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Ancient theaters in South Syria

*The size and capacity of the theater always complied with the size and administrative importance of the city.

*The theater of Busra is the most beautiful and integrated theater of its kind in the world.

*Ancient theaters served sport, cultural, artistic and political activities of the city.

South Syria is one of the richest areas in the world with ancient ruins and artifacts that witnessed the development of arts, architecture and monuments of past civilizations. The region is especially famous for its numerous theaters spread in most of its cities, towns and, sometimes, small villages.

Eleven of the fifty theaters discovered in Syria are located in Shahba, Qanawat, Daraa, Sweidaa, Busra and Sahar in South Syria.

When the Romans entered Syria in 64 BC they found civilized and lavish cities. Therefore they treated their inhabitants distinctively. They established an alliance among several cities called the Decapol i.e. the confedconfederation of the ten cities, although each city had its autonomy and freedom of striking money. This status was positively reflected on these cities in that they flourished and competed among themselves because everyone wanted to be the best. Magnificent monuments, successful administrative systems, and a special rule to reconcile harmoniously between old parts and the new ones of each quarter were established.

Roads were constructed to lead to the city center starting from the main army camps ,leading to the temples, municipal council, palaces, baths, the senate, the agoras (the markets) and the arches of triumph built on every cross road, the theaters, and then the horse race course. Busra was a typical city that combined all these elements.

Architecture of theaters

Roman architects were very keen to link the location of the theater with the city center in one hand and with the other cultural buildings in another.

Therefore we notice how the theater of Busra was linked with the race course, the baths, the main street, and with the circular theater which is still unexcavated till these days .Another example is the theater of Pompeii in Italy. In old Dara’a the theater stands in parallel with the main street crossing the city from the east to the west. The northern part of the theater, which is behind the stage, forms a corridor linked directly with the street, as it is the case with the theaters of Palmyra in central Syria and the theater of Ostia in Italy. In Shahba, the theater is located in the city center in the midst of the main buildings of the city and near the residence of emperor Philip the Arab, and the main square which has a high platform with semi circular rows of seats, an indication that people could stand there and see what is going on the stage ,or ,in another meaning, it is a theater without seats where people could gather to see not only the theater but the other activities of the city. In Qanawat the theater is directly linked with the Temple of the God of Irrigation. So we can understand that the theater was an important facility, always linked with the main squares and buildings of the city, especially with those that have similar cultural or entertaining functions.

The common thing among the theaters of South Syria is their direction. Most of them look north - west where the stage is in the northern part, unless the natural location implies another direction as is the case with the theater of Qanawat, where the stage is built in the western part of the theater, in parallel to the valley behind it, while the tiers of seats repose on the eastern slope. In Sahar’s theater the stage is directed to the west as is the case with the altars of temples, while the rows of seats parallel the lobby of the temple.

Size and capacity of the theater

It is clearly evident that theaters built in cities of South Syria were always complying with the population density and the administrative importance of these cities. Therefore theaters have different diameters. Sahar theater diameter is 20 m, Shahba 42 m, Qanawat 46 m, Daraa 62 m and Busra 102 m. All these theaters, excluding that of Busra, are relatively small. The size of the theater of Busra is similar to the Roman and Greek theaters,it can receive 15000 spectators ,while Shahba’s theater can take only 2500 , Daraa 5000 and Qanawat 4000 spectators.

Theaters in South Syria differ also in internal design and the number of the tiers of seats. There are theaters of one tier of seats like those of Sahar and Qanawat, others with two tiers like those of Daraa and Shahba, and theaters with three tiers like that of Busra. External designs also differ. Some theaters were wholly placed on flat plains, following the Roman and the Greek design, as is the case of the theaters of Palmyra, Jableh and Rome. Other theatres have their stages placed on a tilted slope, while the upper tiers are placed on columns as is the case in the theaters of Shahba and Daraa.

There are also theaters where the rows of seats are wholly placed on columns and poles on a natural slope while the stage is built on a flat ground like that of the theater of Qanawat. Because South Syria is a volcanic area rich with basalt, all the theaters were constructed from hard black basalt stones ,a distinctive common mark added to other common features like the thick and huge walls and columns, characteristics which helped these theaters survive the effects of time and natural disasters.

Variety of Shapes

As theaters differ in design, they also differ in shapes. Some theaters have the shape of a half circle with a straight stage, others are oval, semi circular, circular or elliptical, but they were all built for one purpose: theatrical shows.

Later theaters were used for sports, now known as stadiums, or for singing and were built like closed halls with tiers of seats for the audience, such as the theaters of Sahar and Qanawat.

Theaters were always designed with many gates and exits so that people can move easily in the lobbies and corridors and in and out of the gates. In Busra 15000 spectators can get in or leave the theater in less than fifteen minutes.

Race course

The race course was always a synonym of the theater. Usually it is a long rectangle

course, like that of Busra (440X134m) ,which extends from the north to the south. Tiers of seats can accommodate 35 thousand spectators. Another undiscovered course east of Daraa but it is not excavated yet.

 

Haifaa Mafalani

 

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