The Ancient City of Bosra grew the most under the Romans, who paid great attention to it and was named Niatrojana Bostra as the capital of the state of Djezire under the king Trojan.
In the Byzantine period Bosra 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 Damascus and Mecca.
Its two most remarkable structures are:
- the 2nd century Roman theatre, probably built under Trajan
- the citadel fortified between 481 and 1231
Map of BosraLoad map
The old sunken roadway still held its north-south bearing. The stubby remains of columns lined my way to left and right as I walked, my feet kicking up puffs of sand from the stone flags. I could feel the heat of the morning through the soles of my shoes. Towards me swayed an old woman in a startling midnight blue velvet robe, a black plastic sack balanced on her head. Two schoolboys ran past, late for class. I stopped in disbelief before a pair of skyscraping Roman columns. It was not the columns themselves or the finely decorated architrave that startled me. Instead it was the fact that rough hunks of dark masonry had been used to fill in the lower half of the gap between them. Doors and barred windows glowered at me. These Roman ruins, out on the edge of empire, were still inhabited to this day.
Bosra is a town of black basalt and dust. Even when I visited in 2009, ten years ago, it seemed a little bit forgotten. The tour buses charged straight on from the Jordanian border for the orientalist allure of Damascus. No one turned right to follow the road to Bosra. And that was a shame. The town was definitely of interest. Bosra has a long and storied history, passing from one conquering empire to another like a family heirloom. Nabateans to Romans, Romans to Byzantines, Byzantines to Sassanians and back again before falling to the first caliphate just two years after the death of Muhammad. It was an outpost of whichever dynasty ruled Damascus up until the dominance of the Ottoman empire. Under Ottomans, French and as part of an independent Syria it seems to have lapsed into a dusty backwater. The town’s population in the 2000s was between 20 and 30,000; under the Romans it was nearer 80,000. Walking around the ancient core of the city, particularly once I stepped away from the theatre, I felt like an intruder. The contrast with, say, Palmyra could not have been greater. No strip of tourist-friendly restaurants and cafes greeted me, no air-conditioned museum – and no fenced-off archaeological site either. UNESCO’s ‘Ancient City’ was just one part of the modern town of Bosra, albeit a part that looked to have had very little development since the 13th century. People lived among the ruins in a way that I can’t recall seeing anywhere else around the Mediterranean. Squalor amidst the grandeur.
So what is there to see? Well, the main deal is the theatre, built in the 2nd century following the city’s conquest by Trajan’s legions. It’s big (it seated around 15,000 in its heyday) and was still sturdy and continent enough to be used for music festivals at the time of my visit. If you’re an avid fan of Roman theatres or have never visited one before, I can recommend it. I had seen Roman theatres before, however, and I found it rather unengaging compared to the theatre of Orange in Provence. There was no labelling to tell the visitor what they were looking at (and the toilets were foetid!). Still, entry fee in 2009 was only 150 SYP – maybe £2. Its USP lies in its later lease of life. Unusually, the theatre is free-standing, rather than being backed into a hillside. This fact was exploited centuries later by successive Islamic dynasties who turned the theatre into a fortress, building up walls and towers around the Roman core like lagging around a pipe. These later concretions remain and provide an ominous bulk to what was once a place of entertainment.
The ancient city spreads out to the north of the theatre. There was a neat grid of sunken roadways fringed by an anything-but-neat tangle of low-rise walls. Roman era baths lay cheek-by-jowl with Byzantine basilicae. Great arched gateways and sagging powerlines spanned the roads. Historic mosques with squat square minarets looked to have been prioritised for upkeep by whatever passed for the authorities here but did not seem to be open for visits by sweaty Englishmen (this contrasted with the baths opposite, where a smartly-dressed man appeared from nowhere to unlock the entrance gates as I approached).
I couldn’t find an obvious way to visit Bosra on public transport from Damascus, though I’m sure there would have been one, given enough time. I already had an onward ticket from Damascus to Palmyra for the afternoon however, so I stumped up for a taxi. The cost for five hours (90 minutes each way plus two hours looking around Bosra) came to 3500SYP (£46).
Of course, due to the ongoing Syrian Civil War, all this could be horrifically out of date.
World Heritage-iness: 3
My Experience: 3
(Visited Aug 2009)
Great drive from Damascus to Bosra, really enjoyed it some interesting places to stop and eat. The Theatre was interesting, the basalt rock used to construct it seems indestructible. Not much else to see in the town though. It seems it later became a fort to defend the city.
Paul Tanner's review is quite accurate. The intermingling of ancient ruins and modern housing makes for an odd feeling. Unfortunately some of the shells of ancient buildings have been used as garbage dumps by the residents. Walking down the streets you can come across the ruins of unexcavated ancient buildings in whose debris you can see fragments of Roman glass protruding. Besides the excelently preserved Roman theater, the site is notable for the use of black basalt stonework. It is so very different from the usual marble. There is so much still standing that a conservation program that includes relocating the current residents could make for a wonderful archaeological park.
the great thing about this City is the fact that it survived about 2500 years inhabited and almost intact.the Romans, Nabateans, Byzanthine, Umayyad Muslims all left traces in it..it is simply an open museum. make sure to read about it before visiting or at least get a guide book to the numerous sites you are about to see or you will be lost and not really appreciate what you are seeing.
you might wanna know how important it is to the Eastern Christians since it was a center of archbichop and it has many intact ancient churches. alo very important for muslims since in it prophet Mohammed has met the monk Buheira who was the first to forsee the child Mohammad's prophesy. It was also the second Nabatean capital after the sacking of Petra by the Romans.
truely a must see if you are spending longer than a few days in Syria.the area also has many other ancient classic cities like Shahba, Qanata(Qanawat),Izraa, Salkhad..etc
Bosra is a very strange “ruined town”. Its remains are primarily Roman and its star attraction is the well preserved 15000 seat Roman theatre. What is slightly disconcerting when visiting the place is the intermingling of current dwellings and ruins. People live inside the city walls in houses which either are or are partly built from or are next to “old” buildings. The streets still seem to be paved as in Roman days – yet have clapped out old cars parked in them (photo!).
The city is located south of Damascus close to the Jordanian border in an area you are unlikely to visit to see anything else and, in my view is only worth a visit if you can either
a. take it in if crossing at Dera to/from Jordan
b. are determined to pick up all the Syrian WHS!!
2013 In Danger
Together with all 5 other Syrian WHS, due to Civil War
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