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A Grand Tour of the classical monuments of Algeria
A slightly edited-down version of this was published by Minerva magazine, Jan-Feb issue 2014


My involvement with the Roman monuments of Algeria was kick-started by an invitation to help the photographer Don McCullin. Our mutual friend was Brigid Keenan, the wife of an outspoken ambassador to the Middle East who had worked in magazine journalism in her youth. Brigid is the very pattern of a modern Orientalist, a traveller and raconteur with a Levantine genius for putting people and projects together. She had just had her very funny memoir, Diplomatic Baggage published by John Murray. She also understood the virtue of double acts, having produced a beautiful book on the old houses of Damascus in tandem with a very talented photographer. She intuited that Don, although he had been photographing the Roman ruins of North Africa and the Levant for years on his own back, now needed a colleague to write the text and help him pull the various historical strands together. I was delighted to be involved. It allowed me to travel in Don’s inimitable company in both Libya and Algeria. And the resulting book, Southern Frontiers, turned out to be just the sort of book that one would like to be buried with.

One of the first rewards of the project was sifting through two boxes of Don’s photographs, all of which he had developed himself. I had expected a state-of-the art, glistening laboratory, not an old cheese-store off the family kitchen of a farmhouse in Somerset. I began to warm to the man, not just the famous artist, and started to listen with care to his stories. And it soon became clear that he was locked in some sort of personal duet with Francis Frith and Maxime du Camp (the 19th-century photographic pioneers) in this project.

I was also delighted to discover the accidental nature behind Don’s current obsession, for I have always favoured cock-up over conspiracy. It had began decades ago, in the 70’s heyday of investigative travel writing, when Don was sent to accompany Bruce Chatwin on a Sunday Times commission. Chatwin was following a trail from some gangland, racist thuggery in Marseille and which he believed led back to the infamous massacre of Setif in Algeria. This hunch is, I believe, spot-on but either due to his style or timing, the investigation led nowhere. But as a reward for the weeks wasted on this abortive mission in central Algeria, Bruce took Don on an impromptu tour of some beautiful Roman ruins in Algeria. No photographs were taken, but the places lodged in his mind like grit in an oyster. Thirty years later came the pearl, his book Southern Frontiers.

Don never looked at a map when he travelled with Chatwin, and despite a wonderful memory for face and incident has no recollection of their itinerary. But in homage to this original journey, I have designed a grand tour of classical Algeria. It starts in Algiers, with a leisurely day walking the streets of the old medieval city to get a feel for the topography of ancient Icosium. The string of offshore islands, which first drew Phoenician traders to this place have now been fused by siege and counter-siege to the mainland and there is nothing ancient to be physically touched on the ground but the geography of Algiers is pregnant with later history. There’s the Ottoman pirate-admiral Barbarossa who fused a nation out of opposition to the Christian Crusades led by the Spanish Crown, one of which was even led by the Emperor Charles V in person, assisted by stout Cortes. And there’s the haunting sense of the key battleground of the 1954-62 Independence struggle against the French, immortalized by both the Pontecorvo epic, The Battle for Algiers and Alistair Horne’s historical masterpiece, A Savage war for Peace.

Cherchell, ancient Caesarea, is the first potent classical site on the itinerary, preceded by the remains of a splendid aqueduct. I was obsessed by the place long before I began to visit it, for it was the capital-city of that dream-pair of monarchs, the historian-King Juba II (who was brought up in the household of Caesar) and his wife Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra of Egypt. They ruled over the Roman client-kingdom of Mauretania Ceaseriensis, a grand enough slice of territory composed of western-Algeria and eastern Morocco, but a mere pittance considering their lost inheritance, for Juba was heir to all Numidia and his wife to the Empire of the Ptolemies. The museum (just reopened after a long restoration programme) stands beside the 19th-century piazza decorated with antique objets trouvés. The collection centres on a sensuous yet grave statue of Apollo, a marble reinterpretation of a Phidias bronze, believed to have been sculpted to adorn the house of a collector not a temple sanctuary. Treat the identification of various heads (prince Ptolemy, Cleopatra Selene, Cleopatra VII) as inspired spirt-of-place suggestions not certainties. One can dream of it, but no Villa Adriana overlooking the Mediterranean has ever been identified in Cherchell. The bulk of these finds come from two Roman bath complexes and the intact rock-cut theatre.

The hilltop Tomb of the Christian Woman, Khour er Roumia, is truly magnificent - in scale, position, size, age of stone and the mystery of its original occupant. It has also been ineffectively bombarded in order to recover lost treasures. It is tempting to associate it with King Juba and Queen Cleopatra, while local legend favours that daughter of the Byzantine Count Julian who was ravished by the King of Visigothic Spain. But it has been found to be much, much earlier than either of these legends. It’s a vast Hellenistic circular tomb (63 m in diameter and 40 m in height) within which is buried a circular ambulatory leading to a small tomb chamber. It was probably built sometime around the time of Alexander the Great by a Berber royal dynasty allied to Carthage in the 4th to 3d century BC.

Neighbouring Tipasa is a place apart, made enchanting by its position overlooking the sea and sylvan by the woodland that throws complexity and shadows over its ruins. It is also bathed in the nostalgic prose-poetry of Camus. It is also one of the few classical sites that has been absorbed into the imagination of Algerians, who picnic here on weekends and seek out moody corners for a reflective smoke. From the moment you wander in, straight into a very late amphitheatre (3rd if not 4th century AD) which partly overlays two temple sites, you realize the complexity of the remains, which span a thousand years of occupation. It is a place to wander in and get lost, searching for the villa by the shore, the cathedral, the walls, the hilltop theatre, the theatre and nympheum, before you settle down to try and date anything. Friends with lesser stamina can arrange to meet you at a table at one of the dozen fish restaurants outside the gates next to the remains of the great baths. To the east of the modern fishing harbour there lies an immense Christian cemetery whose tombs jostle around the church-shrine of the martyr St Salsa.

Far to the west of Algeria, the city-port of Annaba has a similar obsessional relationship with a saint, for the hilltop colonial Cathedral of St Augustine dominates the excavations of ancient Hippo. A muddle of massive stones from a Berber-Carthaginian dock, the low walls of a pair of Roman churches (did he or didn’t he celebrate the mass here?) a large villa, a bath complex and a stunningly extensive forum (carved with proud dedicatory lettering to Proconsul C. Paccius Africanus) make for a fascinating walk, while the little site museum is packed full of unexpected treasures. Some enchanting urban and marine details animate the mosaics, there are fine marbles of Dionysius, Minerva and Hercules and something that takes your breath away - the only intact bronze Roman military trophy I have ever see, linked to Julius Caesar’s defeat of Juba (and his Republican allies) at Thapsus.

Inland, about 65km south-west of Hippo, is Guelma, one of those hill-towns fated to be fought over, be it the Jugurthine wars or the Independence struggle. The Roman ruins of ancient Calama, left smoking after the attack of Genseric the Vandal, were refortified by the Byzantine general Solomon in 533, and reoccupied by the vanguard of Marshal Clauzel’s French column in 1837. After which they became the barracks at the centre of a colonial market town. The much-photographed ‘theatre’ is an almost total colonial recreation but no so the splendid collection of statues on show there. As well as the naked Neptune and crowned Aesclupius on centre stage there’s a fascinating jumble in the two side-rooms including a gallery of punic and Romano-Berber tombstones. Chatwin would have loved all this juxtaposition, especially when seen in contrast to the forgotten ruins of Thibilis, a deserted, over-grown site with ruined arches, a forum and basilica, half hidden by holm oak on the spur of a hill known as Announa, about 18km out of town.

Cutting further east and almost abutting the Tunisian frontier are three more deeply evocative sites. First the ruins of Madauros, a highland town of scholarship where St Augustine learnt his letters and Apuleius taught philosophy. Both must spent many an animated hour in the well-preserved forum and its associated Odeon, which were saved from destruction when they were converted into a Byzantine fortress. Khemissa is equally moody in atmosphere, for it was an ancient cult-centre built at the source of the river Medjerda (the Bagradas of the ancients) with a nympheum and massive theatre constructed below the old hilltop forum. Tebessa has no such arcadian sympathies, for it remains a bustling modern town. But as you wander its animated market-streets in order to admire the complete circuit of Byzantine city-walls containing an intact 3rd-century temple (labelled Minerva), and then walk through the fortified arch of Caracalla down to the fortified 4th-century Roman Church complex – you begin to pinch yourself, for you are alone here in sites that can only be usefully compared to Nimes’s Maison Carre or St Simeon outside Aleppo.

Now we head west, towards the centre of Algeria, taking a coffee break at Khenchela and examining the two open-air Roman bath pools – still as Hadrian would have known them, packed full of bronzed men and natural steam.

Timgad was not so much excavated as cleared of the sand that covered it from the seventh century to reveal a virtually intact provincial city from the Antonine heyday of Empire. Looking at its great market places, forum, theatres, baths, archways, temples, public lavatories and opulent library you could imagine it a proud capital but its magnificence was quite ordinary, just one of the six hundred cities of Roman North Africa. On a second visit, once you have satiated yourself with the architectural mass of the city centre, a very full day can be spent admiring the myriad forms of carved lettering and walking out to the vast hulk of the Byzantine fortress.

Around Timgad there are three other memorable sites that might haunt the imagination of an impressionable young photographer. Medracen is a brood-sister of the Tomb of the Christian Woman, another vast circular mausoleum raised to the honour of an ancient but long-forgotten line of Berber Kings. Lambaesis is a rich but confusing place. The central piazza of the 19-th century town is an open-air museum of classical carving. There are also the slightly reclusive excavations into the Roman civil town, including a processional way to an Aesclupian healing shrine. And there is the world-famous Praesidium, a majestic hallway composed of four triumphal arches, which stands in the middle of the low walls of the excavated Legionnary barracks. But ultimately my money is on somewhere like Zana (ancient Diana Veteranorum) one of those broody, unexcavated sites, just a pair of intact arches and a temple platform rising above a ruin-field of stone.

Where else could Chatwin have taken the young Don McCullin. Outside the gorge-protected natural fortress of the city of Constantine, there is Tiddis, a Romano-Berber village draped over a hillside complete with a tiny Forum, a mithreum and a hilltop sanctuary to Baal. On the edge of the settlement, alone in a great field of barley, stands the circular tomb to a local boy made good, one Quintus Lollius Urbicus who conquered Scotland for his Emperor.

Then we know they spent time at Setif, which like Guelma is a much fought over site, with the ruins of a Roman city turned into a Byzantine fortress that would later be occupied by the French army. On my last visit a parcel of young boys were making music from home-made drums just beside the villa where the triumph of Bacchus mosaic was recently discovered. An hour’s drive from Setif, nestling into the foothills of the Kabyle mountains is Djemila, the most beautiful ruined city in Algeria. It is of the same age, scope and richness as Timgad but instead of a neat, checker-board street design, it is draped over a ridge, so that the Church complex (with its restored baptistery complex), the magnificent Severan forum, the fountain-filled piazza, the triunmphal arches and market-place create an intense dreamscape of stone. The museum is richer than that of Algiers and includes a fascinating series of mosaics depicting Dionysiac-rituals.

On our last trip together in Algeria, Don and I spent a whole morning at Algiers’ brand new travel fair. We were looking for old desert guides who might have taken visitors to fragments of the limes, the old Roman frontier that stretched deep into the Sahara. This was never a complete structure, like Hadrian’s Wall, but a series of watch-towers and dyke-like ditches that were as much about collecting tithes from the nomadic herdsmen and customs from the desert merchants as a system of defence. No-one at the fair could tell us what was left of the Castellum Dimmidi at Messaad and fortunately Wikipedia also looked rather weak on the subject. We looked at each other and agreed that this was “Just the sort of thing that needs to be looked for on the ground” the glint of far-off travels in our eyes.

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