Bosra (Busra Ash Sham) sits on a fertile plain littered
with black basalt about 40km east of Daraa,
and 140 Km south of
in the Horan plain. The ancient city of Bosra is famous for
its impressive and beautiful Roman theatre. When it was in
use, the theatre was faced with marble and draped in silk, and
during performances a fine mist of perfumed water was sprayed over
the patrons to keep them comfy. It is an unusual structure in that
it has a fortress built around it, probably constructed during the
Omayyad and Abbasid periods. It is this fortress, which has
defended and preserved the theatre, accounting for its excellent
state of repair today. The theatre seated 15,000 people and,
unlike other Roman theatres, which were built into a hillside,
this building is freestanding. This city of Bosra, was first
mentioned in the Hieroglyphics of Thutmos III and Akhenaton in the
14th century BC, and 1000 years later was the capital of the
Nabatean kingdom under the name of Bousra. Later in the
Hellenistic era it bore the name of Boustra.
Bosra is made almost entirely from black basalt, most of
which has been filched from older buildings. Bosra is still
inhabited, but a new government program is committed to relocation
of the population to newer housing outside the old city walls.
Today, the international highway to Amman and Arabia crosses the
Syria frontier at Deraa; Bosra, forty kilometres away, is now only
a stop in the route of an outdated train which runs twice a week
but this old train comes to a halt at the foot of one of the most
extraordinary monuments in all the Middle East - the
fortress-theatre recently and beautifully restored, where the best
ballet, theatre and folklore companies give performances every
summer. This remarkable building is gradually bringing new life to
Bosra through tourism.
Mentioned in the list of Tutmose III and in the letters of Al
Amarna (in the archives of the Pharaoh Akhenaton, 1334 BC), Bosra,
also referred to in the Bible (the city of Jobab the son of Zerah,
one of the early kings of Edom. Mentioned by Isaiah in connection
with Edom. In his catalogue of the cities of the land of Moab,
Jeremiah mentions a Bosra as in "the plain country").
Bosra became one of the leading Nabatean cities (1st century)
before being named Niatrojana Bostra and made the capital of the
Province of Arabia (Djezire) by its Roman conquerors under the
king Trojan (106 AD). As a crossroads on the caravan routes and
residence of the Imperial Legate, the city flourished and many
fine buildings were erected. It was later attacked by Zenobia in
268 AD, however she only occupied it for a while and did not leave
her mark. In the Byzantine period Bosra played an important role
in the history of early Christianity and became the seat of an
archbishop who was in charge of 33 bishops in the area.
In 632 AD, Bosra was the first Byzantine city to fall to the Arab
Muslims, and it flourished greatly as a point on both the trade
route and the pilgrimage route between
and Mecca. The crusaders failed to take it over but it was their
threat that pushed the Ayyubids into converting the theatre into a
fortress. Bosra survived the Mongol invasion, and later under the
Mamelukes the main pilgrimage routes moved westwards and this left
Bosra quite abandoned, until the Druze moved here from Lebanon in
the 18th and19th centuries.
Attractions and historical building
- Bosra is most famous for its magnificent Roman
amphitheatre, Built around the end of the 2nd century AD, and
was later converted into a fortress by the Ayyubids. The original
theatre, which has been miraculously preserved, seats up to 15 000
with perfect acoustics and its stage is 45 meters in length and 8
meters in depth. It has been designed so that all the audience can
hear the actors without the use of any special equipment. The
theatre has been renovated and restored, especially a lot of the
columns. There is a large area in front of the stage that might've
been used for circuses or gladiatorial matches. Most of the
Ayyubid fortress that envelops the theatre remains. It was built
by the Ayyubids except for a few towers built by the Seljuks. One
of the Ayyubid towers on the outer arc has now been turned into a
From outside it could be an Arab fortress similar to many others.
On a semi-circular front, great square towers built of enormous
blocks of stone (some of the corner ones are more than five meters
high), project from the blind ramparts. A deep ditch, the first
line of defence, is crossed on a six-arched bridge. An iron-bound
gate, series of vaulted rooms, twisting passages, rampart walks,
and all kinds of defensive works, giving an impression of the
military quality of the castle, but nothing prepares us for the
surprise that right at its heart lies a splendid ancient theatre!
The 13th-enclosing wall completely encircles the caveat of the
theatre. When the Arabs entered into Bosra they immediately
blocked all the doors and opening of the ancient theatre with
thick walls, transforming it into an easily defensible citadel.
But the new threats posed by the Crusaders rendered these early
defences inadequate; so in the mid-11th century three towers were
built, jutting out from the Roman building; nine other bigger ones
followed, between 1202 and 1251. Later accretions overlaid the
interior of the theatre and its ranges of seats, but at the same
time preserved them. This interior has now been fully uncovered
and restored entirely by the Department of Antiquities, which
began its work shortly after Syria
Furthermore, sources reveal that the whole amphitheatre was
draped with silk hangings that protected audience from both the
summer sun and the winter rain. Perfumed water was also evaporated
in the theatre - the ultimate touch of style and refinement.
- Other Roman sites include the palatial Roman baths,
monumental gates and some fine Corinthian columns.
- From the theatre-fortress a narrow road with ancient
paving stones runs alongside the southern baths before coming
to the decumanus, near a triple arch known as Bab al Kandil (the
Gate of the Lantern). It was built in the 3rd century, in honour
of the Third Cyrenaica Legion, stationed here at Bosra. A
double-storied archway marks the western entrance to the city.
Bab al Hawa, the Gate of the Wind.
- Down from the theatre and the central arch, turn right along
the decumanus, the eye is caught by a group of tall slender
columns. The first four, set at an angle to the street, are
supposed to be the only surviving elements of Nymphaeun. The road
leading from the four columns to the Omar mosque striking
alongside the market (Khan al Dibs) has recently been cleared. On
the other side of the street, two columns 25 meters apart, one of
which is joined to the neighbouring wall by a rich entablature,
are said to have been part of a "kalybea", a religious building
unique to this region. The eastern exit to the town was marked by
an archway which, unlike the Gate of the Wind (to the west), is
said to date from the first century, the Nabatean period, of which
nearly all traces are now lost, the Romans having transformed the
entire city. This Nabatean gateway is unique in all Syria. Petra
(in present-day Jordan) is the only place where there are similar
ones, indicating the existence of pre-Roman Arab civilization.
- The Mosque of Omar in the centre of the town
(called Jami-al Arouss, "the bridal mosque" by the Bosriots) was a
pagan temple to begin with. It is the only mosque surviving from
the early Islamic period to preserve its original facades. All its
columns remain in place. Many bear inscriptions in Greek, Latin or
Nabatean. Its fine square minaret dates from the 12th century.
- The al Khidr mosque, 200 meters south of the al
Jahir spring, is considered to be one of Bosra?s oldest Islamic
constructions. Built out of black basalt in 1134 on the site of an
earlier seven meters long. Its twelve-meter high minaret was built
one and a half meters to the west of the mosque. Arabic
inscriptions engraved in the plaster can be seen above the mihrab.
- The al Mabrak Mosque (Mabrak, is where it is
said that Muhammad's camel knelt at the spot of the Mihrab) which
recalls another visit by the Prophet Mohammed to Bosra, is found
outside the city, to the northeast. Thousands of graves, with
great steal of black basalt on them, keep watch at the foot of its
walls. There is an enormous cistern which, at 120 meters by 150
meters is one of the largest the Romans ever built. Also found in
the city of Bosra, are the Mosques of Fatima.
- The Manjak Hammam, dating back to 1372, is a
prototype of Mamluk architecture. Founded by Manjak Al Youssoufi
(Governor of the Damascus province), this was the last Islamic
structure to be built in Bosra. It shows how important this town
was up until late in the Middle Ages. As it was situated at the
crossroads of trade routes, Bosra was also a stop-off point for
Muslim pilgrims heading to the holy towns of Mecca and Medina.
- Leaving the Nabatean gate on the left, arrive at the
ruins of a great building whose walls are marked by many
round-headed arches. This is the St. Serge, Bachus and Leontus
Cathedral, built in 512, the first domed building to be built
on a square ground plan. The Emperor Justinian was inspired by
this cathedral in the building of St Sophia at Constantinople.
About thirty meters to the north of the cathedral there is a
building whose walls, intact up to roof level, plainly indicate
that it is a church. This is the 3rd-4th-century basilica, site of
the famous encounter between Bahira and Mohammad. Bahira. Bahira
was a Nestorian Christian monk who met the Prophet Muhammad
when he was 12 years of age, and noticed the seal of prophecy and
claimed that he would have a great future..
- Around Bosra: Salkhad (23 km east
of Bosra on a surfaced road) has a citadel dating from the time of
the Crusades. A circular structure rises above a steep glacis to
crown a volcanic hill.
At Al Inat (26 km south-east of Salkhad by track) there is
a great reservoir (birkeh) dug out of the rock in 1238 - 1240, as
an Arabic inscription informs us. Further out, at Umm Al Qotein,
almost on the Syro-Jordanian frontier, there are extensive ruins.
Another track leads from Salkhad south to Anz (13 km) where there
are also ancient ruins.