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RACE in the Media

Gladiators battle to restore tourism

The Times Online (
June 27, 2005
From Stephen Farrell

Chariot races are returning to a Roman site in Jerash, Jordan

"AD SIGNA!" the centurion shouts, and 45 legionnaires raise their spears in unison as the command echoes off Roman columns and through the surrounding olive groves.

It is the start of a day that bristles with Roman battles and gladiatorial contests, culminating in a full-blooded chariot race contested by four teams of horses. This is a re-enactment with a difference. In the ancient Roman city of Jerash, Jordan, an hour's drive north of Amman, it takes place in the hippodrome where 15,000 fans witnessed the real thing 1,800 years ago.

Conceived by a Swedish entrepreneur who was inspired by watching the film Ben Hur on a cold afternoon 28 years ago, the event features chariots in the style of Alfredo Danesi, the man behind the famous racing carriages of the Hollywood epic, and actors trained by British stuntmen.

Between the Palestinian intifada to the west and Iraqi insurgency to the east, there is no shortage of authentic conflict in the Middle East. But tourism chiefs in the Hashemite Kingdom hope that The Roman Army and Chariot Experience will draw visitors back to Jordan after several lean years for the holiday industry. Performances will begin next month beneath the flag of the VI Legion Ferrata, which was established by Julius Caesar, within the arches and terraced seats of the ancient 244m x 52m (800ft x 170ft) hippodrome in Jerash.

The cast features retired Jordanian soldiers and police officers dressed as legionnaires,who have metallic swords, helmets and javelins, and gladiators with realistic full-face helmets and tridents.

Each day of the event the climax will be the chariot race, which will be run over seven thunderous laps by teams decked out in red, white, blue and green. Stellan Lind, a Swedish businessman who has invested with more than a dozen Jordanian entrepreneurs to create the spectacle, said: "This is unique. It is the only place in the world where you can see chariot races in a genuine Roman stadium, sitting where the Romans sat and seeing what they saw."

He was dressed as a Roman procurator and sat among a crowd while orders were barked out in Latin below him.

"I wanted to show that what people do doesn't change over time – only how they do it," he said. "Chariot racing is the biggest spectator sport in history. The Roman chariot races were organised by companies just like Formula One. They had enormous stud farms where they bred horses, and the races were performed not just from year to year but from century to century. It will be quite some time before Formula One, football or cricket catch up with that."

Jerash dates from the Hellenistic era, when it was founded by Alexander the Great or one of his successors. Conquered by Pompey in 63BC, it became part of the Decapolis, the federation of ten important Roman cities.

Foremost among its ancient buildings is the hippodrome, one of the smallest in the Roman Empire but capable of seating 15,000 in ancient times. An arch honouring the Emperor Hadrian, who visited in AD129, and the ruins of a Sanctuary of Zeus stand nearby.

The city was ravaged by earthquakes and lay forgotten and half-buried for centuries. It was discovered by a German traveller in 1806 and excavated in the 1920s.