The Roman ruins in Algeria - little known treasure of an ancient civilization

Perhaps many travelers and Roman sites hunters will be surprised to hear that the northern part of Algeria is dotted with Roman ruins. Not only it is full of them, but it ranks on second place about this feature, after Italy only!

The civil war during the last decade of 20th century put Algeria aside from the main tourists roads in Africa. Today the country is struggling to rebuilt its tourism reputation, trying to picture itself as a calm and safe land, with friendly people. Fortunately, more and more tourists and scientists dare to step into this hardly avoided in the recent past territory. And what they witnessed is impressive - amazing history, told by several UNESCO World heritage sites in a remarkable state of preservation.

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Where these Roman sites come from? The Romans arrived in Algeria in AD 24. They began to construct forts and towns and expanded their rules over the land. One of the best known sites from this era is Timgad (ancient Thamugadi) and it is among the best preserved. It was built during Emperor Trajan and served as a military outpost. Timgad is an amazing ancient place and its grid plan street layout can be clearly seen even today – together with ruts cut into the ground by chariot wheels. There signs of baths and houses, public library, a theatre. And the most impressive site there - Trajan’s Arch. Timgad’s importance lasted from AD 100 to the 8th century.

Another important and well preserved Roman site is that of Djemila, built on the side of a mountain in northern Algeria during the late 1st century AD. It is situated about 30 miles from Setif, and is one of North Africa's most monumental sites. The wheel-rutted streets of ancient Cuicul, founded by emperor Nerva to house his veterans are lined with two fora and a clutch of elaborate houses, churches and temples. This ancient town tells a story of a long period of occupation. In Djemila Roman temples gave way to Christian basilicas. Djemila’s most significant highlights include the Arch of Caracalla, the Temple of Gens Septimia, and a 3,000 person theatre. Not less impressive is the compact museum, containing beautiful mosaics.Travel in Algeria 2 with Penguin Travel

Do not miss a visit to Tiddis, though it is not so well preserved as Djemila. Tiddis is still less known among the tourists and you will have that site almost for yourself. Tiddis - in spite of its miniature size - boasts all the trappings of a Roman town: paved streets, a temple of Mithras, a wonderful arch, cisterns and a minute forum. There was a settlement prior to the Romans arrival, but the Romans expanded the area in the 3rd century AD.

Yet Tipasa is a different story. Situated on the Mediterranean Sea it is a popular site to visit for both locals and foreigners. Tipasa was built on a series of three small hills which overlooked the sea. The history tells that over the course of the first millennium BC the Phoenicians established port cities in Algeria and their descendants in the region became known as Carthaginians or Punics. The earliest archaeological remains at Tipasa (situated about 60km west of the capital Algiers), represent this phase of history. The town was founded as a trading centre in the 6th century BC, and has one of the largest Punic cemeteries. Today the ruins of two massive churches: the Great Basilica and the Basilica Alexander – can be found on the western hills,  surrounded by massive tombs. Third church – the Basilica of St Salsa, is on the eastern hill, accompanied by two cemeteries and roman baths. There is also stunning amphitheater in excellent condition - as well as a theatre and a nymphaeum.. The central hill is the place where the majority of the houses have been. Unfortunately, today there are no traces left of what have been a bustling living area.

At the foot of the easternmost hill there are remains of an ancient harbor . It was built by the Phoenicians who first settled here. The stone and mosaic covered coffins in the cemeteries and the many buildings dedicated to entertainment and leisure indicates that Tipasa was once a very wealthy city. In about 484 CE the Vandal King Huneric sent an Arian bishop to the city. Tipasa was meant to be a Christian city but only a few of the inhabitants embraced the new religion.  The rest fled to Spain to avoid the cruel persecution that awaited them at the hands of the Arian bishop. Those that remained in Tipasa were killed. This was the end of Tipasa and the city disappeared from the history books shortly afterwards.

Be aware that some travelers tell that Tipasa is overrun with hordes of people on a week day. There are boats bringing visitors to view the ruins from the sea. The price id about $10-15 for a mini-tour of 20 minutes. Some not pleasant surprises could happen here, though. Travelers witnessed captains who are turning the boats in just the opposite direction of the ruins and ask for more money...

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The vast ruins of the ancient Roman city of Hippo Regius, also known as Hippone, are among the most evocative in Algeria. They are stretching across a rolling site, full of flowers, olive trees, birds and sheep. The most impressive site here are the ruins of the colonial-era Basilica de Saint Augustine. You enter Hippo Regius from what was the seafront in the ancient past, with the water having receded several hundred metres over the millennia. The district near the seafront was residential. Today there are remains of several villas and courtyards. The so-called Villa of the Labyrinth and Villa of the Procurateur are the most popular. Then a path leads to the Christian quarter where the 42m-long outline of the grand basilica can still be traced, with its floors covered with mosaics. It is believed this is the basilica where Saint Augustine was bishop.

Then a path of massive paving slabs leads to the market where slaves where sell. After it comes the Forum. It stands 76m by 43m, with some of its 3.6m-high columns still intact. The forum was surrounded by a colonnade, small shrines, a fountain and latrines. In the middle there were ancient capitol and several statues.

The earliest of Algeria’s world heritage sites is Tassili n’Ajjer in the country’s south east. It is known for both its scenic beauty and its cultural importance. This site holds about 15,000 examples of rock art created from around 10,000 BC onwards. This was the time when the Sahara was transforming from a lush savannah into the desert we know today. The artworks display people and animals – such as giraffes, now absent from the region, and presents the religious practices and daily life of Algeria’s earliest recorded inhabitants. Tassili n’Ajjer cultures sites are among the most important examples of Neolithic rock art in the world history.

Another impressive city is Constantine - the capital of the same name province in northeastern Algeria. The city was created by the Phoenicians who called it Sewa (the royal city). Then the Numidian king Syphax renaimed it to Cirta, The city later served as the base for Roman empire in its war against Jugurtha. Then Julius Caesar gave special rights to the citizens of Cirta. In 311 AD, during the civil war between two Roman emperors, Cirta was destroyed. It was Rebuilt in 313 AD and renamed after emperor Constantine the Great who had defeated emperor Maxentius. There are several museums and historical sites located around the city from the roman times.. Constantine is often referred to as the "City of Bridges" due to the numerous picturesque bridges connecting the various hills, valleys, and ravines that the city is built on and around.

The frontier town of Tebessa, in ancient times known as Theveste, is still avoided by Westerners. But those who include it in their culture trip will never regret. Tebesa has some really impressive Roman ruins - the Arch of Caracalla, the Temple of Minerva, an immense basilica and a colourful old French market. Same time the ancient Roman site of Lambaesis, situated not far from Batna, has a Temple of Aesculapius, Capitolium, a set of baths, an Arch of Severus and praetorium of the Third Augustan Legion.

The remote ruins of Madauros were once the home of Apuleius, the Roman writer perhaps best known for his book Golden Ass. The site comprises a fine Roman mausoleum, a vast baths, a Byzantine fortress and a Christian basilica. Another ancient Roman place in Algeria is Giru Mons. The town has been identified with ruins at Yerroum, at the northern part of the country. Guru Mons was titular bishopric of he roman Catholic Church. It was functioning till the 7th century.

Interesting place to visit is Setif (Sitifis). It was founded by the Romans during the reign of Nerva (AD 96 to 98), Setif was that time a colony for veterans. Although no buildings of this period are preserved, the cemetery excavated in the 1960s containes tombs from that period. The Romans built a circus and its aerial photographs survived until 20th century. But today only a small part is visible as the rest was destroyed. On the northwest edge of the town two great Christian basilicas were built.  

As it seems, step by step Algeria is revealing its treasure of archaeological sites - still little known outside the country. The country has definitely what to offer to everyone with love with history. A visit to Algeria nowadays is nothing less than a great adventure in the past days of ancient civilizations.

Written by: Biserka Borisova

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