent of him). Here are the wide colonnaded streets, pavement still cut by chariot and wagon wheels. Here too the little lanes into roofless houses in high density apartment dwelling we would be very comfortable with. Cellars. Temples. Fountains. A hippodrome. Two amphitheatres still in working order and used for performances today. Shopping centres. Churches. An earthquake in 790 AD pretty much ended this city – all those blocks of stone resting on columns must suddenly have looked like a liability when the earth started moving.

But there are other durable pieces of stone work that can only be admired for their creativity and ingenuity. With some of the buildings stripped down you could see how they hung ceilings and floors two or three stories high – with a lot of cantilevering. There is a remarkable dedication in stone to the nymphs, a collection of fountains placed in a wall, fed by water down two kilometres of piping. The piping has gone, the fountains remain. Even the way the stone was dressed was mimicked in Victorian stone masonry 1500 or more years later and you can see the same style of work in London, Sydney, Philadelphia (which incidentally used to be the name by which Amman went by). Those cut pavers, the apartments with their cellars and an old well hint at real people walking around this place. They have an eerie presence still. Most poignant were the fallen stone decorations, on which you can still see the chisel marks of the masons. Nearly 2000 years dead yet his handiwork is still visible. As I was caught by the sight of it lying in the dust of centuries I thought of our yearning for immortality – a universal desire across all time to be able to spend all time crafting what we can do best. How disappointed that mason would be to see his work thrown down like this. Or would he be happy to know we are thinking of him? Happier still no doubt if he was still plying his craft.

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