Swedish Man Leads Gladiator Re-enactments in Jordan

A Swedish man inspired by Ben Hur is living out his dream of re-enacting Roman battles. Amid the ancient ruins of Jaresh, Jordan, Stellan Lind dons a toga as a group of former Jordanian soldiers play gladiators and compete in chariot races.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We'll stay in the same part of the world for a moment here, the kingdom of Jordan. In the ruins of a Middle Eastern city, a man who loves ancient history has made a dream come true. He's putting on daily re-enactments of Roman battles, gladiator fights and even chariot races. He was inspired by the movie "Ben-Hur." The backdrop for all this playacting is a real Roman city, the well-preserved ruins of Jerash in Jordan. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro paid a visit.

Mr. STELLAN LIND: My name is Stellan Lind, originally from Sweden but living in Jordan since 2000. In 1977 on a very cold summer day, actually, I was alone in Stockholm and I just went to see "Ben-Hur" one evening. And walking out of the cinema, I said to myself that this was absolutely fantastic, and I simply have to re-create this somewhere in the world sometime, somehow.

Unidentified Man #1: (Latin spoken)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

The battle cry of 45 legionnaires echoes off the columns and ancient stone seats of the hippodrome at Jerash. The men carrying spears and shields charge forward in the hot dusty race.

(Soundbite of charging)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The satisfied Lind looks on.

Mr. LIND: This is the only place in the world where you can do chariot races and performances of the Roman army and gladiators as we do in a genuine Roman setting. Sit where the Romans sat and see what the Romans saw is our motto here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jerash was founded by Alexander the Great or perhaps one of his successors. It was conquered by Pompeii in 63 BC and it became part of the Decapolis, a federation of 10 important Roman cities in the Middle East. It's now one of the best-preserved Roman cities in the world. For Lind, being able to do his daily re-enactments here is the culmination of a lifelong obsession. He retired early as a pharmaceutical company executive and searched high and low for the perfect setting. He persuaded Jordan's tourism board to endorse the idea.

Mr. LIND: When I first presented this idea to the minister of tourist and antiquities in 1998, he was very positive and enthusiastic, but we've become very good friends. And he admitted oft when we became friends that he thought I was a bit crazy when he met me for the first time, yes, which I took as a compliment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lind doesn't just watch the re-enactments; he participates. Dressed in a Roman toga with a purple sash, he corrects the mistaken impression that he's dressed like the emperor.

Mr. LIND: Do not call me an emperor when I act here in my Roman toga. Call me the true creator of the province of Arabia. We're having a lot of fun.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Lind says he's serious about authenticity.

Mr. LIND: We've been very concerned to do this absolutely right, historically and archaeologically correct. We have from top to toe followed details that we have from research. So the shape of the helmet, the color of the tunic, the colors and the shape of the shields.

Unidentified Man #2: (Latin spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All the orders are given in Latin and are learned by a cast that is made up of former Jordanian soldiers. The troop is led by Jordanian Fawez Azerbi(ph).

Mr. FAWEZ AZERBI: I'll need 80 men. In real life, I'm educated as a mechanical engineer, and I used to build vehicles, and Stellan Lind sort of headhunted me for this job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says his family accept his new job as a leader of a Roman legion, but...

Dressing up isn't seen as perhaps the most masculine thing to do?

Mr. AZERBI: No, especially not in skirts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The show here is called "The Roman Army and Chariot Experience," or RACE, and the appearance of charioteers is the highlight of the program. The chariots are based on a design of the very man who made them for the film "Ben-Hur." Still inspired by that film, Stellan Lind tracked him down in Italy.

Mr. LIND: You must realize that chariot racing is the biggest spectator sport of all times. Chariot racing went on from about 680 BC to 6, 7, 800 AD, not year after year but century after century after century, and the chariot racing was organized just like Formula One racing today. No difference. My idea here is that what people do doesn't change over time really. It's how they do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lind and his financial backers are hoping to turn a profit, of course, but whatever happens, Lind says he has no regrets about giving up everything to take on his new rather eccentric career.

Unidentified Man #3: (Latin spoken)

Group: (Latin spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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