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Introducing Bosra

The black-basalt town of Bosra, 137km from Damascus, is an easy day trip from the capital. Once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia, it’s now something of a backwater. But what a weird and wonderful backwater it is. Bosra’s gigantic Roman theatre is alone worth the trip here and the surrounding ruins are brooding and atmospheric.

The Citadel is a unique construction – it began life as a massive Roman theatre and later had its fortifications grafted on. The theatre was built early in the 2nd century AD, when Bosra was the capital of the Roman province of Arabia. The first walls were built during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, with further additions being made in the 11th century by the Fatimids.

The magnificent 15,000-seat theatre is a rarity among Roman theatres in that it is completely freestanding rather than built into the side of a hill. It’s a wonderful experience to be lost in the dark, oppressive fortress halls and dimly lit vaulted corridors and then to emerge through a sunlit opening to find yourself suddenly looking down on a vast, steeply terraced hillside of stone seating.

Other sites located in the Old Town north of the citadel include the old Roman baths, a 4th-century monastery, a cathedral (c 512) with an unfortunate concrete roof in one corner, various monumental gates, partially reconstructed colonnades of basalt corridors, the Roman market in lighter sandstone with mosaic-floor remnants off its northwestern side, vast cisterns and the Mosque of Omar, which dates to the 12th century.

There is a cluster of restaurants in the open square facing the Citadel. All of them serve similar, inexpensive set menus of Syrian staples. Restaurant 1001 Nights is a long-standing traveller favourite, with a 25% discount for students. Budget travellers may be able to unfurl a sleeping bag to stay overnight; there’s a shower and toilet but you’ll need your own sleeping bag. Single women may not feel comfortable doing this. There are no fixed prices for overnight stays; ask when you arrive. At the other end of the scale, the Bosra Cham Palace, a few hundred metres south from the Citadel entrance, is a top-end hotel with well-presented if dull rooms, a large swimming pool and a licensed coffeehouse and restaurant popular with tour groups.

If you need to change cash, the exchange booth (h8am-2pm & 4-6pm Sat-Thu) just southeast of the Citadel is usually working. If closed, you might be able to change at the Basra Cham Palace, which may even take travellers cheques. Staff at the tourist office, southeast of the Citadel, are willing but their resources (and English) are limited.

To get to Bosra from Damascus, you could drive yourself, rent a car and driver or take a bus or tour. Damas Tours runs new air-con buses between Bosra and Damascus (two hours, every two hours from 8am to 10pm). Al-Muhib runs similar services at the same times. Both leave from Damascus’s Al-Samariyeh Garage. Minibuses run between Bosra and Deraa between 4.30am and 4pm. These leave when full from the front of the tourist information office.