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Taking Pleasure in Ruins
The Oldie, January 2015


I have spent two thirds of my life questing after ruins, and particularly those of North Africa: so that Betjeman’s phrase, randy for antique, seems apposite. We are told that passion ebbs with age, but as in other areas I’ve not always found this to be the case. For each different archaeological site feeds into a better understanding of the others, to build up comparisons and ever more ambitious castles in the air.

At Timgad, a veteran’s colony of the III Augusta Legion founded in 100 AD deep in southern Numidia, everything is coloured with the golden glow of ancient sun-baked limestone. Life amongst these ruins is described by an astonishing quantity of inscriptions, some carved as formal as an altar, other scripts seemingly on the point of inventing Carolingian minuscule. It is as if the breath of God has blown away the covering of three feet of windblown sand that settled on the place for some 1,100 years, revealing it new born. The local Berber tribes had had to put up with armies of Vandals and then a century of ambitious Byzantine campaigns of reconquest, restoration and revival, and by the 7th century the Arab armies were on their way. So they decided that they would be better off, all scattered about the mountains in rural poverty than sitting together in urbane magnificence, so they trashed the place. If you have the energy to totter to the southern edge of the site, towards a belt of pine trees growing over a Christian cemetery, you can begin to understand their decision. For here stands a vast rectangular Byzantine fortress, quarried from out of their town theatre and their forum and thrown quickly together, like an infant with a bag of wooden bricks. Inside, preserved from the assaults of time, is the remains of a sacred sanctuary to the spring, built in the time of the Emperor Septimius Severus. Elsewhere scattered around the town are the ruins of fourteen separate bath complexes, one of which had a mosaic of a dark man with a twinkle in his eye and a vast dribbling cock. Clearly the pleasures of the bath house have always meant different things to different customers, then as now.

In Morocco I first fell in love with the Roman ruins of Volubilis as a teenager. I remember seeing rusty rail tracks and old mine trolleys dating back to the time when German POW’s were employed clearing the site of its medieval layers. But as a youth I was fascinated with the walls and the ring of forts (on the visible horizon) that protected the Roman city. Excavations into the vast but bleak governor’s palace identified a series of altars confirming ‘a federated and lasting peace’ with the powerful Baquates tribe. Then the series of altars and the peace stop. The bursting of the frontiers in 280 AD had an unexpected fringe benefit for the modern traveller. To protect them, a cache of exquisite bronzes were buried beneath the floor of a villa, which is how the beautiful tragic portrait head of King Juba II, descended from the Kings of Numidia, Mark Antony and the Ptolemaic Pharaohs of Egypt – survives to greet us in the Rabat museum. I once led a very keen group ( a dedicated Andante Roman Morocco tour) to stomp around ploughed fields until we had discovered the fossa-ditch of one of the frontier forts. It was almost dusk by the time we had made a certain identification, but then we were rewarded with mint tea by some hospitable villagers. I am used to being offering fake antiquities for sale, so was not too surprised when something was proffered in brown paper. It turned out to be a beautiful chipped statuette of Hercules plough up that day.

Tipasa is just one of the many Roman port-cities that studded the coast of North Africa, but if you look deep into their stratigraphy they all started life as harbours of the Phoenician traders about three thousand years ago. The prevailing winds took these enterprising merchants of Lebanon north on their westward journey, brushing past the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Ibiza, but on their way back home they had to hug the North African shore. So every twenty miles or so, they established a safe landing place, where there was fresh water, a harbour and friendly natives. And it is the local Berber word for ‘ headland’ by which Tipasa is still known. This only makes sense if you are coming from the west and having safely passed the last of the cliff faces of Jebel Chenoua make this welcome anchorage. Tombs, punic, pagan and Christian cluster in their thousands outside the city walls, the poor being buried beneath a spine of roof tiles, the rich in sarcophagi placed inside monumental mausolea. The early Christians cluster around the tomb of martyr-saints like iron filings drawn to a spiritual magnet, such as bishop Alexander and St Salsa. Thickets of shrub help keep this necropoleis mysterious and alive with picnicers and courting couples. It was this insistent combination of death and sensuality that drew Albert Camus back to Tipasa again and again – alongside the excellent fish restaurants, the sea swimming and a beach big enough to host several football games. His love for the place is commemorated by a stone which proclaims ‘Here I first understood true glory – the right to love beyond measure’. A local Berber carpenter has added his own tribute to the site by carving a cornucopia of heads and symbols onto some old tree trunks. Last week I was at last able to meet this self motivated artist, Djellaul Khalil, and tell him that his work had only one parallel in my mind, the mysterious wreathe of heads and animals carved into the living rock around an ancient spring in the Cyrenaican hills of eastern Libya. He looked genuinely thrilled, and I, for my part, felt that after forty years of finding pleasure from ruins was at last putting some of this knowledge to good work.

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