please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
As day trips from Tabarka in northwestern Tunisia, we visited a few particularly impressive ancient Roman sites.
The first place we went to was called Dougga, and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. No parking lot, no entrance gate, no guide, no other tourists -- we walked alone across an open field of weeds to reach the ruins of the ancient city. With such a casual, unassuming approach, I wouldn’t have guessed that UNESCO considers this “the best-preserved example in North Africa of the rise, development, and daily life over more than 17 centuries of an indigenous Numidian city.” Yet, there it was for us to explore almost as if we were the first people to glimpse it in a thousand years. My favorite types of historical and archeological ruins are those in which my imagination has latitude to take off. And one of the requisites for this is, as a general rule, quietness and solitude.
At the time Julius Caesar annexed this region of Tunisia, which was then the kingdom of Numidia, for Rome, Dougga had already been an important city for more than six centuries and some think it may have been the first capital of Numidia. This area of northern Tunisia, (along with much of North Africa) was known as "the breadbasket of Rome," shipping large quantities of grains, olives and grapes across the Mediterranean. The Romans remodeled, so to speak, a lot of pre-existing towns and cities.
So looking at it as a Roman city, I think the atmospheric highlight was the triumphal arch of Severus Alexander at the edge of the city, used as one of the city gates. I don't know its exact build date, but he was emperor of Rome from 222-235. I imagined the countless citizens from diverse ethnic and historical heritages walking beneath it, in and out of the city, an untold number of anonymous footprints folded into the dirt throughout the millennia.
Later occupiers, such as the Byzantines, continued to use the city, which is partially why the ancient structures remain so well in tact, having been continually occupied throughout such a long stretch of history. The last families inhabiting the site of the ruins weren't made to relocate until the 1960s.
Many of the interior spaces throughout the city retain some of the in-laid tile floors. Beheaded statues still occupy space with their bodies, their heads long ago carried off, sitting now who-knows-where.
The architectural highlight for me was the well-preserved Roman temple known as the capitol. It felt quite magnificent walking up the steps to the front pillars.
What a glorious difference viewing the Roman ruins of Dougga was from standing in the concrete jungle of Rome packed between thousands of other tourists at those ancient sites (impressive as they were). At the far end of the ruins near the theater stage, we finally encountered a small tour bus (and behold, a small parking lot) with its clients ready to re-board. As I just mentioned, I am very seldom appreciative of other tourists in my touring experience – I’m just supremely selfish that way – but in a rare moment, I was actually glad to see them, to know that more people were learning of this amazing archeological site which rightfully deserves a place in our historical knowledge and appreciation.
Erik bought a cactus fruit from a guy selling them at the outskirts of the ruin, as he's always game to try eating and drinking new things. He made a hilarious face after his first bite, so that is to say he didn’t much care for it. What is the difference between picking one off a nearby cactus and buying one from a vendor, I have no idea outside of a few cents.
Next stop: Bulla Regia, to see the ruins of a wealthy Roman merchant town. Bulla Regia was part of the territory won from Carthage for Rome by Scipio Africanus in 203 BC during the Second Punic War. I've been a big fan of Hannibal as champion of Carthage since I started reading on the topic of ancient history decades ago, yet I can't help but admire the heck out of Scipio Africanus. They were both military geniuses. Don't believe me? Have a watch or listen to this podcast by Flash Point History, which I think is the best-presented explanation of their battles. This link takes you to where Hannibal comes onto the scene but the Punic Wars were a long affair and this is actually down the line at Part 4. It's possible, to be honest, that you have to be a real history nerd to appreciate it, but in equal honesty I think anyone with an interest in this era or in military strategy will find it worthwhile. I'm not really one to be so interested in military strategy in general, but I was genuinely fascinated by this (and the next Part 5, where Scipio Africanus really comes into play). I listened to the entire 7-part series, but I've listened to parts 4 and 5 more than once.
After Rome won the territory, it was given to the Numidian king Masinissa who led a long and interesting life -- first as a cavalry commander in alliance with Carthage in the Punic Wars and later defecting to Rome and fighting for Scipio when it seemed clear to him that Rome would be the eventual victor. After it became part of his kingdom he "recovered the lands of his ancestors" and made Bulla Regia his capital in 156 BC.
It passed into Roman hands under Julius Caesar and eventually became an official Roman colony under the emperor Hadrian, its inhabitants having full Roman citizenship. Its glory days began to wane in the Byzantine era and eventually the sands took over as ruler.
Some speculate that before it was tossed about between kingdoms, the site was a Berber settlement. Just as the Berbers built homes into the earth to stay cool in the hot climate, the Romans realized the wisdom of this here at Bulla Regia, designing their private villas underground. Most of the above-ground communal buildings are severely compromised, some just rubble, while the underground villas remain in amazing shape, with in-laid tile mosaics still in good condition on the floors. Having seen the mosaics at the Bardo Museum that had been removed from other Roman sites (and some from here as well), it made us appreciate even more seeing so many of these in situ.
The underground areas, so nice and cool, often felt as if the inhabitants had moved out only last week. I would have to say this is one of my favorite ruins of any I've ever visited. Something about it was just magical. We were the only people there almost the whole time, frolicking through the ancient world.
There were actually goats wandering around topside, and some shepherds loitering nearby. That's how "natural" these ruins are ... still part of the local landscape. It's so hard to believe what ancient mastery lies beneath the fields of low stone pillars and grazing goats. First it's hard to believe that the above-ground areas stay in such good shape among grazing goats! The above-ground portion of the city, though, was once extensive and flourishing with architectural grandeur until an earthquake destroyed much Bulla Regia, collapsing its first floors into some of the subterranean floors. The preservation of what remains above ground is due to the drifting sand that protected the abandoned sites. The first excavations were begun in 1906.
Its small amphitheater is in such good form because it lay buried until 1960.
We then drove on to Chemtou.
Here the Romans extensively quarried a particularly valued marble, known as Numidian marble, whose color shaded from pink to golden yellow. Slaves and prisoners did most of the work. The marble was then sent to Tabarka by road or to Utica via the Mejerda River.After having seen so many Star Wars filming locations in Tunisia, we felt like we'd stepped into an Indiana Jones set when we crawled into an underground shaft in the quarry where the walls were carpeted with spider webs; fortunately no tarantulas hopped onto our backs.
The prized marble made its way into opulent palaces of Roman nobility and into such world wonders as the Pantheon in Rome and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. You can still see the marks of the ancient workmen’s tools across the face of the stone.
With our trusty "camel truck" we were able to drive into the very heart of the quarry.
Nearby, the ruins of the small city, Simitthus, lie humble and exposed. As with the other Roman sites, there was no gate, no guard, no admission fee, as if this ancient life had been abandoned only yesterday.