In Algeria with Don
Published by the Oldie magazine, Winter travel supplement, December 2013
Don McCullin and Barnaby Rogerson in Algeria
One of the reliable things about travelling in Algeria is that it remains very interesting. It always has been. The French assault on Algiers in 1832 arguably kick-started the whole scramble for Africa. The fearsome eight-year long war of Independence of 1954-62, stands beside Vietnam and Suez as the battles that finally broke the worldwide European colonial imperium. Whilst the shadowy Algerian civil war of 1991-2000 is increasingly being read as both a prelude to 9;11 and a preface to what is happening to both Egypt and Syria. This fascinating recent history is lit up by a wonderful backdrop of late 19th century and 30’s French colonial architecture. However it is the remnant-ruins of an even older Empire that has lured travellers into the Algerian hinterland for the last two hundred and fifty years.
Over the last five years, I have been noticing how travel is getting easier and easier. This most recent trip was entirely free of an imbedded security minder, the siren-whail of an escort of police cars and we were only notching up about one random military checkpoint stop a day. But it is in the nature of travel in Algeria that the best laid plans can get misdirected.
Our current debacle was to be stuck on a desert airstrip, the night before our return flight home, by a sandstorm. I, however, could not have been happier, perched on my canvas bag, sharing a pack of dry biscuits with Britain’s acknowledged master war-photographer. For my travelling companion in Algeria was Don McCullin.
Don, a genuine home-brewed product of London’s East End, was launching into an imitation of the precocious, slightly camp, auction-house accent of Bruce Chatwin. It was Chatwin who had first brought Don to Algeria, on the trail of a story that traced the Algerian war of independence right back to the massacre of Setif – when France seemingly unleashed a murderous purge on the very day that V. E. day was celebrated, 8th May 1945. But their trail had gone cold, and to make up for this disappointment, Bruce had taken Don on an impromptu tour of some Roman ruins, and so unwittingly kick-started a photographic obsession.
For thirty years later Don would return, and photograph the romantically isolated Roman cities of Djemila and Timgad. Although built in the same period, they are appealingly different in mood. The former ripples down an undulating hill that is watched by the Kabyle mountains, the latter is spread out like a precise chessboard on the steppe land just before the Aures mountains. Both were established as colonies for discharged veterans of the III Augusta Legion, planted in the vital heartlands of this ancient Berber landscape. They are infallible proof of the high point of the Roman Empire, for these are neither capital cities designed to dazzle the ambassadors of the world or boom-town marketplaces astride a lucrative trading route. They are just common or garden provincial cities, two out of the six hundred that once stood across the length and breadth of Roman North Africa and were designed solely for the use of their citizens. So that the magnificence of the mosaics of the secret rituals of Dionysius, the gorgeous profusion of triumphal arches, the arcades around the forum and market squares, the inscriptions, tombs, theatres, baths, lawcourts and fountains speak to us in a very direct, practical and moving way.
One of the unexplainable mysteries of both cities, is the identity of the discharged veterans. Are we looking at some ancient precursor of the French or are we witnessing something much more indigenous? In short, were the veterans Romanised Berbers? Could the veterans settled at Djemila be the sons of Berbers who had earned their Roman citizenship (and the right to serve in the Legion) through service in the many Auxiliary regiments raised from each province of the Empire. For we know that the Numidian cavalry were a highly valued element in all Roman field armies, who can for instance, be identified on Trajan’s column. We also have a very illustrious example of this process, for Lucius, the Emperor Trajan’s trusted cavalry commander, came from just such a background, the son of a tribal lord who had been given the citizenship as a reward for his service in the cavalry.
To give a further twist to the story, we also know that Timgad was founded by the Emperor Trajan and at one point it looked like Lucius not Hadrian would inherit the throne of the tough old general-emperor from Spain. This might help explain why the Emperor Hadrian would later came down to southern Algeria in person to inspect the manoeuvres of the III August Legion, though his pompous inscription left behind at the legendary base of Lambeasis ( a days march from Timgad) is rather less famous than the graffiti scratched on the pavement floor of an arcade of the forum at Timgad. Venari, lavari, luderi, rideri, occ est vivere - “To hunt, to bathe, to play at gambling, to laugh – this is life’. To my mind the irreverent thoughts of an old soldier bored rigid by a long oration from a town councillor on the rostrum. Somehow it makes it even better that his grammar needs correcting...
Don, who has seen a lot of soldiers in action, thought that ‘birds and beer’ would probably win over ‘hunting and bathing’ for the modern military man – but the rest could still stand.
After topping up with more coffee, we agreed that the Roman ruins at Tipasa had been our best individual day of ruin-scrabbling on this trip. A 4am start had allowed us to take a covert way into the site that I knew of, by a rocky coast path where the compound fence has been partly rusted-away by the surf. So after Don had taken his dawn shots in perfect tranquility, we discreetly backed out the way we came and took in a long breakfast in a local café. Later that morning we re-entered the ruins, but this time through the front gates as kosher, ticket-buying tourists. But other tourists were there none: just hundreds of Algerian families cheerfully enjoying the Roman ruins as their birthright, their faces open with pleasure now that the security restrictions of the 19 year emergency were being gradually repealed. There’s a quotation from Camus, that towering French intellectual who was born into the pied noir in Algeria, inscribed on a stone at Tipasa. It reads like a humanist blessing, ‘Here I first understood what is meant by glory: the right to love without limits.’ On this morning it seemed that this message had at last been shared with the Algerians.
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by Barnaby Rogerson