site located on the western, rainy slopes of the volcanic Jebel al-῾Arab (Jebel ad-Druz, Jebel Hauran) in Syria, the Asalmanos Mountains of Ptolemy (5.15.26), in well-watered countryside where green orchards and age-old terraced vineyards are in contrast to the rugged basalt rock (32°42′ N, 36°35′ E).
Information about the four millennia prior to the Hellenistic period is scarce for lack of archaeological excavations. Surveys have made possible the dating of sedentary settlements from the second half of the fourth millennium onward. Lithic and ceramic production, although with strong local characteristics, shares in the traditions common to the northern Jordan Valley and the Damascus plain. [See Jordan Valley.] Tell Debbeh, some 20 km (12 mi.) north of Suweida, is an important Middle Bronze fortified site on a major east–west caravan road. Tell Zheir, to the south, reveals the earliest known urban development, with large rectangular houses (15–20 × 3.50–5 m) linked chainlike in rectilinear or right-angled alignments. The area's dams are dated to the Chalcolithic period (mid-fourth millennium), and water catchment systems and subterranean channeling to the Early Bronze Age.
In the Iron Age, the Suweida region, with its many surrounding villages near areas of rich soil, was part of the Aramaic kingdom of Bashan, with its capital at Damascus. After Tiglath-Pileser III's conquest in 732 BCE, it was part of the Assyrian province of Haurina.
The Nabatean-Arab presence at Suweida dates from before the Nabatean kingdom that lasted from the late fourth century BCE to 106 CE, the year of the creation of the Roman Provincia Arabia. This part of the Nabatean kingdom was probably governed by indigenous, autonomous sovereigns. After the Roman conquest in 64 BCE, Herod the Great was entrusted with governing this zone (in 23 BCE). In 92/93 CE, it was annexed to the Roman province of Syria.
Nabatean and Safaitic are the main languages of the local ancient epigraphy, together with Greek, which became the official language in the first century BCE. With only one inscription (the bilingual on the nefesh stela at Ḥamrat) Suweida (with Qanawat/Canatha and Seia, with a dozen inscriptions, including the dedication to Ba῾al Shamên from its main temple) is at the northernmost fringes of the extent of Nabatean Aramaic inscriptions. Safaitic petrographs can be found outside urban settlements, on funerary and commemorative tumuli, scattered in fields, or concentrated in cairns. [See Safaitic-Thamudic Inscriptions.] Extensive genealogies and references to historic personalities and events, dating at the earliest to about 500 BCE to the second half of the first century CE, characterize these open-air archives, which display an extraordinary ability to write among the population. The area is, as well, among the Near East's richest in Greek and Latin inscriptions.
The local deities were the great Ba῾al Shamên, Allat/Athena, the morning and evening stars Azizos and Monimos, the protecting “Gad,” and Dushara/Dionysos, in whose honor Suweida/Soada was renamed Dionysias. Until this change (under the reign of Emperor Commodus, c. 180–185 CE), Soada, like a series of other wealthy villages (Gk., kōmai, and a few “mother villages,” or mētrokōmiai), each functioning as an autonomous community with its own peculiar local institutions (an assembly of bouleutes, “local magistrates” elected from the different tribes or “communal houses”), was subordinated to the Decapolis city of Canatha. [See Decapolis.] This neighbor had been a Greek polis since 55 BCE. They remained the only cities of the district, until Philip the Arab founded the colony of Philippopolis/Shahba, probably his native village, in about 244 CE, followed by Maximianopolis/Shaqqa in the last years of the third century. The romanization of the region was secure enough in the second century for an imperial road to be built across the plateau from Damascus to Dionysias and Bostra/Bosra. [See Bosra.]
Basalt stone, in black, gray, or rarer red hues, is the mark of the landscape and of all its buildings. This stone is difficult to work, so that, once carved, the blocks, roof slabs (their maximum span is nearly 4 m), corbels, and arch stones were continually reused. The main features of the school of the Hauran, characterized by its temple architecture and its richly carved decoration, appear during the pre-Provincial period.
The best example of the local temple type is the Seeia pilgrimage complex dedicated to Ba῾al Shamên: the almost square plan has a corridor around all or three sides of the cella. The flat facade has heavily molded frames, even along the threshold, underlining the large central door and two flanking niches; all three are set back, inside a central columned porch; the column bases carry an unusual crown of falling leaves; the capitals are of the heterodox Corinthian type, with one flat, squat row of acanthus leaves under a central bust or vegetal motif that projects between two large corner scrolls; strongly protruding entablatures carry ornate bands of stylized reinterpretations of Oriental and Greek motifs or undulating vine and fruit branches. The bases and tops of walls flare, and the acroteria are eagles. Two vast walled courtyards, both with secondary temples, and the so-called theatron (Enno Littmann in Butler, 1921, no. 100), a peristyle court skirted with steps on three sides, precede the temple, which is dated from 280 to 311 of the Seleucid era, or 33/32 to 2/1 BCE. The very similar peripteral temple at Suweida had an interior colonnade replacing the corridor. The ῾Atil temple (151 CE, built under Antoninus Pius) and the Qanawat Helios temple (a peripteros with a large vaulted crypt under the podium) and destroyed Zeus temple followed the same richly ornate tradition.
A local type of building is the “sacred Kalybē” (inscription at Umm ez-Zeitan, also in Shaqqa, al-Hayat, and Shahba), essentially a large, vaulted exedra with two side wings, standing on a high podium, and dominating an open area.
Domestic architecture in this grape- and cereal-producing caravan country uses ground floors for storage and stables, with rows of well-dressed stone troughs for a variety of animals; stone stairs against the courtyard walls led to mostly residential upper floors.
The funerary architecture starts with huge, sometimes towerlike, cairns with either an inner megalith-type chamber with a central column supporting a stone-slab roof or just a slightly sunken tomb under a pile of stones. Numerous ornate and inscribed lintels indicate more built tombs than stelae. The Nabatean mausoleum of Ḥamrat, now destroyed (see Brünnow and Domaszewski, 1909, pp. 97–99), was a solid stone cube, adorned with an applied Doric order alternating with trophies. Hypogeum tombs are reached by short ramps or steps, and their central aisle is lined with one or two tiers of large loculi. Some have chimneylike air-circulation systems and an ossuarium. They are crowned with stepped pyramids or pavilionlike structures. Dovecotes, epigraphically identified, are built over a series of square tombs from the fourth century CE onward (Celeistinos's tomb at Rimet el-Lof, at ῾Atil, Sleim, Shaqqa), while square, multistoried tower tombs are mostly Byzantine (Qanawat, Majadil). [See Tombs; Ossuary.]
In sculpture, the hard, dark-gray basalt generated figures whose anatomy is geometrically stylized, with strongly graphic surface details. The repertoire prior to the Provincia Arabia is of griffins, snake-footed monsters, and winged sphinxes, together with eagles, lions, and horses. Figures wear remarkable costumes: loincloths, short tunics and scarves, plumed headpieces, leafy crowns with a central gemstone, and high, closed footwear. The introduction of Roman formulas after 106 CE accounts for more complex sculptural contours, though the earlier symmetrical frontality and stocky proportions remain. The new types that appeared were busts together with Athena/Allat, Herakles, and innumerable Nike/Victory figures.
The luxuriously polychrome mosaic floors with grand mythological scenes and personifications were produced for peristyle houses in Philippopolis/Shahba from the mid-third century CE (see figure 1). Christian pavements innovate with complex and delicate overall designs of interlace and regularly set rosebuds in scale patterns, as in Suweida's Great Basilica.
Christian Dionysias, which has been noted for its bishops since 325, has the largest standing church in the area (see figure 2): a fifth-century, five-aisled pilgrimage basilica with galleries, high exterior porticoes, two four-storied front towers, four lofty front doors that open onto an esplanade that reaches the city wall, and with a series of annex chapels, courtyards, and halls. [See Churches; Basilicas.]
- Annales Archéologiques Arabes Syriennes 41 (1995): .
- Brünnow, Rudolf-Ernst, and Alfred von Domaszewski. Die Provincia Arabia. Vol. 3. Strassburg, 1909.
- Butler, Howard Crosby, et al. Publications of the Princeton University Archaeological Expeditions to Syria in 1904–1905 and 1909. Division III, Section A: Southern Syria. Leiden, 1921.
- Dentzer, Jean-Marie, ed. Hauran I: Recherches archéologiques sur la Syrie du Sud à l'époque hellénistique et romaine. 2 vols. Bibliothèque Archéologique et Historique, vol. 124. Paris, 1985–1986. .
- Le Djebel al-῾Arab: Histoire et patrimoine au Musée de Suweida῾. Paris, 1991. .
- Donceel-Voûte, Pauline. “À propos de la grande basilique de Soueida-Dionysias et de ses évêques.” Le Muséon 100 (1987): 89–100.
- McAdam, Henry I. Studies in the History of the Roman Province of Arabia: The Northern Sector. Oxford, 1986.