Visiting Bosra – Syria’s Nabatean/Roman Reborn City
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Nabatean Arabs! They were in Petra. I never knew their kingdom extended to southern Syria.” Like most people who are familiar with the history of Middle East common my friend did not connect Nabateans with Syria. Yet, these pre-Islamic Arabs once had an empire which 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 Cham Palace on the outskirts of Damascus, we headed southward to Bosra to explore the remains they and the Romans, their conquerors, had left behind. The elegant atmosphere of what must be one of the most plush hotels in the world, contrasted sharply with the simple villages we passed. However, soon the enchantment of this 20th century luxurious abode began to fade away, replaced by thoughts of Nabateans and Romans who had once made southern Syria a leading part of the civilized world.
In about an hour and a half we were in Bosra or as the Arabs call it Bosra al-Sham, 140 km (87 MI) south of Damascus and about a half drive from the Jordan border. The city was mentioned in Egyptian tablets dating from 1334 B.C. and later became the capital of an extensive Nabatean kingdom. The town location on the fertile Nukra plain astride the caravan routes to the Red Sea in 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 a forlorn and humble village with its population gathered around the vestiges of the old city. However, it is an important touristic town which draws some 90% of the tourists who visit Syria. Its profusion of monuments makes it a mecca for visitors seeking the Roman remains in southern Syria. Ruins are everywhere. Many of the village homes are erected on Nabatean and Roman foundations. Roman columns, triumphal arches and engravings are to be found scattered between houses and shops. 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 young Muhammad encountered the monk Buhayra who discussed with him the Christian Gospels and foretold Muhammad’s vocation as a Prophet.
Leaving behind these Christian relics we moved on to examine the remains of the Nabatean walls, large Roman bath, two Roman gates, a pagan temple, a Roman underground market, the Mabrak or al-Naqa Mosque where the first Qur’an brought to Syria was once kept, and the al-Arouss or Omar’s Mosque which retains the first minaret in the Fertile Crescent. After Islam came to Syria, Bosra with its churches and mosques was for many years to become one of the key and tolerant cities of Islam.
Overlooking all the monuments we had seen was the majestic Roman amphitheatre with a seating capacity of 15,000. Considered the best preserved, most perfect and beautiful theatre built in the ancient world, it is the very symbol of Bosra and is considered one of the most captivating sites in Syria. Inside its black basalt walls the entire history of the city can be retraced.
What saved the amphitheater were the massive walls built around it by Saladin in the 12th century to hold back the Crusaders. This created an almost impregnable fortress which never fell to the Christians. The only damage to the citadel happened later during the Mongol invasion.
The sobriety of the stadium’s lines and harmony of its proportions enhance the natural brilliance of the black stone facade ennobled with touches of white limestone. In Roman times, during the hot summer months, the theatre used to be covered with a silk canopy which was sprayed with perfumed water in order to refresh the spectators.
The theatre’s acoustics are still perfect. A mere whisper on the immense 45 m (148 FT) long and 8.5 m (28 FT) 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 an annual festival held in the first part of September, against Roman columns and arches, actors, dancers and singers perform within its walls
Our visit happened to be on a Friday, Syria’s day of rest. Besides tourists and farmers from the nearby countryside, hundreds of schoolchildren had been bused in to explore this handiwork of their ancestors. The crowds were so great that we could barely make our way through the masses of people. It was a living tribute to the genius of Nabatean/ Roman builders who have left Syria a tourist site par excellence.
Restoration of the Bosra ruins continues without pause. A 106 A.D. Roman racetrack for pure-bred Arabian horses is to be brought back into operation and a small Roman concert theatre is to be rebuilt. A resident of this museum city remarked when I asked him if anything had changed since my last visit some half dozen years before, “Every year something new is being raised from the ruins.”
After ending our tour, we dined in the Bosra Cham Palace a newly built deluxe hotel which is the only inn in town. It provided us with a welcome relief from the fatigue of touring the ruins. With its terraces opening on to the swimming pool and the antique theatre, it was the perfect complement to the grandeur of Bosra.
Enjoying a tasty Arab meal amid the luxury of the 20th century, we looked out at the amphitheatre which loomed majestically in the distance. It was easy to dream of Nabateans and Romans as we gorged ourselves with the best food Syria had to offer – at a cost of about $10 U.S. each for an entire gourmet meal. It was a satisfying end to an exciting day of retracing the days of the Nabatean Arabs and the sons of Rome.