Monday, July 6, 2009

All the Mind's on Stage at Bosra

The best of our theater is standing on tiptoe, striving to see over the shoulders of father and mother. The way out, as the poet says, is always through. Arthur Miller

I was not keen on seeing Bosra. Having done Palmyra, there did not seem a need to see Syria's second best collection of Roman ruins. Sure, Bosra is really more Nabatean than Roman, the former being the same guys who created the wonder that is Petra. Oddly enough, both Nabatean cities are well known for the unique coloring of their stone. While the stone of Petra is famously red, Bosra's ruins remain a charcoal black color from the pumice stone from which they were quarried. The Nabateans only moved to Petra in 106 CE when the Romans arrived and took over Bosra. The black stone city would serve for four centuries as the capital of the empire's easternmost province of Arabia, home to 80,000 people and the departure point for trading caravans with the Persian and Chinese empires.

It was not the history that finally convinced me to pay a visit to Bosra on Sunday June 21. It was the theater. Bosra's magnificent Roman theater is one of the largest surviving amphitheaters in the world and it is why most visitors take the two hour trip south from Damascus. My inspiration came via a remarkable essay by the British columnist A A Gill where he describes the stage as the arena that best captures the drama of being human. "Just because somethings old doesn't make it good or interesting or relevant," Gill comments on his visit to the Roman theater at Delphi, "but in all its essentials, theatre is precisely as it was 2,000 years ago. Shakespeare would be able to walk onto any London stage and feel at home, as would Sophocles. Theatre was conceived word perfect. It must have been created to fill some collective need. From it all other narratives flow."

Gill's words left me hooked. I needed to visit Bosra, to cast my eyes over the seats and tap into the wellspring of narrative that has flowed from this stage for thousands of years. Perhaps my over active imagination is to blame. But as I sat in the theater in the heat of the afternoon, with my ears tuned to a song a girl gave to me before I set off across the world, the stage did come alive. A beautiful songstress slowly walked across the stone floor, her face masked in shadows, a long dress spilling behind her as she sang the words that are forever playing in my ears.

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