Situated some 90 km south-east of Damascus, it is well-known for its plentiful vineyards.It stands 1100 m above sea-level, and was known by the name of Suwada (little black town) in the Nabatean period, because it was built with black volcanic stone.The Romans, in the 3rd century, considered it one of the most important towns in the Province of Arabia and called it Dionysus.
Suwayda is situated in the tip of Syria where it is black basalt country. The eruptive rocks that litter the ground give the landscape a very special appearance : black are the stones, black the monuments, black also are the sculptures and the ornaments. Cruder as pieces of art, but how much more strange, are the statues carved in the hard basalt : a representation of a Pantheon showing a mingling of Arab (Nabatean), Hellenistic (after the conquest of Alexander), and Byzantine (the town was the seat of a bishopric in the 5th century) influences. Dusares rubs shoulder with Athens and Venus; Nabatean inscriptions are found close to slabs bearing the cross of Christ. An eagle, wings spread (Nabatean deity), and small but aggressive female busts take on an extraordinary force when carved in the reddish rock.
Ruins of ancient civilisations are numerous but widely scattered; some of the most notable of these, along with a collection of exquisite mosaics discovered in 1962, are now housed in the Sweida museum.One part of this mosaic collection represents Artemis, godless of chastity and the hunt, surrounded by her nymphs when she is surprised by a hunter while bathing.This fine Roman work dates back to the sixth century.Another scene portrays the birth of Venus and the wedding of Thetis.Statues carved in hard basalt show signs of a mixture of Nabatean, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Arab influences.
There area also the ruins of a 3rd century Roman temple surrounded by a colonnade of Corinthian columns.
A welcome museum
The most positive initiative was the foundation of the Soueida Museum, which was created to avoid the dispersion and disappearance of the widely diverse type of ancient art remains found here. Some pieces are not works of art, but have also permitted the experts to reconstruct the economic, social and cultural life of this region over the different periods of its history. Furthermore, this region is quite unique in that it has one of the richest collection of well-conserved rural remains in the ancient world.
Village inscriptions, basalt flour grinders, ceramic bowls and domestic utensils of all kinds found in houses and agricultural buildings bear witness to life in this village region, a region that, judging by one of the boundary stones exhibited in the museum, appears to have been recorded in a census at the end of the 3rd century during boundary marking operations carried out under Diocletians orders.
In 1962, a collection of stunningly beautiful mosaics was also discovered, showing Artemis, the goddess of hunting, surrounded by nymphs, and surprised by a hunter while bathing, which is a Roman piece from the 3rd century done in most vibrant and rich colors; a birth of Venus, rather more heavy-handed; Neptune and the sea monsters; the wedding of Thetis and Peleus; Gaea, goddess of the Earth offering the fruits of the four seasons to Bacchus and Ariadne
One can also see the harsher, but much stranger statues carved in the hard basalt: a representation of a Pantheon showing a mingling of Arab (Nabatean), Hellenistic (after the conquest of Alexander), Roman (Soueida was one of the chief towns of the Roman province of Arabia), and Byzantine (the two was the seat of a bishop in the 5th century) influences, Dusares rubs shoulders with Athena and Venus: Nabatean inscriptions are found close to slabs bearing the cross of Christ. An eagle, wings spread (Nabatean deity), and small but aggressive female busts take on an extraordinary force carved in the reddish rock.
Travelers may also like to visit the numerous little villages, most of which, and specially Shaqqa, Salim, Ateel, Sia and Al Mushannaf, are rich in ancient remains.
A trip down the small village tracks is certainly an experience not to be missed: villages can be seen perched on the slopes of volcanoes, springs run into real oases, there are cliffs of lava, not to mention the immensity of the oriental desert, al Hamad, where the golden sand mingles with the black slabs of volcanic debris.
With experienced and suitable vehicles a journey across al Hamad is conceivable between Soueida and Sabaa Biar on the Damascus-Baghdad road, after first crossing another volcanic range, the Jabal Siss, well known to archaeologists for the many rock graffiti drawn by generations of nomadic shepherds in the early centuries of the Christian era, the inscriptions being written in a dialect close to Arabic. The Omayyad palace of Jabal Siss right in the heart of the desert is another example of 18th century Arab architecture.
Unfortunately, the developments that have occurred in the town over the last fifty years or so have been to the detriment of the ancient monuments. All that is left of a temple to Dusares, the Nabatean god (1st century), are four Corinthian columns; and of a great 6th century basilica, part of the apse and a few pillars.
To limit the damage, the Department of Antiquities is having inventories made and is doing strengthening work throughout the governorate where the need is most urgent, but the profusion of ruins so widely scattered and so difficult to reach make effective conservation a rather haphazard business.
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