Bosra sits on a fertile plain littered with black basalt about about
40km east of Deraa, and 140 Km south of
Damascus 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 Abbassid 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 Akhnatoun 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 Daraa; Bosra, forty kilometers 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route of an outdated train which runs twice a week but this old train comes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-theater recently and beautifully restored, where
the best ballet, theater and folklore companies give performances every
summer. This remarkable building is gradually bringing new life to Bosra
Mentioned in the list of Tutmose III and in the letters of Al
Amarna (in the archives of the Pharaoh Ahkhenaton, 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
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
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. 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 folkloric museum.
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 cavea 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 became independent.
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
- 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.