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Published: June 30th 2019
Today we have arranged to visit the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Jerash, which is about 50 kilometres north of Amman.
Our driver’s name is Haitham. He tells us that as recently as the 1980s Amman was a relatively small city, but it has experienced enormous growth in recent decades. We ask whether a lot of this is due to the influx of refugees. He says that some of it is, particularly Iraqis, and more recently Syrians, many of whom are currently living in two large refugee camps near the border. He says that it has recently become a lot safer in Syria and a lot of the refugees are now returning home. I think that the standard applying to the word “safer” might be a bit different here to that back in Australia. I suspect almost anything would probably seem safer if you’d been used to having mortars lobbed at you on a nightly basis for years in a row. He says it is now so safe that many Jordanians cross the Syrian border every weekend to go shopping there, where everything is very cheap. He says that on weekends the traffic jams at the border crossing
routinely stretch back for kilometres. I’m struggling with the concept of anyone thinking it was a good idea to venture deep into a war zone every weekend just to save a few bucks, but each to their own I guess.
We‘ve noticed an overwhelming sameness about the buildings here. The vast majority are flat roofed, square, four storey, sandstone coloured boxes, with rectangular windows. I hope for his sake that the architect who designed the first one of these is still collecting the royalties from the hundreds of thousands of copies that have been built since. Haitham says that the government has imposed a four storey height limit on most buildings which accounts for some of the sameness, and virtually everyone lives in one of these close to identical apartment blocks.
We start our walk through Jerash. Historians are divided as to whether the original city was founded by the Greeks or the Egyptians. The Romans conquered the region in 63 BC, and the ruins on display here today are predominantly from the Roman period. Jerash is apparently sometimes referred to as “The Pompeii of the Middle East”, and the site is generally regarded as one of the
largest and most well preserved examples of Roman architecture outside Italy. It was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake is 743 AD, and excavation and restoration works have been undertaken almost continuously since the 1920s.
The site is massive and spectacular. The remains of the colonnaded Main Street, The Corda Maximus, extend from the Oval Forum at one end for the full length of the site. Other notable structures include the Temple of Artemis, and The Arch of Hadrian which was built to honour a visit from the emperor in around AD 130.
As we pass one of the Roman theatres we think we can hear the sound of bagpipes. We don’t think we’ve recently ingested any hallucinogenic substances so we follow the sound into the theatre. Sure enough, the first thing we see when we get inside is two Jordanians in full Bedouin dress, one playing the bagpipes and the other beating a large drum. A third Bedouin is there to take photos and to extract large tips from gullible tourists such as ourselves. I’m not sure that bagpipes are traditional Jordanian instruments, or why we felt so drawn to their sound, but if the number of
people listening to the performance and the volume of tips being collected is anything to go by, this is clearly a very successful financial operation.
We leave the site through the obligatory gift store where Issy is cunningly lured into a clothing stall by a man. At least we think from his clothing that he’s probably a man; we can’t see his face because it’s in the clouds, or at least it would be if there were any clouds. He says that people call him The Short Man. He tells us that he is 2.1 metres tall, and that he used to play basketball for Sheffield in the UK. He towers over both of us, and is a master salesman. He says that if we are going to Petra, which we foolishly tell him we are, then we must buy traditional Bedouin headwear before we go, as the locals will be much nicer to us if we are dressed traditionally, and the headwear will be much more expensive if we buy it there. He shows us how to put on the headwear. He tells us that he was taught how to do this by his Bedouin wife. He says
he has learnt a lot of things from his wife including the need to listen carefully to whatever she says, because he knows that if he doesn’t then she will get angry. He asks me if I’m aware of the saying “happy wife, happy life”. We leave his stall poorer, but as the proud new owners of two traditional Bedouin headdresses and a Bedouin top.
We drive back to the hotel through chaotic traffic. We are now convinced that all the drivers here are completely mad. I go for a quick wander through downtown Amman. Saturday afternoon markets are in full swing and chaos reigns supreme.
Issy asks me over dinner to tell her again what we will be doing for the rest of our time in Jordan. I tell her that after we finish our two day visit to Petra, we will be picking up a hire car and driving it down to the Dead Sea. She asks me to repeat the last bit because she says she has clearly misheard. It seems that I may have neglected to mention to her previously the tiny detail about us driving here. She goes very quiet and stony faced
for several minutes, before asking me the probably quite reasonable question about what on earth I was thinking when I decided that it was a good idea to drive here. The remainder of the meal passes in near silence. I think I might be in serious trouble.
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