How Bosra’s Roman Theater was converted into a Muslim Citadel

The Romans, along with their successors the Byzantines, occupied the Levant for almost 800 years and left many preserved remains. One of the most remarkably preserved Roman sites in all the Middle East is the Roman theater at Bosra. It was once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia, and an essential stopover on the caravan route to Mecca. It offers visitors a unique opportunity to appreciate the architectural achievements of the Romans.

The History of the Theater at Bosra

Bosra was once one of the main cities of the powerful Nabatean Kingdom , whose abandoned capital of Petra is world-famous. Early in the 2 nd century AD, the Nabatean Kingdom was conquered by the Roman Emperor Trajan . Bosra is thought to have been built in the early years of Roman rule when Trajan was still on the throne. Under their rule, the city of Bosra flourished and later became the capital of the Syrian province.

The theater was mainly used for artistic plays, including Greek and Roman dramas and musical productions. It would have romanticized the region after it had been wrested from the control of the Nabateans.

During the Byzantine era, the building fell into disuse as the Christian Church disapproved of dramas and public performances. The city was captured by the Sassanian Persians in the 7 th century but was later re-captured by the Eastern Romans. During the Arab conquests, the city was taken by a Muslim army.

The Islamic dynasties, beginning with the Abbasids, turned the theater into a fortress and the Ayubid’s added high walls and towers to the site. The theater became part of a stronghold which dominated the key road to Damascus. During the Syrian Civil War, the city of Bosra was badly damaged, but the theater escaped damage.

Bosra’s Theater – One of the Largest in the Mediterranean

The theater is in the south-east of Syria outside the modern town of Bosra. It is 310 feet (100 meters) across and at one time could seat 15,000 people and is still one the largest surviving theaters in the Mediterranean.

The theater is an outstanding example of a Roman design yet distinctive as it was built out of local basalt rock and the dark coloring of the structure is rare outside this part of Syria. The building also used a great deal of concrete and masonry.

Different to an amphitheater which was octagonal and used mainly for sports, the theater is semi-circular and like other Roman theaters, was inspired by Hellenistic structures. The high back wall of the stage, which was three stories high, is supported by columns and was once was adorned with marble friezes and statues. The proscaenium is the wall at the edge of the stage and the podium where once actors and poets recited words and can still be seen.

The theater is divided into three parts, which was an aspect established by the Romans and all the remaining theaters in the Mediterranean have this feature. The three areas are the auditorium, the stage area, and the stepped seating. The entrances to the theater were altered in the medieval era .

Roman theaters are typically built on flat land, unlike Greeks structures which were built on the sides of hills. The theater had no roof, but awnings were used to protect the audience from the sun and the rain.

Today the theater is embedded in a 12 th-century Ayyubid Dynasty fortress. Its walls are largely intact, and it is a fine example of medieval Muslim military architecture as it was used as the citadel for the fort.

Visiting the Theater of Bosra

The city of Bosra is a World Heritage Site and there are a great many historic sites to see here. The theater can only be accessed through the medieval fortress and an admittance fee is charged to enter the site. The theater was closed in 2011 when the area was controlled by Syrian rebels but reopened to visitors in 2018. Please note that visiting Syria may be problematic for some visitors because of international sanctions.

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