I cannot leave Algeria without mentioning their Roman ruins. Ibn B. would have come across some lesser sites since they are strewn over the entire northern part of the country, but I visited only the three principal sites of Tipaza, Djemila and Timgad. Old Ibn B's travels were purely Islamic and he rarely mentions pre-Islamic ruins.
Tipaza lying west of Algiers and overlooking the Mediterranean, is overgrown and little of it has been excavated but a tour of the site reveals the remains of two basilicas, the Capitoline, necropolis, theater, amphitheater, Nymphaeum, and baths. It was a favorite spot of the celebrated writer Albert Camus and a stele dedicated to him at the site is engraved with his words;” je comprends ici ce q’on appelle gloire, le droit d’aimer sans mesure”, which might be roughly translated as "Here I understand that glory is the right to love excessively.’
Remarkably intact aqueduct which fed the Roman cities of Cherchell and Tipaza.
I did not have a good guide to explain Tipaza, but this was not the case in the next-door town of Cherchell which is fortunate to have the exceptionally enthusiastic and knowledgeable Mokhtiar Isa as head of the Museum - a must-see. It houses exceptional mosaics in the emblemata technique, the term for mosaics made up of tiny pieces of tessarae so fine they look like tapestries, as well as statuary taken from the sites of Cherchell. In Cherchell itself the ruins of a theater, amphitheater, forum and baths are all scattered discretely over the town which now has a population of about 50,000. A story circulates that in 1942 when Eisenhower disembarked near Cherchell he wrote a memo home saying the town should be razed and excavations carried out, (presumably he was planning on building other homes for the approx 5000 inhabitants who were to be displaced.) The French, still in control of Algeria at that time, not surprisingly refused. You can imagine the colonial occupier trying to explain to a regular homeowner that his house was about to be destroyed because it was sitting atop some 2000 year old stones. Politically it was a non-starter.
DJEMILA The north-south axis of all Roman cities - Djemila was almost entirely collapsed by earthquake and human destruction and in the absence of great imagination and written material, I have photographed the few buildings that remain standing.
Djemila, meaning 'lovely' in Arabic, is aptly named. Located in a valley surrounded by snow-capped hills in winter, and wheatfields burnished gold by the sun in summer, the former Cuicul was one of a series of Roman towns linked across Algeria and Tunisia. The city was destoyed by several factors including earthquakes and there are now few buildings standing; the temple of Septimius Severus being one of them. Founded in the 2nd century by the Emperor Nerva, the site is divided into the original Roman city and the Byzantine city. The marvel at Djemila however is the museum which contains mosaics lifted from the floors of the Houses of Bacchus, Europe, Castor and the Donkey – I never quite understood this last one. (I have never come across a Roman ruin with a House of the Donkey and it all sounds a bit tricky, and although the guide was fairly knowledgeable about some things, I never quite got the whole picture.) Nonetheless the mosaics which cover the entire walls of the museum in all three rooms are stellar examples of the art; ‘Venus at her toilette’, ‘The Abduction of Europe by Jupiter disguised as a bull’ and a mosaic of a game found in the House of the Donkey - I didn’t understand the game either…….. TIMGAD
Timgad was built during the time of Trajan in the 1st century and the arch in the distance at the Western end of the Decumanus Maximus was built to commemorate his victory over the Parthians. At the near end on the right was the 'House of Ill Repute' . Most of the columns have been replaced - Timgad also having been felled by earthquake.
Timgad lies further to the south near the present day town of Batna. If you speak French do not go near the site without engaging the services of the guide Messaoud Hadjoudj who having worked there for the past 30 years has an encyclopedic knowledge of the ruins and can explain it in layman’s terms. He can be reached on +213-67 02 82 84. Ruins have either to be explored by oneself peacefully, because despite the lack of information it is possible to absorb the history of the place, or one has to have a passionate guide who is not only knowledgeable on the facts but can make it come alive. Anything in between is never quite satisfactory. It was only at Timgad that I really learned anything. Part of the reason is the site itself which is very clearly laid out in a grid pattern - founded in the 1st century by Emperor Trajan, Timgad, then known as Thamugadi, was hidden under accumulated mounds of sand and not ‘discovered’ until the late 19th century by a Scotsman, James Bruce. The site is now another of Algeria’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. The military garrison was housed in much of this grid, which also contains the Forum, a theater, library, market and the House of the Hermaphrodite. While there are few buildings still standing here either, at the western end of the decumanus maximus is the restored Arch of Trajan built to commemorate his victory over the Parthians. The baths to the south are in an exceptionally well-preserved state and the workings of the hypocaust heating system are clearly evident. The Romans may have been master builders but they were bad for the environment and lopped down trees at an alarming rate to feed the ovens to heat their beloved baths. The plateau at Timgad now denuded, was once covered with juniper and oak and this systematic practice was carried out wherever they built their cities. Another unique aspect of Timgad is that over 9000 stone sarcophagi have been found in the necropolis, many of which are in the museum (currently closed) and outside inn the gardens. There are possibly thousands more in the areas which have yet to be excavated, the town had a population of about 20,000. In addition to the major Roman sites, three of Algeria’s museums have excellent collections of Phoenician and Roman remains; the National Museum of Antiquities in Algiers, Sirta Museum in Constantine and the Museum of Setif near Djemila.