Return of Ben-Hur
After 1,800 years, chariots will race again thanks to a British businessman who is bringing the ancient sport back to Jordan. Jonny Beardsall reports
This feels bigger than Ben-Hur. I find it easy persuading charioteer Abu Rashed that I can control his geldings, Ramos and Bedouin, given that he speaks no English and I no Arabic.
Squeezed next to him in his chariot - with no room for an interpreter - he hands me two sets of reins, folds his arms and bares his yellow teeth in a deranged grin. His greys skitter smartly away across the hippodrome at Jerash, where, after 1,800 years, chariot racing is set to make a comeback.
For one quivering, hellish moment it looks as if he is about to jump off, before I grasp his toga. I gibber. Charlton Heston had six months' training before he was let loose in a four-horse chariot on the film set near Rome in 1959. In the hazy grey morning light my early confidence ebbs away. Even at a jog, keeping a straight line and negotiating two 180-degree turns is testing in this historic arena in Jordan where performances will begin on September 26 in front of King Abdullah II.
Preceded by 45 sweaty-browed legionaries and 10 ferocious gladiators, Abu Rashed and the other charioteers will come under starters orders in the smallest recorded hippodrome in the Roman Empire.
Like their forebears, they are paid more than the foot soldiers because, putting authenticity before health and safety, these stars are excused helmets. They deserve every dinar that comes their way.
Jerash's old town dates from the mid-second and third centuries and was entombed in sand until it was excavated in the 1920s. Built on one side of the wadi that divides it from the less appealing new town of low-rise houses with limestone cladding, the hippodrome is the first ruin visitors see when they enter the town from Amman.
Jordan's Department of Antiquity has part-restored the arena of 260yds by 55yds, its oval track and the huge adjacent arch marking Emperor Hadrian's visit in 129 AD. For several years they have had a monster jigsaw on their hands, trying to fathom which block goes where because sizeable chunks of the stonework were moved during an earthquake in 729.
Gradually, though, the floor has been resurfaced and a section of the grandstand has been reinstated to seat 600 - a fraction of the previous capacity of 15,000 spectators.
But how did this all come about? In 1998, two friends, Stellan Lind, a Swede now living in Jordan, and Jeff Cullis, a retired businessman from Nottingham, who share a sense of history, watched the renovators at work. Amid the rubble they walked through the arena's gloriously named vomitory, or entrance, and shared a ''Eureka'' moment - they knew this was where their long-held dream to recreate chariot racing might be realised.
"It wouldn't be the same in a a field in Surrey," begins Cullis, who, swathed in a toga and strappy sandals, seems much younger than 71.
"It has taken us six years to get this far. Our break came when we tracked down Alfredo Danesi by working our way through a Rome telephone directory. He'd been a charioteer in Ben-Hur."
In his barn, Danesi kept 29 chariots that had been used in the movie and, with his consent, they took a few measurements and made some preparatory sketches.
Back in Jerash, they hired four rather skeletal horses (one of which was lame, so they ended up with three) and harnessed them to a cart.
"This was just to see if they'd fit into the starting gates. They did. No one had tried this in centuries," continues Cullis, who at the time knew little about chariots.
Not that they struggled. Britain has Roman experts aplenty, so advice and replica equipment from other re-enactment groups were soon on their way to Jordan.
Races will start from a row of 10 identical archways at one end of the hippodrome, above which will flutter a standard corresponding to a particular stable. Cunningly, the gates are not set at 90 degrees but are angled in order not to give teams an advantage when they break and race along the narrow left-handed track for seven laps.
The foot-soldiers are skilled, ultra-fit professionals, between 35 and 40 years old and trained by stunt advisers from Britain. Most are former soldiers, many of them Special Forces, and have mastered all the commands in Latin. Having retired on modest pensions, they are now very well-off and the project is the second biggest employer in the town of 25,000 people.
With his aquiline nose, Fawaz Zoubi, the company's general manager, doubles as a Roman centurion. "I'm very fierce," he growls, gesturing to a soldier with the replica cornu, a vast curly-shaped horn that signals the start of performances, and was made in Luton for £700.
He has a stellar presence with his red scarf, segmented armour, tunic and perma-tanned calves, and enjoys rehearsals more than his air-conditioned office. His previous job was building and delivering armoured vehicles to Baghdad, but his latest career looks doubly dicey.
It is perfect timing; with turmoil to Jordan's east in Iraq and the Palestine intifada to the west, the Jordanian Tourist Board hopes it can give the country something to cheer about. It has joined 16 other shareholders in raising the start-up fund of 500,000 Jordanian dinars (£383,000) and, given growing visitor numbers to Jerash, an annual turnover of about £800,000 is projected.
Although the foot-soldiers and gladiators are tingling with anticipation, the great irony here is that, after so long, time is against chariot racing in 2005 AD. Falling behind schedule, the vehicles - a compromise between the original featherweight wicker-and-hide racing chariots and the heavier ones seen in Ben-Hur - are still being finished in Amman.
"Right now we have 16 horses but we can't promise them all to be in action when we open," says Lind, adjusting his unravelling toga.
Still, it will be worth waiting for. Given that a Roman hippodrome has just been identified in Colchester, perhaps we'll even try this in Britain?