Islamic Citadel in Busra

by Najwa Osman Published on: 23rd June 2005

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Busra was the location of a large Roman theatre which was built upon by Muslims when they arrived to provide a vital fort in defence against the Crusaders. Here is an examination of that fort which has now had parts removed to reveal the intact Roman theatre.

Roads to Busra

Dr. Eng. Najwa Othman, Architect and Historian, Aleppo, Syria

This article is part of a series of field visits by our researchers to little known monuments and cities of Heritage. Dr Najwa Othman describes the Citadel of Busra during her recent visit to the ancient city.


Scientists agree that the meaning of Busra is “fortified town”. The city is mentioned in Egyptian documents attributed to the 2nd millennium BCE and its name is noted there as one of the hostile foreign emirates. It is also mentioned among the cities whose names are engraved on the base of statue of Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1403-1364) BCE. In this period it was still a small emirate like the other southern emirates of the area of Al-Sham (now mainly Syria).

Figure 2. The Islamic Citadel and the Roman Theatre in Busra

Busra became the capital city of the Arab Nabataeans during the period of their last king (Raabil II) who reigned during 70 – 106 CE. It was at a peak of its prosperity and civilizational when it was occupied by the Romans in 106 CE (under the rule of Emperor Trajan) and the Nabataean kingdom was joined to the Roman Empire in the East leading to the establishment of the “Arabian Province”. Busra then became the centre for the military ruler of this province. It was called “New Trajan Busra” and was given the title of metropolis by the Emperor Philip the Arab in the third century CE. The date of Christianity entering Busra is unknown but in the 6th century CE it was a centre of an episcopate, then the centre of an archbishopric.

Figure 3. The bastions and the ditch of the citadel surround the theatre
Figure 4. The bastion 3 touches the outside walls of the theatre

Busra, during the Roman and Byzantine period, was an important emporium for the exchange of local and global commodities. It provided the trade caravans with water and supplies and support in the form of markets, storage and distribution. The permanent corps in Busra defended the trade road as happened in the Nabataean period when it was called “Caravans Town”.

Busra was the first town that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) visited on a trading trip with his uncle Abu Taleb when he was a child. It was there that Muhammad was told of a prophecy by Buhayra the Monk and later he was told another prophecy by Nastore the Monk when he came to Busra on a trade trip for Khadija Bint Khowaled together with her servant Maysara. Busra was the first city in Al-Sham to be conquered during the rule of Prophet Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr As-Siddique. It was conquered in 13 AH/634 CE by Khaled Ibn Al-Walid after he made peace with the indigenous inhabitants and ensured the security of their lives, wealth and children. When the Muslims entered Busra, they found that it had suffered great destruction by the Persians after they had conquered Damascus in 613 CE.

Figure 5. The bastion 5 built with stones of pointed surfaces (Souri stones)
Figure 6. The bastion 5-A course of white stone engraved and decorated with variety of plants and engineering ornaments.

Busra witnessed its peak of prosperity and civilization under the Ayyubid Muslim Rulers. It was the military centre for the Ayyubid kings, which they used as a place of safety from which they launched a fight back against the Crusaders. Busra Citadel was built during this period and is considered to be the most important and greatest building in the city. The Ayyubids recognized the strategic value of the site of Busra city as it is at the intersection of the routes between Al- Shams, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Arab peninsula. It was a main centre on the pilgrimage route. Therefore Busra was a focus of crusaders’ attention but due to its fortified citadel they could not enter it despite their repeated attempts.

Figure 7. Bastion 6-Trunk of columns used in building the bastion.

When Busra is mentioned, people usually think of the Roman amphitheatre where the Annual International Festival is held. The fact that there is an Islamic citadel surrounding the amphitheatre hardly comes to mind.

Figure 8. Bastion 6 – Close up Details

Busra amphitheatre is located south of the town. It is built on the ruins of the Nabataean castle which was destroyed by the Romans when they occupied Busra in 106 CE. The foundations of the Nabataean castle still remains under the walls of what Clairmon Ghafo refers to as the “grand amphitheatre” in his research about Arab civilization. The Nabataean castle was then well-fortified which helped in the victories achieved by Raabil I, the Arab Nabataean King, against Salukis in the Imtan combat (85-84) BCE. After they were defeated in this battle, the Salukis no longer ruled in this area of Al-Sham.

Figure 9. (from the right)The bastions 10, 9 and 8, and the bridge passing over the ditch between the two bastions 10 and 9

It is believed that the Busra amphitheatre was built by Syrian manpower and expertise. There were many exceptional engineers in Syria when it was occupied by Trajan. The latter constructed buildings in Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra, Baalbek and Jaresh which became very famous. Busra theatre was built during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. He summoned the engineer Appollodor, the Damascene to lay out the square which became known as the “Trajan Forum”, and to construct similar Roman buildings around it, and to construct”Dweroja Bridge” on the banks of Danob River.

Figure 10. The machicoulis with continuous openings in the citadel wall
Figure 11. The lower path northern the stage (the roof is cross vault).

Muslims built on the site of Busra theatre after the conquest; they fortified it but they did not change the internal or even the external appearance. Their efforts were limited to closing the doors and windows and making arrow loops. This continued till the end of the fifth century AH. During this period, the theatre was called the “Busra fortification”.

At the end of the fifth century, Muslims started to transform Busra fortification into a citadel in order to strengthen defensive buildings in Al-Sham against the recurrent attacks of the Crusaders. The citadel was built on until the seventh century AH when Jerusalem and most of Al-Sham areas were liberated from the crusaders.

Figure 12. A lower path (the roof is barrel-vaulted).

The change of the theatre into a citadel occurred without any modification of the theatre. It is clear that the two buildings coexisted and overlapped each other with an extension. The citadel exploited the theatre’s prominent areas, and integrated and conformed to it in spite of the distinct differences in the aims of their construction. Historians agree unanimously that without the construction of the citadel in and around Busra theatre, we would not find such a well preserved theatre in our present day. Part of the reason for this preservation is that the structure of the theatre was useful as it was for the citadel. It offered compacted mass which was the core of its bastions. The paths and stairs of the theatre were utilised as the way to move around different buildings and constructions of the citadel. The citadel area is about 17 thousand square metres. It was not built at one go but developed through many processes. The constructions of the citadel can be divided into those outside the theatre, and those inside the theatre.

Figure 13. A lower path with stairs to the upper path
Figure 14. An upper path between the wall and the bastions of the citadel and the wall of the theatre

The constructions outside the theatre

It was previously thought that the whole citadel could be attributed to the Ayyubids. But excavations that commenced in 1947 discovered that the citadel began in the Seljuk period (according to the manuscript texts) and the rest of the citadel’s construction is attributed to the Ayyubids.

Figure 15. Section of the water reservoir and the barracks and the supplies store inside the citadel.

During the Seljuk period, 3 defensive bastions adjacent to the outside wall of the theatre were built. The bastion marked as “2” on Figure 2 was the first new construction and was built adjacent to the north-eastern corner of the theatre. It was constructed in 481AH by the leader, Prince Kamshatkin. Then the two bastions (1) in the northern west corner and bastion 3 southwest of the theatre were built by Muen Eddin Al Ghazi in 542 AH. (The numbers allocated by the directorate of antiquities in Busra are used but the bastions are described in chronological order).

Figure 16. The constructions inside the citadel before their removal . We see the stairs of the theatre in good state.

During the Ayyubid Age, bastion 4 (called the bastion of victory) was the first construction added to the citadel in this period. It was built by the king Al-Adel in 599 AH as Damascus citadel was built in the place of the Seljuk citadel. Both Damascus and Busra citadels were the only ones in Syria that were built on level land as were their towns, whereas other castles were built on hills. This bastion is located in the northwest of the citadel separate from the outside wall of the theatre. Al-Adel also built bastion 10 in 608 AH. It is located in the northeast of the citadel. The only entrance of the citadel is on the southern wall of bastion 10. The entrance is set into a side wall for defensive purposes. Bastion 9 was built in 610 AH opposite bastion 10 to ensure the defence of the citadel entrance. Bastion 11 was built in 612 between the two bastions 4 and 10; it is called the “palace bastion”. It is the greatest and best organized bastion. Today the first floor is used as a restaurant. I think the upper floor of bastion 11 was built during the Ottoman Period. Currently the excavation missions that work in Busra reside there. Bastion 5 is the last bastion built during the reign of Al-Adel in 615. It is located between the bastions 1 and 3. A course of white stone was built into it, stretching into the northern, western and southern facades. In the middle of this, there is engraved the foundation script of the bastion decorated with a variety of plants and engineering ornaments. The king, Al-Adel died in 615 after he had finished building the Damascus citadel.

Figure 17. The citadel before the removal of the inner buildings in 1956.
Figure 18. The theatre after the removal of the inner Ayyubid buildings

The king, Al-Saleh Ayyub, built bastion 6 in 647 AH. It is located southwards of the citadel. It is distinguished by using a trunk of columns in its building to connect between the courses of inside and outside walls, for the purpose of withstanding earthquakes and differential fallings in the foundations. It is noted that the white stone course holds the most unusual scripts in the citadel due to titles of the king, (Al-Malek) Al-Saleh Ayub. The Ayyubids state reaches the utmost of expansion according to the wording: “Sultan of Arabs and Persian, holder of the Two Holy Mosques, king of the two lands and seas, king of India, Sind and Yemen, king of Sanaa, Zubeid and Aden, Lord of Arab and Persian kings, Sultan of the East and West…”. (We noted machicoulis with two openings in the upper part of the bastion but I did not notice other machicoulises in any other bastions.

Bastion 8 was built by the king, Salah Eddin Yousuf II (the last Ayyubid king) in 649 AH and it is located eastward of the citadel, to the south of bastion 9. Column trunks are used in constructing this tower, a course of white stone refers to the date of construction.

Researchers think that bastion 7, which is located between the bastions 6 and 8, was built between 647 AH and 649 AH but due to the building techniques, I assume that it was built during the rule of the king Al-Adel.

In the Ayyubid age, the defensive constructions became organized with Busra citadel having strips that surrounded the outside walls of the theatre and about 10 metres away from them and well covered, fortified walls connecting the bastions together and there are arrow slits within the curved arches from the inside. The upper part of the wall is crowned with machicoulis of continuous openings which connect together bastions 10 and 11. This is an unusual thing in Syrian citadels but it is noticed in Busra citadel and Al Hisn citadel (Crac de Chevaliers near Homs) yet found in Damascus citadel even though it was built simultaneously with Busra citadel.

Paths and stairs are built on many levels which expanded the theatre and inside buildings. The bastions and outside walls and the old buildings of the theatre formed a huge, organic and stable entity. This undoubtedly required accurate planning executed according to a comprehensive and explicit schedule.

The lower paths are roofed with tunnels and cross vaults; consequently Krizwel assumed that the Ayyubids brought builders from Aleppo to build the citadel because these were features of Aleppo architecture.

The citadel is surrounded by a deep ditch more than 6 metres deep and 30 metres wide. It was filled with water brought from Al-Haj lake that was constructed eastward of the citadel by the king Al-Muazzam Issa in 615 AH.

A bridge consisting of 5 pointed arches built of stone passed over the ditch from the eastern side between bastions 9 and 10. Movable wooden bridges stretched over it, lifted in times of danger by means of fixed ropes at the door of the citadel. Nowadays, the wooden bridge is substituted by basalt stones paved over the arches to form a path which reaches across between the citadel and the square.

When the bastions and walls in Busra citadel were completed, on the level of the ditch there were 60 arrow slits. At the medium level there were 80 and at the upper level there were 24 arrow slits (There are only upper floors in four bastions: 5, 6, 8, 11).

The bastions of the citadel were built with black basalt stones with a pointed surface which are called Souri stones. This type of stone is adopted for defense purposes. When the stone balls are thrown by ballistas, they rebound rapidly as they land on the points and no smooth surfaces are affected by such throwing.

2. Buildings inside the theatre

The buildings inside the theatre were constructed with three floors by the king Abu Al-Fidaa Al-Saleh Ismael.

On the first floor (620 AH), a reservoir for water was built. The water flows from Al-Haj Lake through pottery tubes that are parallel to the bridge of the citadel, into the inner part, passing over the ditch. This reservoir was part of the theatre previously used by an orchestra (place of musicians) and its area is 31.5 by 25 metres. Its walls support the stage from one side and the stairs of the theatre from the other side. Its ceiling of 2.5 metres thickness is laid over 24 pillars in the middle. The height of the ceiling from the reservoir’s base is 3.5 metres. In the year 620, a mosque was built on the stage.

In the second floor, a barracks was built in 625 AH, on the water reservoir and other stairs of the lower part of the theatre. It is roofed over by crossed vaults supported by pillars. The royal bathroom was also built to the east of theatre where the fountain is paved with a coloured mosaic.

The third floor was built in 629 for a supplies store over the barracks and over the stairs of middle part of the theatre with its dimensions being 30.5 by 23.3 metres and with a height of 6.5 metres. It was roofed over by crossed vaults supported on pillars. After completion of the building and its three floors nothing of the theatre appears except the stairs of the upper part and some of the middle section’s stairs.

All these buildings (inside the theatre) were removed to show the Roman theatre and nothing of the citadel remains except the bastions that surround the theatre. The Syrian Directorate of Antiquities sought the help of committee of UNESCO for surveying the theatre and citadel in 1954. A report issued to the Syrian Directorate recommended removing the Ayyubid buildings inside the theatre to reveal it, and to keep the outside bastions.

The removal of the three floors started in 1956 and ended in 1959. The Directorate of Antiquities removed more than fifty thousand cubic metres of the huge building made with ashlar stone.

After the removal of Ayyubid buildings, the Roman theatre reappeared (the amphitheatre, orchestra and stage and even the basalt seats) had been preserved without any damage.

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