Chariot races bring ancient Roman city back to life in Jordan
JERASH, Jordan (AFP) - The sun bears down and dust swirls as Roman centurions, followed by armour-clad legionnaires and bruised gladiators, tramp out of the ancient hippodrome to the trailing sounds of a military march.
In the seats all around, 21st century spectators in modern-day Jordan cheer and applaud the spectacle before them -- a one-hour show held in honour of Julius Caesar, and part of Jordan's newest tourist attraction.
Starting mid-July, visitors to Jordan can plunge into the past, reliving in a unique location just north of the capital Amman some of the high moments that made the Roman empire.
The setting is Jerash, the ancient Roman city and one of Jordan's better preserved archaeological sites and one of the 10 great cities during the Roman golden age.
The place is the restored hippodrome located close to the South Gate just beyond the triumphal arch that was erected as a tribute to Emperor Hadrian who visited the city in 129 AD.
Much smaller than Rome's famed Circus Maximus, the Jerash hippodrome is nevertheless endowed with 10 starting gates, original stone seats for the spectators and surrounded in the distance by olive tree-dotted rolling hills.
The show is known as "The Roman Army and Chariot Experience" or simply by its acronym RACE.
It is the brainchild of Stellan Lind, a Swede who made a career in the pharmaceutical industry, and Fawaz Zoubi, a Jordanian mechanical engineer.
The cast is made up of retired Jordanian army soldiers, special forces and policemen.
And yes, the blockbuster movie Ben Hur was the inspiration.
The show begins as trumpets blare from a loudspeaker and a Julius Caesar character shouts in Latin: "Silencium!" (Silence).
The spectators settle in as helmeted legionnaires in belted brown togas and ankle-high leather boots march up to the center of the hippodrome, one hand clutching a "pilum" or heavy javelin, and the other branding a shield.
They are preceded by a pitiless centurion, shouting commands in Latin, and a flagbearer who holds up proudly the legion's standard: a bull with the words Leg VI.
The VI Legion Ferrata was established by Julius Caesar in 52 BC and took part in Roman civil wars on the side of Marc Antony.
In perfect harmony, the army performs offensive and defensive techniques and re-enacts battles against an unseen enemy described by a narrator as a "hoard of barbarians" who deserve no mercy.
The voice narrating the battle tells spectators how the Roman legionnaires lived, worked and fought "using the pilum only once because it would bend on impacting the enemy's shield."
Their battle won, the legionnaires make room for gladiators, who in real life serve in the special forces corps of the Jordanian army, and are experts in closehand combat.
The gladiators, moving in pairs, deliver a ruthless fight with swords, kicking and punching each other until one is pinned to the ground, prompting the spectators to decide if he will live or die by giving the thumbs up or down.
The show concludes with a seven-lap chariot race around the "spina" middle barrier that lies in the center of the hippodromes. Some chariots are pulled by two horses, others by four.
Lind and Zoubi left nothing to chance in striving to make their show as genuine as possible.
In 1998, almost 10 years after seeing Ben Hur in a Stockholm movie theater, Lind travelled to Rome to meet Alfredo Danesi, the man who built the chariots for the Hollywood blockbuster.
British stuntmen trained the cast and experts in classical history helped fine tune the details.
"We wanted to make the ruins come alive," said Lind.
Travel experts believe the effort will pay.
"Historical re-enactments are great. They give a wonderful sense of the original use of the site," said Wendy Botham, a Texan who has been running a travel agency in Jordan for more than a decade.
"Jordan has a lot to offer but what had been missing so far was a way to animate the sites and bring them to life. Such events will extend the experience of travellers and engrave memories in their minds," said Walid Mujaher of Travel One.