Some of the finest surviving remnants of the Roman Empire can be found in Algeria. But how easy are they to visit? Philip Kenrick is our guide.
For the tourist who is interested in the Classical Mediterranean (encouraged not least by the warmth), several really interesting countries with stunning antiquities have in recent years ceased to be as accessible as they once were. Syria and Libya are entirely off the menu, while travel to parts of Turkey has become more problematic, attacks on tourists in Egypt still occur from time to time, and Tunisia has hesitantly re-entered the foreign tourist market after several years when other countries effectively banned their nationals from going there, following terrorist massacres.
In contrast, one hears almost nothing of Algeria, which has become the largest country in Africa since the subdivision of the Sudan. It has a Mediterranean coastline of 1,600km and the northern part was densely occupied and cultivated in Roman times. In 1974, after spending six months in Benghazi studying pottery from a rescue excavation, my wife and I gave ourselves four weeks to drive in our Land Rover from there to Tangier, covering some 5,650km (including excursions in Morocco). It was an unforgettable – and now unrepeatable – experience; when, therefore, I was invited by a travel company to lead their first tour of Roman sites in Algeria in 2009, I jumped at the opportunity. I have now led a total of nine such tours.
‘Algeria’ as a geographical and political entity did not come into being until it was invaded and colonised by the French in 1830. During the 1st millennium BC, Phoenician traders, on their way between their Middle-Eastern homeland (or, later, Carthage) and their settlement at Gadir/Cadiz, established numerous safe harbours and trading-posts along the way, but exerted relatively little control over the tribes of the interior. The region fell progressively into the hands of Rome between 146 BC (the destruction of Carthage and the establishment of Africa Proconsularis in what is largely now Tunisia) and AD 40 (the assassination of Ptolemy, king of Mauretania, and the annexation of his kingdom as Mauretania Caesariensis). Between these two provinces lay the largely military zone of Numidia, at first nominally part of Africa Proconsularis and given formal recognition as a separate province only at the beginning of the 3rd century AD. The region, characterised by vast prairies between the two parallel mountain ranges of the Tellian Atlas (along the north coast) and the Saharan Atlas (along the northern boundary of the desert) offered good farmland, which supplied cereals, wine, and oil to Italy under the Roman Empire, making a comfortable living for big landowners and a more modest one for their tenant farmers. In the 5th century, much of the region fell under the control of the Vandals, a warrior elite from Central Europe; a century later, the Vandals were driven out by the Byzantines (who claimed to restore Roman rule, but would have spoken Greek and would not have seemed familiar to the local population). The Byzantine grip on North Africa was tenuous, and perhaps unwelcome; it was swept away by the arrival of the Arabs during the second half of the 7th century. After this, populations typically declined and many ancient cities were abandoned.
When the French invaded in 1830, they were impressed by the extent and state of preservation of the Roman ruins. Unfortunately, this did not stop the army from dismantling many of these (typically theatres and amphitheatres) for building material; it was only with the advent of a civil administration after 1870 that the antiquities began to be respected, and in due course excavated and reconstructed. As a result of subsequent excavations and studies by the French, some of the major sites have made their way into every manual on Roman architecture and town planning. These sites are still impressive to visit today; they are complemented by hundreds more dotted about the countryside, ranging from farm estates to villages and even towns that have upstanding remains, but have hardly been studied, if at all.
Surely the most famous Roman site in Algeria is Timgad (ancient Thamugadi, on a plain 1,000m above sea level), which has sometimes been described as ‘The Pompeii of Algeria’. Thamugadi was founded under the emperor Trajan in AD 100 as a colony – primarily a settlement of retired soldiers. It was clearly laid out by military planners, since its rigid rectangular grid closely resembles that of a military base. It was not long contained within this layout, however, and by the middle of the 2nd century had expanded well beyond it. It made no particular mark on history, but was evidently a thriving town, provided with more than the bare necessities for civic life. Temples were probably less numerous, and – apart from the Capitolium – certainly less grand than the public baths, of which there were no fewer than 14 separate establishments. Several of the bath buildings are well preserved, and in places it is possible to explore their heating arrangements in detail. These baths were lavishly decorated with mosaics in a distinctive local style. Over 200 mosaics (from baths and from private houses) have been lifted and displayed on the walls of the site museum. (Unfortunately, they were solidly cemented into the walls. Subsidence of the building has created damaging cracks in both walls and mosaics.) The forum still has much of its ancient dignity, with basilica and theatre immediately nearby. Carved into its paving are the hour-lines of a sundial, marking out the shadow of some lost monument on the south side of the square. A Capitolium (dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva) seems not to have been part of the original design, but this lack was made good, possibly not before the early 3rd century, by a massive temple within its own precinct on the south-west side of the original settlement.
The town also had market buildings: the charming East Market, composed of intersecting hemicycles with a fountain in between them, was inserted into the early layout, while the larger Market of Sertius and adjoining textile market were additions in the 3rd and 4th centuries respectively. Timgad was embellished by at least four monumental arches, of which the ‘Arch of Trajan’ is the most famous and best-preserved. It was so named after a mistaken interpretation of the dedicatory inscription, and is now thought to belong to the time of Septimius Severus (early 3rd century). While triumphal arches are common – at least in North Africa – Timgad possesses a public facility of which we know only one other certain example from the entire Roman Empire (at Ephesus): a library. This was entered from the main north-south street (the cardo maximus) through a colonnaded forecourt, which led into an apsidal room with cupboards around the walls and a statue of Minerva, Goddess of Learning, in a central niche.
From the later Roman period there are churches and what seem to be ecclesiastical complexes. Then, finally, the presence of Byzantine military authority is marked by a massive fortress built outside the town but enclosing its water supply. Like the French army, in other places and so many centuries later, the Byzantine army took stone from the upper parts of the abandoned theatre to construct their fortifications. Within, it is possible to make out barracks for perhaps 1,000 men, officers’ quarters, a bath building, and a chapel.
Philip Kenrick has co-authored a new guidebook: J-M Blas de Roblès, C Sintes, and P Kenrick (2019) Classical Antiquities of Algeria: a selective guide. Silphium Press.
All images: Philip Kenrick