The Performance
The Project The CompanyRACE in the Media

 

RACE in the Media

R.A.C.E. The Roman Army and Chariot Experience

The Jordan Times Weekender
June 23, 2005
HISTORY | Jacky Sawalha attends a reenactment of history in Jerash and tells a tale of entrepreneurship that the Romans would have been proud of.

It's a rather humbling experience to walk through the ancient city of Jerash, one of the Middle East's largest intact cities of the Roman 'Decapolis' - a dynamic commercial league of 10 Greco-Roman cities; but it was not only the Romans who made it great. Stone by stone, Jerash has revealed thousands of years of human endeavour that saw the area rise from a humble human settlement during the Bronze Age (c.1600-1200 BC) to city state over a glorious two-and-a-half thousand years. It witnessed the rise and fall of quite a few empires. Yet, after 900AD, the grandeur and legend of this proud and beautiful city, would gradually disappear under the cloak of time and many layers of sand until the early 19th century to reveal its secrets. From the city's earliest inhabitants, the Arab Semites who named it Garsho, Jerash was viewed as strategically important due to its verdant landscape, fertile agricultural land and abundant water springs. But it was also because of the highly profitable spice and incense trade route that linked the southern lands of Arabia, India and China with the great market cities of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and on to Greece and empirical Roman via the port city of Gaza on the Mediterranean - the Orient's window on the West.

Wandering along the colonnaded Roman streets, the full force of human history hits you in the face as you marvel at the creative genius of the Hellenistic, Nabataean, Roman, Umayyad and Abbasid eras, and at the forces of nature that reduced the city to rubble following a massive earthquake in 749AD.

Under the Romans, (63BC-636AD) the city would flourish as an architectural wonder, a trading site and a place of refuge for a double dose of 'rest and recuperation'. Note the elaborate baths; the theatres, a multitude of pagan temples and churches (and the oldest mosque in the Kingdom); and last but not least a hippodrome that could seat 15,000 spectators for that most Roman of pastimes - or should I say Greek - chariot racing.

Located behind Hadrian's Arch, the hippodrome has been under restoration since the mid 90's. It has been a boon not just for Jerash, but for one man with a dream. It all started in Sweden in 1977 when Stellan Lind watched the movie Ben Hur with its famous chariot race and decided that somewhere, sometime, somehow, he would recreate the races. Twenty years later on a visit to Jordan and the Jerash Hippodrome - or more correctly, 'circus' - he realised that his dream was not just mere fantasy but a distinct possibility. With the support of an English friend, Jeff Cullis, who was equally passionate about classical history, he submitted an idea to the Jordanian tourism minister to form a private company that would reenact Roman history and chariot racing in Jerash with an education angle to target school children. And in the meantime they travelled Europe and kept "bumping into people" that helped them source materials and meet experts in the field such as Dr Larry Shenfield from the University of Exeter who came on board as an adviser. Returning to Jordan, he then bumped into Fawaz Zoubi, a talented hands on mechanical engineer who saw his future as a Roman Centurion, and the company's general manager, and the rest you could say, was history. Zoubi would oversee the construction of their first chariot and the making of all the equipment and costumes by local craftsmen.

Overcoming a sceptical public was not easy as they could not imagine 'Jordanian men in short skirts'. Moving to Jordan in 2000, Lind would persevere. To assuage concerns over the archaeological site he implemented an environmental impact study in close cooperation with the Department of Antiquities, "after all", says Lind "we are hardly going to cut the branch we are sitting on". And no, he was not mad.

The Jerash Heritage Company Ltd. finally came into being in 2004 with 17 Jordanian investors willing to support an activity that has not been seen in these parts for more than 1,500 years. Opening an office in Jerash a stone's throw away from the hippodrome, under the brand name RACE - the Roman Army and Chariot Experience - it is the first time something related to Jerash is directly benefiting the people of this struggling community. With 77 staff, including a full time garbage collector; 16 well groomed horses looked after by a horse master and 6 stable boys; 2 male nurses; an 'army of 45 legionnaires of VI Legion Ferrata, that lean, mean fighting machine of the Roman Army'; and 10 gladiators, the company is the second largest employer of local people in the area. Its simple philosophy to make the ruins come alive, sit where the Romans sat and above all, 'Jordanise', was no small task. The recruitment of ex-army and police personnel from the Jerash region as legionnaires and gladiators, gave many in the community a new sense of hope. "I love my work", says gladiator Firas Jawaan Ababneh, "knowing that I am doing something of benefit to my community. It's great exercise and my children are learning a lot more about Jerash", he adds, as he bids farewell gladiator style - fist across chest.

For Lind, the Procurator of the Province of Arabia, dressed in a Roman toga, it is a dream come true. With daily shows scheduled for July and the official opening in September, the RACE team is bringing history back to life with all the fanfare of Rome, not just for tourists but the larger community of school children and small businesses. With anticipation, excitement and the thrill of danger once again returning to this great city, it's a trip back in time not to be missed.