Saturday, May 3, 2014

#680 Bosra, Syria

If you do a search of images of Bosra, Syria, more than likely, an image similar to the one above will show up. In a time when much of Syria is at war, Bosra's historical Roman legacy is still stronger than its current struggle. When I visited in 2007, pictures of Assad were hanging untarnished, and the ruins of Bosra were full of students in uniform learning of their heritage. Deep in Druze country, it is one of the less-renowned cities from antiquity.
Its full name is Bosra ash-Sham, and indeed, its 2nd Century AD 15,000-seat Roman theatre is one of the best -preserved - being encompassed by an Arab fortress has helped its preservation! It is also rare in that it is free-standing instead of built into a hillside. Much of the town itself is constructed with black basalt blocks over and around other parts of Roman ruins.
The first city we crossed upon entering Syria (it is close to the border with Jordan), it was first mentioned in Egyptian records as early as 1300 BC (as 'Busrana'). It was briefly the capital of the Nabataens (as 'Bosora', ahead of Petra (#873), to the south), before being annexed by the Romans on orders from Trajan in 106AD and being renamed Nova Trajana Bosra and the capital of the Province of Arabia. A new road linking it with Damascas (north) and Amman (#935, south), being a location for a Roman legion garison (the 3rd Cyrenaica Legion which included soldiers from across the empire, such as the Brittany soldier evidence found by archaeologists) and being surrounded by excellent agricultural land meant it was important for food, trade and administration. Philip, emperor of Rome from AD244-49 came from here and therefore made the town a metropolis and had the town produce coins of his likeness.
Byzantine times brought 33 priests overseen by a primate and the largest cathedral in the region built in the 6th Century. Mohamed is said to have passed through as a child with his merchant uncle and encountered a Nestorian monk named Boheira (Bahira), with whom he engaged in theological discussion, and who recognized his greatness and future Prophet status (partially due to a cloud that followed him and protected him from the sun). Muslims took the town in 634, and they repelled two crusader attacks in the 12th Century (1140 and 1183). It was the Umayyads and Ayyubids who fortified the theatre transforming it into a citadel, with further fortifications added by the Fatimids in the 11th Century, and it continued to be important as a stop on the pilgrimage route to Mecca throughout the Middle Ages, although in Ottoman times security diminished so pilgrims tended to use a route further west. Devastating raids by the Hulagu and his Mongol hordes also occurred before the Mamelukes took control. The citadel ended up with eight towers connected by thick walls protecting the theatre, which was partially obscured by sand and later buildings until the 20th Century.
The Decumanus
30+ other sites to see in Bosra include the Bab al-Qandil (Gate of the Lantern), the Bab al-Hawa (Gate of the Wind), the public baths, a hippodrome, a nymphaeum/public fountain, the Roman market, the Mosque of Omar (said to be built by Caliph Omar who conquered Syria in 636, but more likely reconstructed by the Ayyubids in the 12th Century), the 1372 Hammam Manjuk, the small Mosque of Fatima, and a 4th Century monastery, the in-poor-repair circa-512 cathedral (used as a model for the Hagia Sofia), a Nabatean arch and column, a Roman reservoir (Birket al-Haj or Pool of the Pilgrimage). This is aside from the Byzantine palaces and cathedrals and 36 mosques. 
Source: Lonely Planet Syria & Lebanon 2nd Edition 2004
               Michelin Neos Guidebooks Syria & Jordon 2000

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