► Philip the Arab, became emperor of the Roman Empire in 244 AD and he transformed his native village into a typical Roman town renaming it Philippopolis capital of the province of Arabia Petraea.
► Shahba was the seat of a Bishopric since the third century and a Christian presence exists in the city to the present among a large Druze populations who moved into the area in the 19th century.
► The public structures formed a kind of “imported façade”. The rest of the urban architecture was modest and vernacular and the city was never completed as building seems to have stopped abruptly after the death of Philip in 249.
► The site has been affected by the Civil War and shows moderate structural damage resulting from the conflict much of it reported from shelling and gunfire is largely cosmetic.
Philip the Arab is portrayed in the 100 Syrian pounds banknote
Philippopolis in Arabia, today’s Shahba, is located in Hauran, a region of Syria which enjoyed a period of great prosperity after being annexed to the Roman Empire by Emperor Trajan in 106 AD. Hauran is a low tableland which is limited to the west by the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and the Golan Heights and to the east by Jebel al-Druze, a range of low mountains. The oasis settlement had been the native hamlet of the Roman emperor Philip the Arab. After Philip became emperor in 244 AD, he dedicated himself to rebuilding the little community as a colonia. Philip the Arab became emperor during a turbulent period of Roman history, known as Military Anarchy; he was the head of the Praetorian Guard when Emperor Gordian III died in unclear circumstances during a campaign against the Sassanids. He was acclaimed the new emperor by his guards and he almost immediately signed a peace with the Sassanids, in order to be free to go to Rome to obtain the endorsement of the Senate to his appointment.
One of his first acts was to order the transformation of his native village into a typical Roman town which was built using readily available basalt stones. The contemporary community that was replaced with the new construction was so insignificant that one author states that the city can be considered to have been built on virgin soil, making it the last of the Roman cities founded in the East.
The city was renamed Philippopolis in dedication to the emperor, who is said to have wanted to turn his native city into a replica of Rome herself. A hexagonal-style temple and an open-air place of worship of local style, called a kalybe, a triumphal arch, baths, a starkly unornamented theatre faced with basalt blocks, a large structure that has been interpreted as a basilica, and the Philippeion surrounded by a great wall with ceremonial gates, were laid out and built following the grid plan of a typical Roman city.
The public structures formed what author Arthur Segal has called a kind of “imported façade”. The rest of the urban architecture was modest and vernacular. The city was never completed as building seems to have stopped abruptly after the death of Philip in 249.
When compared to the monuments of Bosra, the provincial capital, those of Philippopolis seem to have been built on a miniature scale, infact Philip was probably aware his days on the imperial throne were numbered and he did not think of a long range plan for the development of a new large town, he just ensured it had all the monuments of a typical Roman town; actually they are located one next to the other.
In 248 Philip had the honour to preside over the celebrations of the one thousandth anniversary of the foundation of Rome; the festivities were magnificent, but their cost together with the payments made to the Sassanids to reach a peace agreement, forced Philip into levying more taxes, thus weakening his popularity.
The new city followed the extremely regular Roman grid-plan, with the main colonnaded cardo maximus intersecting a colonnaded decumanus maximus at right angles near the center. Lesser streets marked off insulae, many of which never saw houses constructed upon them.
In the following years, when the Danubian legions rebelled and marched towards Rome; all activities at Philippopolis stopped and the town gradually fell into oblivion.
In 1596 Shahba appeared in the Ottoman tax registers as Sahba and was part of the nahiya of Bani Miglad in the Qada of Hauran. It had an entirely Muslim population consisting of 8 households and 3 bachelors, who paid taxes on wheat, barley, summer crops, goats and/or beehives.
In 1952 a series of mosaics were found in a house not far from the baths; some of them were removed to be displayed at the National Museum of Damascus, but eventually Syrian authorities decided to maintain in situthe other ones. These mosaics portray subjects typical of the Hellenized world, but when they were designed that world was starting to fade away and this is evident in the portrayal of clothed gods. Because it was far from population centers that would have required cut stone for building and might have quarried it from those deserted in Philippopolis, Shahba today contains well-preserved ruins of the ancient Roman city.
A museum located in the city exhibits some beautiful examples of Roman mosaics and the relatively well-preserved Roman bridge at Nimreh is located in the vicinity.
The Syrian government regards Philip as a national hero, he was portrayed in the 1998 100 Syrian pounds note and stresses his Arab descent, but the suffix the Arab could have been just a reference to the province he was born in, rather than indicating his belonging to an ethni c group.
Shahba however was since its Roman annexation the seat of a Bishopric and a Christian presence exists in the city to the present among a large Druze populations who moved into the area in the 19th century, the city has been affected by the Syrian Civil War.