Bosra: modern living in an ancient setting

by John Gaye

The finest and best preserved Roman amphitheatre in the Middle East is just one reason to visit Bosra in southern Syria, a living, thriving city based around ancient and impressive ruins

Bosra is famous amongst visitors to Syria for its almost perfectly preserved Roman amphitheatre. Sadly, too many people just come down for a day trip from Damascus, which is about two hours to the north. But it has so much more to offer for those who take the time to explore it properly.

Bosra is a black basalt Roman city, which contrasts greatly with Palmyra, Syria's more famous Roman city, with its soft desert-coloured stonework. But, perhaps more significantly, Bosra has continued to be developed and lived in ever since the Romans packed up their bags and returned home to pasta and ice cream. Indeed, it is extraordinary to see parts of beautifully carved and ornamented pillars being used to prop up modern concrete houses alongside cobbled roads that were built 2,000 years ago and still retain their original features.

About 15,000 people live in Bosra, and at times it can be quite intimidating knowing where to wander without imposing on the privacy of ordinary Bosrans in their homes. However, the friendliness of the locals is such that I am always made to feel very welcome wherever I venture.

There is only one decent hotel in the city, and that is the Bosra Cham Palace. This modern edifice has a magnificent atrium and classes itself as a five-star hotel. It is certainly perfectly comfortable and lays on excellent meals, although the five stars do not quite extend to the standard of the rooms.

The hotel overlooks the citadel and Roman theatre, Bosra’s most famous site. A short walk takes me to the open square, from which I cross the drawbridge over the moat and into the citadel (entrance fee about €1.50). This 13th-century fortress was built totally surrounding the theatre, which is probably the best preserved Roman theatre in the world. Seating 15,000 people, it is beautifully presented and I find myself wandering around it, free to go anywhere.

Although there is the odd small tour group visiting at the same time, I hardly ever meet them. The stage is vast and behind it are various chambers, which were used to keep scenery and as dressing rooms. The black basalt stone adds even more drama to the atmosphere and, as I walk through the ancient passageways with their vaulted stone ceilings, I find it very easy to imagine the scene 2,000 years ago. They have even lit the corridors with electric lights that resemble the torches of old. All that is missing are the crowds in their togas.

I clamber up on to the roof to get an excellent view of the whole city – it is vast. Surrounded by lush agricultural land, Bosra is still a very vibrant place but quite bizarrely I see some hideous concrete boxes alongside lines of colonnades and obviously very old stone structures. Having found my way out, over the drawbridge once again, I head off with no particular route in mind but clutching my guidebook, without which I might miss so much.

The roads are still much as they were originally built – large stone cobbles laid in a convex style with gutters down the sides. I clamber over mounds, where the odd goat or sheep grazes, to my first significant ruin: that of the baths or hamman. The Romans and the Arabs had this in common – they loved their baths. The Syrians still do and the hamman is still central to the lives of many who live in the cities.

From there I stumble across an astonishing underground chamber about 50 metres long. Its stonework is extraordinarily well preserved but now the floor is flooded to a depth of about a metre, and both below and on the surface is a vast amount of modern detritus. The only thing missing is a supermarket trolley – thank goodness that Bosrans do not have access to those, because they would appear everywhere!

Over in the eastern part of the city are the basilica, the cathedral and the bishop’s palace - all very impressive to see, but just opposite the basilica a young lad points out to me a small doorway in an old wall. Inside is a small chamber with four beautifully carved alcoves in the wall and the original ceiling. This has only recently been discovered, so my guidebook does not mention it and my Arabic is not up to finding out what it is supposed to be. But who cares? It is fascinating that these sorts of places are still being unearthed, literally, and no doubt there is so much more to find.

After many hours of enjoyable rambling, I make my way back to my car via the cistern. This is a huge (120m by 150m, and 8m deep) water reservoir constructed by the Romans to provide the city with all its drinking water. Today, it still retains its water as well as ever and, despite the green slime on its surface, is very popular with the local boys as a swimming pool.

My visit to Bosra is at the end of my trip to Syria and it makes an excellent finale to my two-week tour. Certainly it is well worth spending the night here rather than just day-tripping from Damascus, as there is so much more to see than just the theatre and citadel - not least the atrium in the Bosra Cham Palace, for its ambitious magnificence!

John Gaye

I have three great enthusiasms- writing, photography and travel. Thus being a freelance travel writer and photographer and contributing to magazines and newspapers both in the UK and abroad seems to my friends hardly to be work, apart of course from the time spent in airports, in cataloguing my images or having to wait for hours for that special light in some remote landscape. I have in my past also been a soldier, a land agent and a farmer. My enthusiasm is for independent travel in the less visited places of the world. Deserts and jungles are very special to me but then so also is much of the UK, particularly my home county of Dorset. Why not read more about me on my website at which also includes my blog.