Exploring the Nabatean/Roman Ruins in Southern Syria
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributor
“Nabataean Arabs! They were in Petra. I never knew their kingdom extended to southern Syria.” Like most people who are familiar with the history of the Middle East, my friend did not connect Nabataeans with Syria. Yet, these pre-Islamic Arabs once had an empire that extended north to Palmyra, east to the Euphrates, and south to the heart of western Saudi Arabia. However, after their kingdom was overwhelmed by the Romans, they were almost lost in history.
From the fairyland Ebla Cham Palace on the outskirts of Damascus, we headed southward to tour the remains they, and their conquerors left behind. The luxurious atmosphere of one of the plush hotels we had left, contrasted sharply with the simple villages we passed. However, soon the enchantment of the 20th-century deluxe abode began to fade away, replaced by thoughts of Nabataeans and Romans who had once made southern Syria a leading part of the civilized world.
We drove through a semi-desert country, dotted with many new structures, symbols of evolving Syria until we passed past a volcanic mountain whose ashes are mined for use in paving roads. Soon the ancient town of Shahba, set amid orchards and vineyards, came into view.
The birthplace of Emperor Philippus (Philip) the Arab who ruled from 244 to 249 A.D., gets its name from one of the Nabataean kings, al-Shahba (the grey). In the Roman era, the city was re-named Philippopolis in Emperor Philip’s honor. He tried to make it a replica of Rome, erecting baths, palaces, theatres, and temples. The many ruins one sees in town and in all of southern Syria are to a great extent remains of structures built during his short reign.
In that ancient part of the world, he remains, even in our times, the hero par-excellence. When we discussed his few years as emperor of the Roman Empire with the inhabitants, they talked about him as if he had lived only a short time ago. After all these many centuries, in the town of his birth, the Arab/Roman son of Shahba was still alive in the minds of the people.
The heart of modern Shahba is built between the ruins of the Roman city. From the days of its emperor son and before, there is still to be found the modest tomb of Philip’s father and mother, sections of the Roman walls, four Roman gates, a small partially renovated theatre, parts of an impressive Roman bath, remains of the chief temple, two main streets which still have their original paving stones, and housed in a tiny museum some very admirable mosaics.
A short distance from the city of Philip we stopped in Qanawat to examine its rich Nabataean/Roman remains. During the Roman era when it was called Decapolis, it had 60,000 inhabitants and was second in the league of commercial towns of which Damascus was the chief city. However, long before the Romans, it was a large Nabataean city, which was later taken over by the Greeks. Today, the village stretches along the crest of a hill and extends down the side of a valley, crowded with orchards and small-cultivated fields.
From the town’s days of glory there remain parts of the Temple of Zeus built with decorated basalt, columns with Corinthian capitals from the Temple of the sun god Helios, and leftovers from two basilicas – one from the 4th and the other from the 6th centuries.
A five-minute drive from Qanawat and we were in Sia’a – once an important Nabataean town. Perched atop a hill it commands a rich agricultural valley below. The modern village is an unbelievable collection of black stone. It appeared to have been thrown about as if by accident. We examined the ruins of a part of the ancient town square and the Temple of Bel Shamin, then left for Sweida – known in the Nabataean period as Suwada (little black town) because it was built with black volcanic stone.
Known as Dionysus in Roman times, Sweida is the capital of the province of Jabal al-Arab or as it is more commonly called Jabal al-Druze. There is not much left from its Nabataean/Roman past except some Corinthian columns from a 3rd-century Roman temple which glorified the god Dusares, part of the great basilica, and an arch of a small 6th-century basilica. On the other hand, the best relics from southern Syria’s ancient past are housed in the large Sweida Museum which appears to be well organized. It contains a fine collection of Nabataean, Greek, and Roman statues and many well-preserved mosaics.
Modern Sweida, which is reputed to have the most beautiful women in Syria, is a fast expanding city, elegant in its charming stone villas and new public buildings. The construction-boom that in the last decade engulfed the whole of Syria is especially evident to the eye in the towns of Jabal al-Arab. In the past, the lava strewn countryside and black stone villages created an image of a lunar landscape. Today, the modern white cement and stone homes set in-between historic relics and volcanic rock give the land a refreshing yet historic appearance.
From Sweida we drove to Bosra or as the Arabs call it Bosra al-Sham, 140 km (87 mi) south of Damascus. The city was mentioned in Egyptian tablets dating from 1334 B.C. and later became the capital of an extensive Nabataean kingdom. The town location astride the caravan routes to the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf made it of strategic importance. The Romans, recognizing its significance, made it a capital of their Arab province. In the subsequent centuries, it became one of the most illustrious cities in the Roman Empire. For a time it minted its own coins and its scholars introduced a new calendar to the world of that era.
Today, modern Bosra is an important tourist town. Its profusion of monuments makes it a mecca for visitors in southern Syria seeking the Roman remains, which are being slowly excavated. Many of the village homes, erected atop Roman ruins, are being removed. Roman columns, triumphal arches, and engravings, once hidden under village homes, are beginning to see the light. The main street is still paved with the basalt blocks laid in the days when Rome ruled the civilized world.
We started our tour exploring the ruins of an immense basilica – once the leading Christian religious structure in southern Syria and the seat of an archbishopric. Nearby were the ruins of a church where, according to legend, the Prophet Muhammad encountered the monk Buhayra and discussed with him the Christian Gospels.
Leaving behind these Christian relics we moved on to examine the remains of the Nabataean walls, large Roman bath, two Roman gates, a pagan temple, Roman underground market, the Mabrak or al-Naqa Mosque where the first Koran brought to Syria was once kept, and the al-Arouss or Omar’s Mosque which retains the first minaret in the Fertile Crescent.
Overlooking all the monuments we had seen was the majestic Roman amphitheater with a seating capacity of 15,000. It is considered the best-preserved, most perfect, and beautiful theatre built in the ancient world. What saved the amphitheater where the massive walls built around it by the Muslims in the 12th century to hold back the Crusaders. This created an almost impregnable fortress that never fell to the Christians. The only damage to the citadel happened later during the Mongol invasion.
The theatre’s acoustics are still perfect. A mere whisper on the immense 45 m (148 ft) long and 8.5 m (28 ft) wide stage can be heard by the audience, in the furthest seats. Today, entertainment without electronics can still be enjoyed as in Roman times when, during annual festivals, against Roman columns and arches, actors, dancers, and singers perform within its walls.
After leaving this perfectly preserved Roman masterpiece, we dined in the Bosra Cham Palace – the only hotel in the area. Enjoying a tasty Arab meal amid the luxury of the 21st century, we looked out at the amphitheatre that loomed majestically in the distance. It was easy to dream of Nabataeans and Romans as we gorged ourselves with the best food Syria had to offer. It was a satisfying end to an exciting day of retracing the days of the Nabataean Arabs and the sons of Rome.
My visit to Bosra was in 2010 just before the attacks by the Western-backed terrorists began. Many of Syria’s priceless and unique ancient structures were destroyed by them in their quest to erase the ancient heritage of this foundation of civilization. With the winding down of the vicious war against the country, Syria has now made it a priority to rebuild its ancient past and Bosra will be part of this revival.