The Syria of today offers tourists as much a cultural experience as a sightseeing one, where ancient history provides a fascinating backdrop to everyday life on the streets                          




For close to four millennia Bosra ("Citadel") expanded layer over layer, each level making use of the stones of the previous period, or maybe just leaving them in a careless disarray-- scattered architectural debris in a mosaic of ruins, yet never abandoned, always well populated-- on the red and black volcanic plain watered by the twin wadis, the Zaydi and the Butm.

These tributaries of the legendary Yarmouk flow from the fertile valley of Nukra; they witnessed the great battle, in A.D. 634, in which the Emperor Heraclios risked all of Syria in a single engagement, and lost, thus launching Islam to the conquest, in a scant twenty years, of much of the world: a flame that became a wildfire.

It was said that a monk's prophesy, by a roadside in Bosra, set the stage for the Arab expansion, and Bosra reaped the rewards. Shepherds, prophets, merchants, magnates, lived among the stony dwellings, that as time passed became temples, palaces, baths, fountains, markets, public monuments and mosques. Columns and arches, pools and paving stones blended into a crossroads of the caravan routes, then crumbled and were rebuilt, and with each new culture, a new vision.

The earliest reference to the site, in the lists of Thutmose III, c. 1334 B.C., is to be found in the exchange of letters between Pharaoh Amenhotep and the Kings of Phoenicia. These texts (see Chapter Twenty) have traditionally been coveted by both archaeologists and historians, and are indispensable to the historical and chronological comprehension of the region. They were discovered among the ruins of Egypt's Tel el-Amana, or Amarna, and describe successive waves of Semitic migration, possibly Amorites or their cousins, the Hyksos, who settled in the region known as the Hauran, in southern Syria adjacent to the present-day state of Jordan.

These migrations affected the eventual will of King Herod, who divided his kingdom among three of his sons. To one of these, Philip, fell Bosra, or Bostra, along with the other Hauran cities of Philadelphia, Gerasa, Capitolias and Bethsaida. The resulting ethnic mixture, a heady blend, included Akkadians from northern Mesopotamia, Canaanites and Arameans from the Levant, Nabateans just to the south, and Mundirites and Ghassanids from the Arabian Peninsula. They were all in constant movement, a ceaseless choreography of tents and flocks, their messages of faith, their wares, their restless search for lands, pastures, and markets for their goods.

Bosra, by this time known as Buhora, in fact came to play a significant role in the Nabatean state, actually serving for a time as the northern capital, while Petra, "that rose-red city, half as old as time", reigned in the south. Under King Aretas IV (9 B.C.-40 A.D.) the region reached a zenith, and Bosra, "the black city", became in effect a Hellenistic urban center, rebaptized as Bustra, contended by both the Seleucids and the Ptolemies in their persistent wars over the rich trade routes. And while it became Aramaic in speech, Greek in art, Alexandrian in the splendor of the streets, its strategic location, along with shrewd politics, lent themselves to a highly regarded military and commercial position. The so-called "Nabatean Gate" is among the few surviving remnants of this period. It rises over ruins that date from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D. But these remains were covered, therefore virtually obliterated, by subsequent construction. With its stolid magnificence and its unique Arab-Hellenistic architectural synthesis, the gate marked the eastern exit from the city, and may have led to the palace of the Nabatean king Rabbel II.

It was inevitable that such prosperity and influence should attract the Romans. By the second century the city was annexed into the dominions of Cornelius Palma and in 106 A.D. "a new era" was declared for Bosra; the Nabatean realm became the Roman Province of Arabia Petrea.

Bosra by now had been designated "Nova Trajana", or Neatrajana Bustra. Alexander Severus bestowed the additional title of "Colonial Bostra", given the flourishing economy and the brisk caravan trade. Trajan had even built a second century palace here, a rectangular structure, fifty by thirty-three meters on two levels, with galleries elevated on pilasters. The niches displayed the marble statues since removed to the museum.

The city saw its greatest expansion during this time and a number of its singular monuments were erected. Many of them, including the famous theater, are still visible, in a diversity of styles, in part due to the caprice of the native volcanic stone. Its hardness dictated a predominance of simpler and more stylized Ionian capitals on hundreds of columns, some still vertical, others fallen or broken into the scattered fragments that lend Bosra its doleful air. Many of the columns or their residue have been incorporated at random into the existing architecture. Exceptional, then, are the four surviving Corinthian columns, each of them a soaring fourteen meters high and over a meter in circumference: the tetrapylon, just opposite the entrance to the agora, stands near the ruins of the elaborate Nymphaeum, a justifiably admired system of water storage, with its ducts directed at fountains, gardens, and baths.

The baths, which also date from the second century, consist of a ruined series of arches and chambers on a clearly perceptible floor plan, currently nestled in an otherwise unrelated residential quarter. They anticipated the nearby Arab baths, the Hammam Manjak, by five hundred years, yet both show a remarkable adaptation of a hydraulic system, storage for cold and hot water, steam baths, dressing rooms, and the pulchritude of the successive waves of inhabitants in this unlikely volcanic metropolis. The Roman baths were initially destined only for use by the elite but ultimately were made available to the public. The Arab baths, however, ordered built in 1372 by Manjak al-Yusufi, the Mamluk viceroy in Syria and Governor of the Province of Damascus, were from the outset destined for the use of pilgrims on their Hajj bound for Mecca. Their hydraulic engineering was so complicated that the baths were used for only a short time, yet their ruins survived well into the nineteenth century and have been partially restored by twentieth century archaeological teams.

The third century Legia III Cyrenaica, administrator of the Hauran jurisdiction, was garrisoned in Bosra, and was honored with a triple arch, thirteen meters high, known as the Bab al-Qandil ("The Lantern Gate"), that even today separates the "southern baths" from the Decumanus, just at the intersection of the Via Recta or Straight Street, that drove like an arrow directly through the Roman city.

Roman Bosra had been raised, according to the legends of the day, over the mythical remains of Bosra ash-Sham ("The City of Sham", referring to Cham or Sam, son of Noah). Now the official seat and residence of the Imperial Legate, Bosra, or Bostra, had become a crossroads for a new network of commercial routes, with more distant and exotic destinations, offering ever more conspicuous and enticing products. Coins became a significant aspect of this culture of trade and commerce, and were minted especially with the image of "Philip the Arab" (Marcus Julius Philippus) -- a native of the Hauran born in nearby Shahba (Philippopolis)-- emperor from 244 to 249.

During the Roman period the city was entered through the second century Wind Gate, known to the Arabs as the Bab al-Haoua. Its restored remains have little in common with the walls that keep it erect, that once supported two massive arches held aloft on pillars barely visible now, adjacent to the lateral niches, that once gleamed with commemorative statues to the gods and emperors. But that is typical of Bosra. Though jumbled and incongruous, every century is present.

After the decline of Rome's western empire, and the rise of Byzantium


Bosra played a key role in the history of Christianity in the region. It was, in fact, a Nestorian Christian monk, Bahira, who according to legend had occasion to meet the adolescent Mohammed, only twelve when he passed through Bosra with his uncle, Abu Talib, a merchant with the caravans. During his hermit years, Bahira had read of the coming of a great Prophet, and predicted that this youth, with his stubborn vocation and the vision of his faith, would change the history of the world.

Until the advent of Islam, Christianity appeared as the most attractive religion ever presented to an aggrieved populace, offering itself without restriction to all people, all classes, anywhere, anytime. "By making all men heir to Christ's victory over death," says historian Will Durant, "Christianity announced not just a common ground, but rather a basic equality, with no distinction among the miserable, the maimed, the bereaved, the disheartened, or humiliated, and elevated them all to a potentially sublime state, with access to the Kingdom of Heaven independently of education, privilege, sect or cult, simply by the new virtue of compassion." So nearly every convert, he goes on to say, "with the ardor of a revolutionary, made himself an officer of propaganda." Yet this also lent itself to the diversity, and infinite creativity, in the eruption of one sect after another, and all of them at odds with each other. The conflicting philosophies of Greece had become the contradictory religions of Deutera Roma. These included especially the rampant Monophysite polemic, much of it -- with its Nestorian nucleus -- centered in Bosra, among other sites throughout Egypt and Syria, though it had been declared heresy by the orthodox Byzantine authorities.

Byzantine Bosra, despite a number of unique architectural remains that might have referred to singular temples, such as the "kalybea" along the Decumanus, was in fact less religious than mercenary. It was one of the most prosperous market centers in the region, on the crucial roads that led between Damascus and Philadelphia (Amman), and that linked Baghdad, Persia and Transoxiana with the Mediterranean. The Khan ad-Dibs ("the molasses market"), much of it still intact, or carefully restored, measured seventy by twenty meters. It opened onto the vast agora, or market square, adjacent as well to another architectural enigma. The Cryptoporticus has actually never been deciphered. Unearthed during archaeological excavations in 1968, the great vaulted hall, one hundred and six meters long, 4.10 meters in height and perforated by twenty-four rectangular windows giving onto the intersection of the Straight Street and the Decumanus, might have served as a covered market. The niches along the gallery preclude its use as a cistern but another hypothesis suggests that at least during the Roman era it might have served, given its proximity to the "Lantern Gate", as a stables.

Yet the city's signature structure, according to Byzantine criterion, and precursor of a style that later flourished in northern Syria, was the cathedral dedicated to Syrian martyrs St. Sergius, Bacchus and Leontus, built along a plethora of keystone arches in 512-513. It was the first domed edifice on a rectangular ground plan, fifty-one by thirty-seven and a half meters. The enormous cupola measured thirty-six meters across. It was raised over a circular drum, supported on eight columns that unfortunately later collapsed. The emperor Justinian, it was said, was inspired here for the design he later modified, and employed in the grandiose Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

Just to the north of the cathedral lie the ruins of a third or fourth century basilica, intact up to the roof level though since restored, with a semi-circular apse, high windows, and a strange, blank façade that dates from the Ayyubid era. One of the oldest churches in Bosra, it is presumed to have originally served to commemorate the site of the encounter between the monk Bahira and the future Prophet Mohammed. As the story is told, a camel kneeled here, before the young Mohammed who, the holy man had predicted, would go beyond Christian precept, to further advance a reconciliation between origin and destiny, between evil and suffering, giving a name and a sense to injustice, cruelty, arrogance and the ecstasy in faith, by means of a divinely revealed doctrine in which the simplest soul could find inner peace.

By that time the Muslim Arabs and the Nestorian Christians, despite support from Justinian's perverse and rebellious empress Theodosia (Theodora) had made common cause against Byzantine authority, in support of Caliph Omar (Umar Abu Hafsa ibn al-Khattab, 582-644), founder of the Umayyad dynasty, who in response settled his headquarters in Bosra. The Jami al-Arouss, or Mosque of Omar, erected over a previous temple dedicated to the prior nature gods, was possibly the first mosque ever built after the death of Mohammed. The mosque's columns and façade, having survived from the time of its initial construction, still reveal inscriptions in Greek, Latin and Nabatean. The tall, sober, square minaret, celebrated as a landmark on the pilgrimage route to Mecca, was a later addition, and dates from the twelfth century.

To the locals, however, the complex is known as the "Bridal Mosque". Tradition has it that Mohammed, as a young merchant of twenty-five, stopped to rest here as he passed through Bosra again with his caravan. He was by this time responsible for the mercantile affairs of the wealthy widow, Khadija, whom he later married, and with whom he remained until she died, twenty-six years later.

Despite her maturity and the fact that she already had children, she bore Mohammed a number of daughters, including Fatima, his favorite, and two sons, who died in infancy. The Prophet was so bereaved he later adopted the orphaned Ali, son of his dear uncle Abu Talib. When the boy reached manhood he married Fatima, was a loving husband to her, and a devoted son-in-law, who expressed his reverence for Mohammed in the most tender of terms. "There was such sweetness in his visage that no one, once in his presence, could leave him. If I hungered, a single look at the Prophet's face dispelled the hunger. Before him all forgot their griefs and pains." (Abu Jafar Muhammad al-Tabari, Chronique, Part III, Ch. x:vi, p. 202)

Bosra's greatest architectural monument is the bulky stone construction that from the outside appears to be no more than an especially ambitious Arab fortress. Vigilant over a vast semi-circular sweep of nearly-blind ramparts, that command a broad esplanade on a knoll above the city, rise great square donjon, or towers, erected of colossal blocks, the cornerstones each over five meters in height. All of this originally fit into the city walls, now largely vanished. The six arches of a sturdy bridge cross a deep moat, the first line of defense. An ironwork gate blocks the entrance, that in any case immediately turns ninety degrees to the right, making a battering ram ill advised. The inside then appears as a labyrinth, of vaulted rooms and twisting passageways. These should rise to the upper terraces and the rampart walks, and so they do, but not right away. They are, in actual fact, the inner galleries - the post-scenium --of an enormous Roman theater, raised in 106 A.D. over a prior Hellenistic forum.

The passages that lead off the great gallery ultimately open onto a stage forty-five meters wide and eight and one half meters deep. The stage wall, like the façade of a temple and originally faced with white marble, is confected of a pleasing composition using combinations of Corinthian columns. The proscenium looks out over tiered rows of stone seats that rise to what had been a vaulted Doric gallery on the uppermost level. The theater was said to accommodate fifteen thousand spectators, with special boxes for the most illustrious among its public. The entire amphitheater was tented, during performances, with silk draperies, that protected audiences from both the summer sun and the winter rain, while perfumed spray, the ultimate refinement, lightened the caravan aromas. And if the theater in Apamea was Rome's largest, the Bosra theater is the best preserved, encrusted in its thirteenth century citadel shell, impervious to the world beyond.

The two structures, a monument to symbiosis, are embedded in each other. The outer medieval walls, with their vaulted galleries terraced on a number of levels, are a protective shell that completely encircles the theater's cavea. When the seventh century Arabs entered Bosra they set about blocking all the tunnels, passageways and galleries in the original Seleucid and superimposed Roman theater, and even raised the level of the floors. Their thick new fortifications, though they provided renewed defenses against the Byzantines and later served to protect Bosra from an attack by the Fatimid Egyptians in 1076, were nonetheless inadequate in the face of the advancing Crusaders, led by Baudoin III, once in 1147 and again in 1151, so three additional towers, that jutted out from the original Roman construction, were designed and added, and between 1202 and 1251 nine larger towers were introduced into the existing construction, blending in such a fashion as to become an integral part of the outer defenses. It was as if, each time, the theater reinvented itself, taking on new membranes, then hips and shoulders and multiple heads, that served as muscles, skin, bones, members. A mosque was in fact commissioned in 1223, to be erected on the theater's stage. Later additions were laid over the interior of the theater, and its tiers of seats, among them a vaulted cistern, intended to occupy the entire cavea in order to provide the water for the baths installed in the portico. An Ayyubid prince even ordered the construction of a palace, making use of the theater's original dressing rooms. The Department of Antiquities and Museums, beginning at the time of Syria's independence from French mandate, initiated the work of dissecting, sorting and restoring, so that the womb that is the theater might survive simultaneously with the outer belly and thorax that is the fortress. Today the restored masterpiece serves as the background for opera, ballet, symphony, chamber music and chorale, as well as lectures and art exhibits, during the annual Bosra International Festival of the Arts.

A café has been installed in the largest tower at the western extreme of the citadel, that leads to a wide terrace and an open-air museum, where sculpture, millstones, olive presses, mosaics of the Muslim period with their camels and desert copses, and fragments of architecture in red volcanic stone and black basalt, are displayed against the blazing blue desert sky.

The Arab fortress encompassed an area that was only partially incorporated into the ruins of the Roman and Byzantine city. It actually grew outward, from the upper reaches of the Hellenistic and Roman center beyond the monumental Nabatean and Roman cisterns, still in use to the east of the citadel, and developed a new network of mosques, madrassas, baths, bazaars and cemetery, integrated into the amplified residential quarters. All construction is of rough-hewn or recycled stone, reinforced with fragments of columns, and their bases and capitals.

The Muslim city took on a new importance beginning in 1218, in part due to the reinforcements attached to the citadel and the renewed security they implied, ordered by al-Adil Abu Bakr, Ayyubid monarch in Damascus. The Abu El-Fida Medrassa, corresponding to this period, is a huge rectangular structure, with its roof supported on six lovely arches, resting in turn on recycled columns. The minaret, which dates from 1225, was perhaps built without either a ceiling or a staircase, or both have long since collapsed. Nearby is the Yaqout Mosque, dating from 1257. The earlier al-Khidr Mosque, built of black basalt in 1134 just south of the al-Jahir spring, is one of Bosra's oldest constructions of the Islamic period; it was modified after 1258, with a minaret twelve meters high added just to the west of the mosque. Arabic inscriptions engraved in the stucco are still visible above the miqrab.

Despite Bosra's ruin, in 1260, at the hands of the Mongol raiders from Central Asia, the city recovered its importance and became, once again, the prime urban center of the Hauran. The Mamluk sultan Baibars ordered new repairs to the citadel in 1277 and Bosra was treated to a period of relative calm. The first construction undertaken during the prosperous Mamluk era was the Mosque of Fatima, dedicated in 1306 to the Prophet's daughter. The tall, square minaret was added later. How much later is still a mystery, since the inscriptions are no longer legible.

When the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Lawgiver, "The Magnificent", conquered Syria in 1516, he initiated what would amount to more than three centuries of Turkish domination. Istanbul's eventual contribution to Bosra took the form of a narrow-gauge railway. The little train still runs twice a week, stopping at the station under the walls of the restored fortress-theater. The railroad today is just an anecdote but in its day it was the critical Turkish passenger and supply line, serving nearby Daar'a, Amman, and on into the Hejaz, and proved essential to General Allenby's battle plan during the First World War, to defeat the Turks and divide the last remnants of an exhausted Ottoman Empire among the western European powers. Lawrence, during his famous "Revolt in the Desert", and in the greatest tradition of the Hauran's military history, blew up the railway a number of times. "Henceforth," Lawrence later wrote, paraphrasing St. Jerome, "I read the books of God with greater zeal than I had ever given before to the books of men."

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