Should you ever doubt that passion is at the root of all great travel products, or ever begin to doubt that your own passion won't carry the day, read on.
In 1977, Stellan Lind, then 34, was working for Unilever, marketing detergents, toilet soaps and margarine. With his family at their summer house, he was home alone in cold, rainy Stockholm, reading the paper. He spied an ad for the 1959 classic movie "Ben-Hur," and he went to see it.
He became completely absorbed by the chariot racing and walked out of the theater lost in thought. "I'm going to re-create that," he thought. "I'm going to do it."
He started reading books and articles about chariot racing. Whenever he traveled, he'd sneak over to local libraries and look for books on the subject.
In the 1990s, he led a management buyout of the pharmaceuticals company division he then worked in. While visiting his sister in Jordan in 1998, she took him to see the well-preserved Roman ruins in Jerash. Taking in the restored hippodrome, he thought, "This is the place."
Lind phoned his friend Jeff Cullis in England who had recently retired and asked him to help do research on chariot building. Cullis happened to see a small article in the Times of London about an Italian who wanted to drive people in chariots up Rome's Via Appia but was denied a permit because officials didn't want to deal with horse droppings.
They located the man, Alfredo Danesi, and arranged to meet him at Danesi's country home. It turned out that Danesi was the man who had built the chariots for "Ben-Hur." At this point he was 73 years old, and on the grounds of his home there were lots of chariots, carriages and even stagecoaches that he had built for Italian movies. He was willing, for a price, to build more.
Lind returned to Jordan and got an appointment with Akel Biltaji, then the tourism minister. (Now a Jordanian senator, Biltaji is still regarded as the country's godfather of tourism.) Lind needed permission to use the hippodrome before he could approach investors. Though Biltaji now says he thought Lind was "completely bonkers" at the time, he decided to help him anyway.
Meanwhile, between visits to Jordan, Lind was taking his company public. Once that was completed, he moved to Jordan, meeting with investors and taking a job as a consultant to pharmaceutical manufacturers. When he met them, he'd ask pharmaceutical executives if they wanted to invest in his idea.
One potential investor asked what kind of person would invest in a company like that. Lind replied, "Anyone with a boy's heart." The man looked at his wife for a moment, then agreed to invest.
In July 2001, everything seemed set. But as that date suggests, it would not stay set for long. Jordanian tourism collapsed on 9/11, and the idea was put on the back burner.
By 2004, Lind saw that things were picking up in tourism and, using capital he had raised and a grant from the tourist board, he began recruiting former police and soldiers to be performers.
He contracted with two stunt men and a man in England who specialized in re-creating historical events to train the gladiators to fight "without chopping each others' heads off." He found a realistically fashioned set of weapons and armor and then duplicated it.
Lind had put a prototype chariot together to show potential investors -- the first chariot built in Jordan in 1,800 years, he believes -- and began building more. In May 2005, he did a "soft launch," and in September he started selling tickets to the "Roman Army and Chariot Experience."
He has since expanded his operation, providing Nabateans (well, Jordanian policemen and soldiers dressed like Nabateans) to perform in a mock market at Petra, and is recruiting faux-Salah Ed Din soldiers to add color to a 12th century fortress in Ajloun.
"After that: Kerak, a huge castle where we'll put 'crusaders' " and, perhaps, a catapult with a 60-foot arm.
He has held private corporate events in Jerash for companies ranging from Microsoft to Novartis, including one in which all 45 participants were provided Roman clothing (women's hair was also styled authentically). "They had a hell of a good time," Lind said. And so, it's clear, did Lind.
Jordan seems an unlikely stage for tourism dreams to come true, and, indeed, Lind acknowledges that the real uphill battles were due to "all the turbulence in the region." Tourism collapsed again during the Israeli-Lebanese war in 2006 but has rebounded.
Lind said his Jordanian investors were patient. "I didn't build disruptions into the business plan, but they are all involved in this project as a good thing for Jordan. They don't nag me for returns." Still, he has good news in store for them. Based on current attendance trends, he'll turn a profit this year.
For more information -- and inspiration -- go to JerashChariots.com.
E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].