Wednesday, June 3, 2009

so unbelievable...

Jerash, one of the 10 great Roman cities (the Decapolis) and astonishingly well preserved, was hands down our favorite place in Jordan. It was flat-out amazing.

We drove north in the morning, me pretty much hobbling around from the half marathon. You know it's bad when you make inadvertent noises whenever you try to move.

Our first glimpse of the ancient city of Jerash, known as Gerasa 2000 years ago, was the striking Hadrian's Arch at the entrance to the ruins, reconstructed now at 13 meters tall for the center one of three, but apparently twice that tall when it was built to welcome the visiting emperor in AD 129. The current height was just fine to welcome us.

We made our way through the touristy souk at the base and up the stairs and through the center arch, and saw, beyond, the expanse of Jerash.

A group of young Arabic women descended upon us like chickens to feed and began manhandling Bethy and Thomas. They were far too aggressive, absolutely heedless of their effect on the kids, particularly in pinching the kids' cheeks hard. Both kids were shocked and near tears and I couldn't stand it. Getting aggressive myself, I bodily snatched our children away, fleeing without a backwards glance at the loud protests from the women.

Regrouping with Mike, all of us breathed deeply. Our experience with strangers had been positive until then, even having some of the girls we met at the Jordan River calling out "Thomas! Thomas!" when they spied him with Mike at the end of the Dead Sea race. But this was something else entirely, and none of us liked it.

To the left was the Hippodrome, which at one time seated 15,000 spectators. Hawkers encouraged us to come get our tickets for the "RACE" show (Roman Army and Chariot Experience, catchy name there). We figured why not, the kids would probably like it, though I didn't have any sort of high expectations.

Boy, was I wrong. While we sat on the stone seats of yesteryear, they gave us a show.

The Legionnaires paraded in to a prerecorded narrator and music (which Mike swore was from the computer game Warcraft), carrying their shields that we were amused to see had been crafted from halved oil drums. Made sense. We clapped dutifully for the Centurion and got a mini history lesson about the life of a Roman soldier which was interesting. The men did some tricky military drills, demonstrating various types of moves and war strategy to commands given in Latin. So far so good.

The company aimed their spears at the audience at one point, and there was a definite shifting of buttocks in the seats among the spectators. Yes, we could see how that would be intimidating.

Mock battle by the Jerash soldiers

The legionnaires concluded their demonstration. Then the gladiators came in.

Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant!(We who are about to die salute you.)
These guys weren't playing around. The fighting may have been staged, but it was impressive. Most of the punches were thrown, kicks held back just enough, and it was carefully choreographed, but these were some seriously physical acts. However excellent their training, more than once we heard an ugly thwack from a misjudged hit that made us cringe. They threw each other, they scrabbled in the sand, fighting with sword and trident, fists and nets whipped about.

And these guys do this twice a day in the hot sun.

At the end of each fight the audience was asked to decide the fate of the vanquished gladiator. Bethy got a kick of sticking her thumb out there. Most lived, but there was one who stabbed another in the back after a match, then tried to flee into the audience. The scoundrel was chased down and dragged back into the arena, then playfully squirted blood all over the place when his throat was cut. Nice. They dragged his corpse disdainfully away.
Thomas loved every second.
Then came the chariots.

Bethy's eyes were huge when the three chariots came flying out. Rooting at the top of her lungs for "White horse! White horse!" she and I dare say all the spectators were riveted. The drivers hollered encouragement to their teams of two as they charged the traditional seven times around the hippodrome's oval, the horses lathering and pulling, whips cracking and sand being sprayed up behind the wheels of chariots that seemed hardly substantial enough to hold the drivers at the speeds they were going.

People were roaring their approval, I took as many photos as I could of the action, and loved every moment of it.

At the end of the race the winner was crowned with laurels and drove before the crowd with a palm frond, symbolising triumph. The horses were blowing from the exertion, but obviously healthy, well-cared for animals as they recovered well.

As the show drew to a close we were invited to take photographs with the Romans. One of the gladiators called to have his photo taken with Thomas, and I was pleased he didn't hold his blade to our son's throat as many of the others were doing to the tourists. Bethy and I got to stand in her team's chariot, big smile there.

Feeling completely satisfied by the performance we headed along a good walk to the entrance to the rest of ancient Jerash.

A young boy intercepted us, trying to "gift" us some small packets of gum. I repeatedly told him no, firmly, in English and Arabic, but he unwrapped a piece and gave it to Thomas and another packet to Bethy. Then he asked for money, and I frankly didn't have much in the way of coins. He put on either the best or the worst act, depending on your point of view when I offered him what I had, and made me quite angry.

I had seen other tourists being outright rude to the children selling things and thought it deplorable, but now realised that anything less to the more experienced kids was the mark of a total sucker. I told him that he had chosen to give the gum and that it was his problem, not mine if he didn't want the amount I offered him (which was more than the gum cost in the stores regardless). I felt completely awful about the whole thing, guilty, and mad that he'd ruined the happy post-show feeling by choosing us as his victims.

Finally getting to the second entrance, beyond which we could see the tantalising beauties of the ancient city, we found out that you had to buy your tickets to get in back at the souk.
Oh criminey. So, stiff and sore but with some residual crabbiness over the gum situation to walk off, I went all the way back through the crowds and dust, the children selling strawberries and reeds carved into flutey whistles while the ticket takers were amused by the kids and Mike waited patiently.

The tickets were sold right next to the restrooms, so I ducked in, thinking I could make a quick pit stop. Smart, right? There was quite the gathering of women waiting inside, and I took a place in line. A woman who looked very much like a potato wrapped in a scarf came over with a box of kleenex and offered me one. Well, OK, I took it and thanked her. As I waited it became apparent that the line thing was just for show. Survival of the fittest, the fastest, the most devious, and the loudest reigned. Thwarted again and again, I stood with a European woman, both of us getting more and more frustrated. I gave up...the family was waiting on me and I had little patience with the values being demonstrated. I wished the other lady good luck and headed towards the door.

Ah, but not so fast. Here came potato kleenex lady. I had taken the tissue, now I must pay. Oh, for heaven's sake. I didn't use it, I said, and I have no money (having given all my coins to the gum kid, do you want it back? She tried again to get me to pay and again I refused, so she cursed me out in some language. I tried not to be the Ugly American and rolled my eyes at her after I had gone past and she couldn't see me. Given that I still would have liked to go to the bathroom, this did not put me in the best of moods.

However, tickets secured, once we walked into the Oval Plaza, also known as the Forum, any and all residual irritation washed away, replaced by awe at the sheer scope and beauty of the ancient ruins.


Will & Cheyenne said...

I bet that was incredible!!
That is too funny you offering to give back the tissue...especially if she thought you'd used it!

Jolie-Anne said...

I'm loving the posts of your trip to Jordan. I'm so jealous and happy for you at the same time! It's inspiring how your family is so adventurous.