Ninety kilometers south-east of Damascus and 19 km north of Sweida, Shahba lies tucked away in the vines of the Jabal al-Arab. This little town was the birthplace of the Emperor Philip the Arabian who reigned in Rome from 244 to 149.
Shahba has been continuously inhabited by man since the third millennium. It has seen different periods in the course of time, including the Nabatean, Greek and Roman periods, but the most stunning period was undoubtedly that of Philip of the Arabian.
Born in the Bosra region, at the age of thirty-nine this former Hauranain became the praetorian perfect under the Emperor Gordian III in 234. When the latter was assassinated in the region between Circessium and Doura Europos, the Roman Legions declared Philip the Arab emperor in 244.
Right from the moment he became leader of the Roman Empire and throughout his brief reign, he strove to develop his birthplace, to end the rampant anarchy that raged throughout the Empire, and to make peace with the Persian King, Shapur I, in order to defend the seriously threatened Danube frontiers.
As soon as he returned from Rome, he put an end to the persecution of the Christians and showed a certain understanding to the people and the senate. Some of the most respected fathers of the church, including St. Jerome, consider Philip the Arabian to be the first Christian emperor. It must be said that the Syrian emperors Severus Alexander (222-235) and Philip the Arabian had the merit of not only reinstating the Christian’s goods, but also their dignity.
Philip the Arab also dreamed of making Shahba rival other major Western and Eastern towns, and Rome was his model. Renamed Philipopolis, the town rebuilt in the Roman manner: square walls, two main thoroughfares with a tetrapylon (monument composed of four pilasters) standing at the point where they crossed in the middle, buildings in a uniform style: palaces, theatre, thermae and a temple erected by the Emperor to the memory of his father. Notables and townsmen had sumptuous villas, decorated with fine mosaics, built for themselves.
246 and 247 were the golden years of his reign. Having vanquished the Eastern European barbaric tribes (the Goths and the Carpi), and re-established law and order on the borders of the Danube, he returned to Rome triumphantly, and in 248, this Syrian whose ambition was to create a dynasty, presided over exceptional celebrations organized to celebrate the millenium of Rome’s foundation by Romulus. Insurrection broke out in the Danube region of the Orient and then in Italy, however. Philip the Arabian personally took command of the repression, and was to meet his death after having been defeated near Verona in the year 249.
From this remarkable past era, many fragments still remain, notably several magnificent Corinthian columns, the remains of the portico which lined the cardo. The town’s basalt cobbled streets are in a surprisingly perfect state of conversation. The decumanus and the cardo (the two major axes) are in excellent condition.
Amongst the ruins and vestiges, it is worth noting the Philippeion, the temple dedicated to the Emperor’s father and family, as is specified in the inscription that can be seen on the two consoles.
The theatre which has a diameter of 42.50 meters and was built in the south-west part of the town, has been well cleared and skillfully, though not excessively, restored and it seems all ready for some kind of festival. It is noticeable that there is practically no decoration whatsoever, since the hard basalt is an intransigent material for the sculptor’s chisel; only small fish in relief on the lower part of the walls pointing the way for the public towards the tiers of the amphitheater. The theatre is one of the town’s best conserved monuments.
Built according to the norms of Imperial Roman architecture, the baths were divided into three parts: the cold room with a pool and water tubs, the warm room and the hot room. Numerous annexes, libraries, leisure rooms and gymnasiums meant that one could combine pleasure and utility all day long.
During excavations works, a lot of third century sculptures, in particular the crowned bust of the Emperor and the lower part of this draped statue, were found mainly in the annexes.
Although most of the town’s ramparts, gates and most of its walls have been destroyed, four gates built like triumphal arches do still exist. These were once the town’s main entrance gates. During excavation digs right by the Shahba main baths in 1962, the General Direction of Antiques and Museums discovered a villa with 28 rooms, some of which still had their superb mosaic floors intact.
Nine kilometers north-east of Shahba, along a small tarmac road with switchbacks, is Shaqqa, which is not built, as its neighbor is, according to the strict Roman pattern. The houses cling to the rock on the side of a hill. The remains of ramparts and a few towers stand guard over the place.
Almost in the center is an imposing building of a heavy black stone, known as Qaisarieh, which was probably the Roman governor’s residence when the town was promoted to the rank "Roman colony".
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