By Katie O’Hara, Smith College
My name is Katie O’Hara and I am senior at Smith College working Virtual Student Federal Service Internship with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative. I am double majoring in Art History with a concentration in Museum Studies and History with a focus in Medieval History. I am completing my honors thesis on the Red Sea wars during the 6th Century AD between Aksum (now modern day Ethiopia) and Ḥimyarite Kingdom (now modern-day Yemen) and the rise of monotheism in these regions. I’m currently doing my research through Byzantine, or as I prefer the term “East Roman”, influence and interest in the Red Sea region during that time period.
While I knew there was significant Roman involvement in Syria, I tended to think of their involvement as more akin to Mongol invasions, where architecture and the landscape were re-appropriated instead of building large architectural projects. I clearly had forgotten one of the first phrases I learned in introduction to Latin, “panem et circenses” (bread and games). Games were always important show of power for Roman leaders. One of my assigned sites of research was the Roman Theater of Bosra. The Roman Theater in Bosra revolutionized how I viewed coding historical and cultural affiliation. The theatre was most likely constructed under the rule of Trajan in the 2nd century. Bosra was once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia. But that does not make the city just a Roman heritage site; the city of Bosra predates the Roman Empire. Moreover, the city has many interweaving sites of cultural heritage as an important stop on caravan routes to Mecca, the home of the Roman theatre, and housing early Christian churches. The fact that the theatre was fortified 481 and 1251 CE exemplifies that the many of Bosra’s cultural heritage sites like the theatre are examples of palimpsest where cultural heritage and historical affiliations are layered over time.
Working with Smith College’s subscription to Google Earth Pro has made a lot of these sites seem less remote. Google Earth Pro crowd sources geo-tagged images of sites. For some more famous sites, such as the Roman Theater of Bosra, they have created interactive three-dimensional models of the sites. Maneuvering the 3-dimensional model helps me understand the space more than an image in a book could.
While these features of Google Earth Pro help capture the past, there are other images of the Theater in Bosra that bring me back to the present. A video taken by the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology shows armed gunmen in the theatre, thick weeds grow between the stone tiles, and broken chairs and a dirty mattress litter the stage. The use of the theatre now is a far cry from the silk awnings and perfumes that graced the performances in the Roman era. During my sophomore year while I was taking a class on the Geology of Archaeology I attended a guest lecture by Professor Amr al-Azm, from Shawnee State University. Professor al-Azm’s words, “the people of Syria can only have a future if they have a history, you cannot separate the two” catapulted my interest of art in times of crisis. Seeing Bosra in these two comparative states has reminded me of the importance of this mission.