Explore This Hidden Gem of Jordan Many Visitors to Petra Never Get To See

Here's why you should add Jerash to your Jordan travel bucket list.

Nymphaeum, Jerash, Jordan
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The ancient ruins of Jerash, Jordan, have long served as something of a little sister to the world-renowned city of Petra. Where Petra has figured largely on the bucket lists of travelers for decades — known for its rock-cut architecture and ancient temples — Jerash was more of an afterthought, a site to fill an itinerary gap.

That doesn't mean Jerash should be overlooked. The ancient city encompasses a sprawling site of Roman ruins, including two theaters, a temple to Artemis, and a forum surrounded by more than 100 columns. And given its lack of star status, this secret gem is often free of the crowds that swarm Petra.

"Jerash is one of the best-preserved Roman cities around the world," Eid Nawafleh, CEO of Jordan Tours & Travel, told Travel + Leisure, noting that it is only a 45-minute drive from the capital city of Amman, making it a convenient stop for international visitors.

Gate, Jerash, Jordan
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Archeologists have discovered evidence of habitation in Jerash as far back as 7500 B.C., and Bronze Age artifacts (from roughly 3000 B.C.) have been found on site as well. The settlement began to take shape as a more modern city during the Hellenistic period, circa 330 B.C.

Jerash's heyday arguably began in the first several centuries under the Roman Empire, back when the city's most prominent architectural structures were built under Emperor Hadrian. Given the Greco-Roman influences, followed later by the rise of Christianity and Islam in the surrounding territories, the city has often been compared to Palmyra, Syria, for its amalgam of cultures and architectural design.

"It was a major cosmopolitan site in antiquity, so there were major temples and beautiful colonnaded streets — anything you would expect in a major Roman city," Lisa Brody, associate curator of ancient art for the Yale University Art Gallery, told T+L.

"You get a glimpse at a Roman city and how that transforms into a Byzantine city," she said.

An earthquake damaged Jerash and buried its remains in the sand in 749 A.D, though restorers were able to maintain and reconstruct an extraordinary number of the original structures. The main attraction today is the forum, whose encircling colonnade helped earn Jerash the nickname "the city of columns."

Two temples, two theaters, a colonnaded street, an agora, and a public fountain are just some of the features of the site that transport visitors back to the Roman Empire. Visitors can take guided tours of the monuments and places of worship, immersing themselves in the mixture of influences that made Jerash the place it is today.

Theatre, Jerash, Jordan
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"That area is basically riddled with Roman history," said Omar Banihani of the Jordan Tourism Board. "It's had several civilizations come through. When you're at the site, you get to see that."

Much of the site remains unexcavated, and Banihani noted that when walking around the site, it's easy to notice pottery fragments scattered across the ruins, indicating the buried treasures that still lie below.

The inhabited part of town also offers many of the charms of Jordanian hospitality. Situated in a mountainous area, contemporary Jerash is known for its olive presses and olive oil, which visitors can sample at local restaurants or purchase on a walk through an outdoor market. Banihani recommended buying hot bread in one of the bakeries to enjoy while taking a stroll.

City, Jerash, Jordan
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Visitors who only pass through Jordan to see Petra miss out on the rich historical and cultural experiences Jerash has to offer. Petra remains a must-see destination for any traveler to Jordan, as its cliff faces and temples have mesmerized travelers for centuries, but with Jerash 30 miles from the capital, it's an easy day trip, even for tourists with limited time in the country.

"People start thinking that the country has nothing else but [Petra]," said Banihani. "I think this is a simple education."

Safety concerns are another obstacle that can sometimes affect Jordan's tourism industry. The country shares a border with war-torn Syria, and since Jordan is a prominent member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the extremist organization known as the Islamic State or ISIS, it has sometimes been the target of attacks. In 2019, Jerash was the site of a terrorist attack in which eight people, including four tourists and their guide, were stabbed while visiting the city's ruins. Thankfully, everyone survived, and the attackers were later arrested and prosecuted.

That said, travel professionals still say the country is safe for visitors. Even the U.S. Department of State's website lists Jordan at Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution — the same designation it currently lists for France and Germany, among other countries. The current travel advisory for Jordan warns visitors to only avoid certain parts of the country, specifically, areas within two miles (3.5 km) of the Syrian and Iraqi borders, any designated Syrian refugee camps, the towns of Zarqa and Rusayfah, and the Ayn Basha neighborhood in Baqa'a — and to reconsider travel to Ma'an due to crime and terrorism threats. While Zarqa, Rusayfah, and Baqa'a are each about 30 minutes from the capital city of Amman, none of these areas are close to notable historic sites that are frequently visited by tourists, such as Jerash, Petra, Wadi Rum, or Aqaba.

"Jordan has always been safe for tourism," said Nawafleh. "People, whenever they come to Jordan, they always feel they are at their home because of the warm hospitality of the Jordanian people."

Oval Plaza, Jerash, Jordan
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The destination is now more popular than ever, with airlines continuing to add nonstop flights from the U.S. You can currently fly direct from Washington, D.C. on United Airlines, or from New York, Chicago, on Detroit on Royal Jordanian (among other options).

Intrepid Travel, a tourism company that leads several Jordan tours, has seen U.S. bookings to Jordan rise 80 percent year over year. Intrepid's chief customer officer, Leigh Barnes, notes increasing interest in Jerash in particular — many of their tours make the trek to the ancient city.

Those between the ages of 25 and 45 were particularly interested in Jordan, looking especially to trek to some of the natural wonders of the country.

Steps, Jerash, Jordan
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The history and stunning beauty of the city have proved resilient, and Barnes spoke fondly of the compelling nature of Jerash. For those who can withstand the harsh desert heat of Jordanian summers, visitors in July and August can enjoy Jerash's cultural festival, which features theater productions staged in the ancient theaters.

"It takes you back to a certain time in the world. It just has that really rich history," Barnes told T+L. "It's quite stunning, just visually on the eye."

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