Tales of the Unexpected
Published in the Daily Telegraph, Friday 17th January 2014
For most people it would have been a nightmare. We were stuck in the middle of the Sahara, all flights grounded due to a sandstorm. Around us people flapped like headless chickens, trying to communicate electronically, for it was right at the end of the trip and transatlantic flight connections were in danger.
We however were as smug as cats. We had at long last visited Roman Timgad (on the edge of the desert) and Roman Tipasa (against which the waves of the Mediterranean still break). These longed-for ruins had been fully explored, the images were safely in the bag. And now to cap it all, my travelling companion, Don McCullin, was entertaining me with stories as I sat on my green kitbag. Beside being a world-famous war-photographer, Don is a first-class mimic and over the years he has worked with most of my travel writing heroes. So while others fought for broadband-access, I listened entranced as Don told real travellers’ tales, first in the camp, educated tones of Bruce Chatwin, then the chatty, laughter-ridden timbre of Eric Newby (a velvet-glove beneath which lurked a hand of steel) and oddest but most entrancing of all, the strangled half Welsh-half-Enfield-Essex accent of Norman Lewis, spiked with that unmistakable bone-dry, laconic wit.
I knew beforehand that travelling in Algeria is seldom predictable. It’s unchartered territory, as a friend, now a Washington D.C.-based expert, had explained to me. ‘We don’t even know the names of the commanders of three of the most important military districts – which for a country dominated by its generals ranks as pretty inscrutable in this spy-in-the-sky, where every mobile is phone-tapped, age of ours.”
My first taste of Algeria’s enigmatic behaviour had been twenty-five years ago. I’d gone through 90% of the bureaucratic hoops of a land-crossing from eastern Morocco, only to watch my passport being literally frisbeed out of the window of the last kiosk. After which the shutter was slammed down in a very decisive manner. Not daunted I tried another frontier post, then another one further south in the desert, but the same Alice-in-Wonderland procedure occurred each time, and always at the very last desk. After that rather than dwell on paranoid theories, I took the long-cut, driving back across northern Morocco, crossing the straits to Spain, driving up the coast and across southern France, to catch a boat from Marseille to Tunis and try things from that end...
Years later, after the ten-year civil war was over, I was plotting a literary event with a charming Algerian cultural attaché over tea in London. He told me that all would be possible once I was in Algiers, but that he could promise absolutely no assistance with the Visa department downstairs in the same consulate building! My passport is now stuffed full of green Algerian visa-stickers, but the element of surprise remains. In the years immediately after the civil war, police escorts were mandatory (with sirens wailing), and like some parcel-delivery service foreign guests were counted, signed for and passed over at each Wilaya (county) boundary.
The last three trips have all had moments of sudden derailment. On one all the hotels in Oran were commandeered by the Oil Ministry, an another an Algerian win over Egypt on the football pitch had shut-down any traffic movement through the streets of Algiers for 24 hours as delirious crowds let off fireworks and danced on the rooves of their cars with remarkable passion. And now we were in the Sahara awaiting a sandstorm to blow through. This time last year, 16th January 2013, there was the deadly terrorist assault at In Amenas, and though this had little to do with Algerian politics and much more to do with French intervention in Mali and the collapse of state authority in the Libyan Sahara, it has undoubtedly discouraged the more nervous sort of traveller. But you have always needed to be determined to travel in Algeria, and to understand that the Saharan provinces are a world apart. They are, after all, as far south of Algiers as Paris is north.
Over half a lifetime of travelling in North Africa and the Sahara, has taught me that safe-routes come and go with the political wind and the decades. Libya was inaccessible for half a generation, opened to travellers for ten years and then closed up again. Routes into Niger, Mali, the Western Sahara and the Western Desert (of Egypt) have come, gone but will also re-emerge. Who would have thought that Chad, war-torn and faction-ridden pretty much all my life, is now enjoying a period of stability. All this means that you gather your the rose’s while you may.
Timgad, the most intact, and the most southerly of all the Roman military colonies planted in North Africa, was a bloom I’d long dreamed of adding to my bouquet of other men’s flowers. Its immaculate grid of streets rolls over the steppe-land like a giant chess-board. The vivacity of the settlement attested by the fine monuments that over two hundred years were added to this first plan, so that Timgad would be embellished with every sort of urban refinement: bath-houses a plenty, a magnificent theatre, half a dozen temple enclosures, a library, elegant market-places, fountains and fine squares framed by magnificent arches. Yet it also feels like an astonishingly intimate space. It is also the most emphatic proof of the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. It was laid out for discharged veterans of the Third Augusta Legion but build from the agricultural prosperity of their heirs. It is not a capital, or an oasis enriched by the gold, salt and slave trade of the Sahara, it is just one of the six hundred cities that once existed in Roman North Africa, preserved by chance and wind-blown sand. How Roman the first veteran-citizens actually were, or whether they were second or third generation Romanised Berbers, is a moot and much debated point. But wandering through the streets of Timgad there can be no doubt just how very Latin they were in culture. Nor how the Empire had caught the imagination of its North African subjects. As Hilaire Belloc wrote, ‘Timgad impresses me more powerfully with the past than any other place I know.” There are other proves elsewhere in Roman Algeria, such as the tomb of the Berber who conquered Scotland on his way up to the number two job in the Empire and Roman Libya, similarly would later provide a whole dynasty of Emperors.
But it was only amongst the romantically wooded ruins of coastal Tipasa that we saw this ancient marriage of North and South Mediterranean fully alive today. For though still empty of foreign tourists, the modern citizens of Algiers flock into the Roman ruins of Tipasa at the weekend complete with picnics and grandmothers. By contrast, in Timgad we had mixed with armed guards and ghosts of the legion. It must have been a good place to be, for one of them has scratched contently on a paving stone, “Venari, lavari, luderi, rideri, occ est vivere ‘to hunt, to bathe, to play, to laugh, that is to live.’ Quite right, seize the hour
TRAVEL TIPS for ruin-hungry travelers in 2014
July and August are too hot, and the light too strong to enjoy a tour of Roman ruins. Spring is the best, avoiding January to Easter when the North African shore can be surprisingly bleak. Autumn is also good, though you miss the show of spring meadow flowers unless you time your trip to the little summer of St Martin in early November.
Martin Randall Travel are currently running two ten day Roman Algeria tours this Autumn: www.martinrandall.com
Getting an Algerian Visa is an exercise in patience and the diligent reading of the small print of the application form. From previous experiences, remember to use black ink, pay by cash (no plastic accepted), use original documents (such as the necessary letter of invitation from an Algerian Tour Company) as photocopies or printed out e-mails are sometimes not accepted, with the full knowledge that you are playing a bureaucratic game of snakes and ladders with an old Soviet-like respect for procedure. So any mistake can mean starting all over again, right back at the start of the queue on the pavement. So in the past I have weakened and used the ladies (who keep a terrier and a parrot in their office ) at 1, Stephens Mews, London W2 5QZ, telephone 020-7229-4784, open Monday to Friday 8.15 am to 5 pm.
The best guidebooks for the Roman ruins are still in French, such as the 1974 edition of the Guide Bleus Algerie (which is better than the current edition) and the color photograph filled Sites et monuments antiques de L’Algerie by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles and Cladue Sintes, published by Edisud.
There are three good historical introductions in English. Susan Raven’s Rome in Africa, Fentress and Brett’s Berbers and Barnaby Rogerson’s North Africa. I should confess that the latter is my own work, and in its fourth edition as published by Overlook/Duckworth, isbn 978-0715643068 (non-swank).
When back home you can contemplate buying Don McCullin's Southern Frontiers, his arrestingly beautiful survey of some of the Roman ruins eluded to in the article. Published by Jonathan Cape in an edition of 2,000.
Which reminds me to warn ALL photographers that sometimes the guardians of ruins will forbid all photography on the site and this prohibition always applies inside museums.
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by Barnaby Rogerson