Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Theatres of Gerasa. ( II ) The Northern Theatre.

I’m not a scholar on Roman Architecture but I love Theatre. After my visits to this and other ancient complex had to make a research about those places, it sounds a little bit cold but anyway data is data and it could work for any purpose.

The North Theatre complex is composed of the North Theatre itself and a 'colonnaded plaza' in front of it where a staircase led up to the entrance.
Smaller than the South Theatre (Exterior Diameter 43, 47m, orchestra Diameter 14,33m), its orientation is determined by the northern decumanus (a decumanus was an east-west-oriented road in a Roman city, military camp, or colonia.) upon which it opens and from which it is approached. Built in 165 AD our Northern Theatre could be an Audiom, a roofed theater.

Two vaulted passages formed the entrance to the orchestra, and spectators entered through passages between the upper rows of seats.

The cavea shows the usual arrangement of four cunei in the lower half, and eight in the upper half. At the top of the upper section of the cavea there was scarcely room for passageway and colonnade. The theatre itself probably had two main phases during its lifetime. It was dedicated, and probably completed, in AD 64/65.
It was a small (originally had only 14 rows of seats), probably used for poetry readings, meetings or more modest performances than the large dramatic events that would have taken place in the city's larger Southern Theatre. The theatre may also have been the city council's meeting hall. It was modified several times and probably enlarged in the first quarter of the 3rd century. It finally went out of use as a theatre by the 5th to 6th centuries, and in later centuries, many of its stones were taken for use in other buildings.

On some of the seats of the lower cavea are inscribed in Greek the names of the voting tribes (phylai) that were represented in the bouleutirium or city council, except one tribe named after the Roman Emperor Hadrian, the others are named after Olympian gods.
The theatre's expansion in the first quarter of the 3rd century AD included the addition of eight rows of seats, doubling the theatre's capacity to around 1600 people.

The three best preserved external vomitoria (sorry, no photos), at the western end of the upper auditorium, show their original construction of three independent, semicircular arches rising towards the exterior with evidence of large wooden doors that could have been opened or closed to control access to the theatre.

The original scaena wall, facing the audience from behind the stage, was dismantled and replaced by a more complex scaena composed of two parallel wal1s. The elaborate scaenae frons was probably two storeys high, and was adorned with colored marble, free-standing Corinthian columns and broken entablatures, behind which were semicircular niches decorated with mosaics.
There is no information (I didn’t find anything) about any famous performance staged there or any important author; as many other ancient places I had to use my imagination to recreate life here, and it was a very interesting moment.

My next Roman Theatre to visit would be in Petra the stone-city in the middle of a Jordan semidesert region.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Roman Theatres of Gerasa. ( I ) The Southern Theatre.

My travel through Jordan in February 2004 was full of surprises, Jerash (or Gerasa, its ancient name) was one of them. I knew was going to visit a well preserved Roman City but I have to accept I didn’t know anything about that place, I only was interested because I had read Jerash had two theatres (both brilliant pieces of Architecture) and for me that was worth the journey. Now I can say I was very lucky visiting them.
Gerasa located 48 km north of Amman and nestled in a quiet valley among the mountains of Gilead, is the grandeur of Imperial Rome being one of the largest and most well preserved sites of Roman architecture in the World outside Italy. It’s a city complex that once was a prosperous commercial zone and part of the Decapolis (we already know about the Decapolis, if not see the post about the theatre of Gadara). Built in the 2nd century BC the city was conquered in 63 BC by the Roman General Pompey. The grand theatres and spacious public squares, plazas and baths, the Roman Cardo (The Colonnade street) running 700 meters north from the Oval Plaza and pass sky-piercing columns flanking from both sides in Gerasa make this site truly an archaeological park.
The Crusaders described the city as uninhabited, and it remained abandoned until its rediscovery in 1806, when Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, a German traveler, came across and recognized a small part of the ruins. The ancient city was buried in sand. It has been gradually revealed through a series of excavations, which started in 1925, and continue to this day.

The Southern Theater.

The construction of the theatre begun at the end of the 1st century AD (During the reign of the Emperor Domitian) and was completed in the early 2nd century. On its completion, it became one of the most splendid civic monuments in the developing city and certainly the finest of its type in the whole province. It was so famous than its novel design directly influenced the builders of the Trajanic/Hadrianic theaters of Taormina and Benevento. The theater at Taormina used illusionistic column effects closely similar to those used in Gerasa.
Located In the western-North side of the Zeus temple in the complex, with outer diameter of 70.5m the southern theatre shows an impressive image of Roman Architecture. Two arched passages lead into the orchestra, and four passages at the back of the theater give access to the upper rows of seats. Some seats could be reserved and the Greek letters which designate them can still be seen. Climbing more steps, the top row of seats affords an excellent view of the Jerash ruins.
The cavea of the auditorium was divided into two sections, with a wide terrace (diazoma) describing the full half circle between them. The lower half was built into the side of the hill. While the top half was built above it. Although the auditorium has survived remarkably well, the top rows of seats are missing, and one cannot be sure of the exact original number.

The acoustic is remarkable, it allows a speaker at the center of the orchestra floor to be heard by the entire auditorium without raising his voice.
The front of the stage decorated with pediment and arched niches was divided into four sections with pedestals between them. Each section has a central pedimental niche flanked by arched niches. These elaborate architectural compositions are a common feature of Roman theatres. The wall rising behind the stage, the Scaenae Frons is pierced by three doors used by the performers to enter and exit the stage from the sides. The Scaenae Frons would have had second storey repeating most of the decorative and architectural elements of the lower level.

The Theater seats more than 3000 spectators and serves today as the primary venue for the Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts, that means part of the theatre has been rebuilt. Much of the outer (north) wall of the theater is a modern reconstruction. People who know about it say the rebuilding of the rear wall behind the scaenae frons must be regretted and run the risk of endangering the validity of the whole structure. Happily, the greater part of the theatre is completely genuine.
A curious note about the site museum: not much to see because most of the greath pieces are in Amman, but they have in exhibition some ancient theatre coins-tickets (see photograph).

Some data comes from internet sites and from the next article:
ANCIENT THEATRES IN JERASH. CIPA 2005 XX International Symposium, 26 September – 01 October, 2005, Torino, Italy

Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Roman Theatre of Gadara, a rare jewel made from black stone.

I was in Gadara in February 2004 during a 9-day trip through Jordan. On the top of a hill surrounded by the Tiberiad lake, the Galilee Sea and the Golan there is an amazing Roman Citadel built entirely from black stone. Gadara was one of the Decapolis, or "Ten Cities," that were originally inhabited primarily by Greek people who settled in the region after the time of Alexander the Great's conquest. After the Romans occupied the region on about 65 B.C., Gadara was made the capital of the Roman province of Peraea. This city was known since Greek times because of its poets and philosophers such as Filodemo of Gadara and Oinomaos. It was also important for religious reasons, some Jew and Christian myths originated there and it is said Jesus was here during his adolescence, and some passages of the new testament mention the city as a stage of his fight with the devil.

In Gadara there are two theatres: on the north side of the citadel was the biggest, but now it’s only ruins; the west theatre near the citadel is smaller but is the best preserved of them. Built completely from basalt, the theatre offers a strange and original image of ancient Roman Theatres. Because of my background, basalt stone is familiar to my memory, I used to lived in the south of Mexico City in an area where volcanic stone was common. So, coming across this kind of material on the top of a hill in Jordan with a biblical and classical background was truly surprising.

There is not much of the proscenium left to see (only we can notice the base of the three classic gates), but the rows of seats and some tunnels are very well preserved. There are even some vomitories left in good condition and some VIP seats still keep some details of their decoration.
With the wall behind the stage destroyed, the view from the seats is spectacular (remember we are on the top of a hill). Of course, this view was not the originally intended one for the Roman audience.

For more information about Gadara here’s a link to a website:

Thursday, January 4, 2007

The Roman Theatre of Bosra, the king of the ancient theatres.

I lived in the Middle East for almost three years and travelled all over the region looking for ancient theatres and performing arts. I knew Romans had built many of their best theatres in the Middle East and I wanted to see them. I visited one in Lebanon (Byblos), two in Syria (Palmyra, Bosra) and four in Jordan (Gerasa, Gadara, Amman, Petra). The best preserved of them all was the theatre in Bosra, a village in the south of Syria, close to the border with Jordan. It was built in the second half of the II century. It is the best preserved because for hundreds of years the sand of the desert covered the fortress built by Muslims and the original building within.

With an exceptional acoustic it is 102 meters long and it could seat more than 12000 people.

Slideshow of photographs of the ancient Roman theatre of Bosra (2005)

The video and photographs were taken in January 2005. I'm very sorry if they are not the best to show the magnificence of the theatre but they are my only way to share this visit. I hope you enjoy them.

You can find more information about the theatre in this address:
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Gustavo Thomas. Get yours at