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Chariot racing at Jerash

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Jerash is the backdrop for a revival of the Roman sport of chariot racing, with choreographed contests and displays of Roman military prowess staged in the restored Hippodrome. RACE (“Roman Army and Chariots Experience”) organizes the reconstructions, which have been based on extensive research by academics and enthusiasts – including such luminaries as the technical adviser for the Oscar-winning film Gladiator and an Italian actor who drove chariots in the 1950s epic Ben Hur. After surveying Roman hippodromes around the world, experts settled on Jerash as being the most suitable, for its modest size, good state of preservation and well-visited setting.

From the earliest days of Classical Greece, around 650 BC, right through to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, chariot races followed a broadly similar format – four chariots competing around seven anticlockwise laps of the arena. The Jerash re-enactments follow the same guidelines. Ben Hur summons up images of gleaming, armour-plated war-chariots racing improbably quickly behind four horses, but in reality the Romans (unlike the Britons and the Celts) used chariots only for racing, not in battle, so they built less visually impressive, but much faster, 50kg wickerwork chariots, drawn by two horses. The new Jerash chariots fall somewhere between Hollywood romanticism and the flimsy, but historically accurate, truth.

The shows impress, with music, live English commentary and historical scene-setting. Expect trumpeters, legionaries in authentic Roman battledress, gladiators armed with swords and tridents and, of course, charioteers, everything meticulously choreographed. All the costumes and equipment have been manufactured in Jordan, and everyone involved in the show is from Jerash – most are ex-army or police. RACE keeps around seventy locals in salaried employment as actors, technical crew and stable-hands: for this reason, if no other, the project deserves your support.

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