Located in Palmyra, Syria, is the Roman Theatre, a representation of Graeco-Roman architecture, which is distinctive to the physiology of surrounding buildings in the region. Constructed in the centre of a collonaded piazza, opening to the South Gate of the ancient city.
It was built as a symbol of hope during the Severan period when the Roman Empire was recovering from the fall of Jerusalem. In its glory, the Roman Theatre was used as the prominent cultural hub of Palmyra. Its design, a tribute to one of the architectural orders, Corinthian, is evidence of Emperor Nero’s access to architectural knowledge ahead of its time.
Roman Theatre Design
The Roman Theatre was buried under the sands for centuries until the 1950s when it was excavated and restored to its original state. Having been built in the second century AD, the absence of seating rows, common to the 3-part Roman Amphitheatre, suggests that it was abandoned before completion. Roman Theatres comprise three parts, the cavea, arena and vomitorium. The cavea is reserved for seating, spatially formulated in three horizontal sections, each section related to the social class of respective guests. It is essential to break down the cavea from a structural perspective. The cavea is formed of rows of stands, denoting circles sharing the same centre; these rows can be supported by arches built into the framework of the structure or dug out of the hillside.
The Ima Cavea, was the lowest and closest to the stage, offering better views and an intimate proximity to the performers; it was reserved strictly for upper members of society. The Media Cavea, was above the Ima Cavea, open to the public, yet mostly reserved for men. The Summa Cavea, was the highest above ground, further away from the stage, offering lesser views reserved for women and children. The Roman Theatre in Palmyra only contains the Ima Cavea, comprised of twelve rows measuring 92 metres in diameter.
Columns at the Roman Theatre
An interesting fact is that following its first restoration in the 1950s, Emperor Nero placed his statue in the Roman Theatre in Palmyra niche as a sign of honour and to parade his success with the architectural gem. The slender fluted columns found on the stage can be identified and are decorated in the Corinthian order, although missing the decorative acanthus leaves and scrolls. This order is by far one of the most embellished and classic of the classics; it screams flamboyance, elegance and high status from a mile away, perfect for hosting cultural events such as the folk music performances for the annual Palmyra Festival.
Roman Theatre and Civil War
The Roman Theatre, for a long period, was a glorified piece of architecture, named a UNESCO World Heritage site, a symbol of hope, wealth and community for the Syrian people until 2013, when it was declared inaccessible and endangered due to ongoing political unrest and a civil war which has caused loss to so many Syrians.
The theatre was the subject of a back-and-forth power claim between the Syrian government and the terrorist organisation ISIL. In 2015, when the Syrian government recaptured the site, the building was found to have remained largely intact, still showing its original architectural features. Still, in late 2016, when ISIL reportedly took control of Palmyra again, authorities reported that satellite imagery showed clear signs of destruction, including a destroyed façade, particularly the proscenium, the central zone of the stage, suffering the most damage. The Syrian government reclaimed Palmyra in 2017 and now controls the Roman Theatre.
Hope for Revival
In summary a monumental tribute to Palmyra’s cultural heritage and evidence of the prosperity of the once utopian city. Following several years of political unrest, the hope of revival seemed like a faraway dream. Still, it is reported that post-reclamation by the Syrian government in 2017, restoration works have already begun and are well underway. A sad unclarity looms over art lovers and architectural enthusiasts, as it is unknown whether Palmyra will ever be open for visiting again or if the Roman Theatre will ever return to its cultural epicentre glory. The attempts at restoring monuments in the city of Palmyra, regardless of the current political climate in the country, are a show of tremendous resilience, faith and hope of the Syrian people and a sign of the great Palmyra cultural heritage.
- Nair, Radhika P. (May 2008). “Calendar”. Outlook Traveller. New Delhi. 8 (5): 34. The ancient city of Palmyra in Syria comes alive each year during the Palmyra Festival. The enchanting Roman theatre is the venue for the soulful folk music performances in the evenings
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