In pursuit of Rome's Saharan frontier
Sunday Telegraph, October 2002
It was dark and bitterly cold. Not for the first time I cursed myself for thinking of the Sahara as a place of perpetual heat and light. I decided to put on all five of my Gap linen shirts topped by my dressing gown - a Central Asian kaftan. Outside my tent the cold wind cut through the layers and summarily unwound my blue turban. As we sipped our pre-dawn coffee it was clear from the faces of my companions that I looked less the Nestorian merchant-prince and more like Dr Who.
The Roman ruins of North Africa and I have a curious affinity for one another. There is now hardly a wall, let alone a city, that I have not tracked down and admired. I was now in pursuit of a missing piece from this historical jigsaw.
Once you have survived the triple lurch of an ascending camel the riding is curiously meditative and sensual. You simply have to surrender to its swaying motion. Lumbering through the sand dunes I had to pinch myself to check that I was not dreaming. In less than an hour we would see dawn rise over Ksar Ghilane, one of the most isolated of the desert forts of the Roman Empire. This was my third attempt to reach it in under ten years, the first attempt foiled by a double puncture, the second by a sand-filled carburettor.
This was not the Tunisia of the holiday brochures. Not the Tunisia of white beach hotels with blue shutters, palm and olive-shaded swimming pools, the scent of jasmine and the gentle lapping of the Mediterranean sea. For Tunisia is much more than just a string of well organised beach resorts: it is also the land of lovelorn Dido and the scholar-mystic St Augustine. The Legion fort I was riding toward was an almost forgotten border-zone in the far south, unsung and virtually lost to history. It was a strange frontier, in scale somewhere between Hadrian's Wall and the Great Wall of China. It was ultimately to be breached not so much by man but by a mammal.
I couldn't yet make out any silhouette from out of the surrounding sand dunes. It was still too cold and exciting to talk, though the silence was filled by the terrible burbling, bath gurgling sounds of my bull camel, who was rolling his tongue out in preparation for the mating season. When he quietened, the camel-teer spoke passionately about his recent divorce, the likely cost of a wedding as well as politely putting himself forward for any further business. He struck a marvellously Janus-like figure: his button-down shell suit spoke of the influence of the industrial West, whilst his brown woolen kachaba with its tassels, hood and decorated sleeves cast the shadow of a medieval mendicant.
Having tracked down the Roman Saharan frontier elsewhere in Tunisia I wasn't expecting much. I vividly recal the time when I took a group of mosaic experts in search of the Tebaga gap. It took us a whole day to track down the long streak of sand that marched between the hills. This, ornamented with the foundations of one or two watch towers, was all that remained of a wall built from pounded clay and pebbles, in the manner of Wessex cobb. They were very sweet about it at the time but later grew mutinous at my offer of a banana in lieu of breakfast, lunch and tea. Only last year I had taken a painter friend to the site of Turris Tamalleni, the almost legendary Roman trading town on the far edge of the frontier. It was true that the ancient walls, the seven gates, temples and towers had all gone, but there was a wonderful display of Romano-Byzantine capitals in the courtyard of a mosque. I was quietly hoping that she might settle down and produce an epic canvas or two. She gave the stones a cursory glance and marched off to sketch a lorry in great detail.
This time I kept my silence. I was rewarded with a boy's own vision of a toy fort lit by the rising sun and embedded in sand dunes. As we rode closer it grew into a 100-metre square redoubt. To my excited mind it was as if the last detachment of the III Augusta Legion had just marched out through the still-complete entrance arch. Below the walls the burnt out turret of an armoured car suggested more recent events. Once on the parapet, it was also clear that the walls had been repaired and made ready for battle sometime this century. Clearly the ghosts of the Foreign Legion, and the desert tribes mingled with the Romans amongst these stones.
In plan it was all still unmistakably Roman. In from the arch stood the praetorium, the headquarters building, in which stood the sacellum, the shrine for the standards and the iron-bound treasury box filled with the soldiers' pay. In a neighbouring wall part of the sacellum's inscription, honouring Jove, the best and greatest of the gods, had been used as a lintel.
The western horizon was filled by dunes, for Ksar Ghilane stands on the edge of the Great Eastern Erg, one of the great sand deserts of the Sahara. It was not so much a frontier fortress as a Roman listening post, placed well forward of the network of walls, ditches, towers and fortified homesteads of the limitanei, the frontier militia. The job of this isolated garrison had been to watch over the free nomad tribes of the Sahara, to patrol their markets, wells and water holes. In this manner they could control the seasonal movement of the herds, who would be taxed when they crossed through the static frontier, to graze the corn fields after the harvest was safely in. It was also their job to keep an ear out for interruptions in trade or unexpected concentrations of the tribesmen which might warn of an intended raid from the desert.
To do such a job they must have been mounted but the position of the fort, an hours ride from the oasis palmery seemed bizarre. Fortunately our camel-teer was able to explain that bir kedima, the old well, was marked by the three scraggy thorn trees just downhill from the fort. Sometime this century, the oasis had moved south with the discovery of a more potent water source.
My bull camel started up again with another bout of his bizarre tongue-rolling ritual. It is the way camel's like to flirt. It was a poignant interruption. For this whole frontier system was to be outflanked by the sex life of the camel. For centuries the Arabian camel wouldn't do "it" here. They took a long time getting acclimatised to the North African Sahara but somewhere around the 5th century AD they changed their mind. The desert tribes, especially such early camel specialists as the Lawata, aquired a mobility, a freedom, speed and a range of operations that the horse-borne Romans couldn't match. To add insult to injury if the Romans did ever catch up with the camel borne tribes, they found that their horses were allergic to the smell and simply wouldn't charge. The future was with the camel and the tribes who controlled the desert trade routes. This was the route by which Islam, two centuries later, would triumph over Roman North Africa.
On our return the sun was up and the young men of the oasis were bathing in a pool in the sands filled by a natural and mineral rich hot-water spring. The rest of the day was spent in the luxury of the Pansea tent hotel: an exceptional environment of stretched linen and elegant dry stone walls complete with a Saharan watch-tower and palm-shaded pool. From a chair outside the domed bar I watched as one of the gardeners swept the sand paths with a broom made of palm branches, creating elegant swirling patterns that would soon be destroyed by footprints. My tent was a joy to behold with its killim bedhead, camp chairs and a black nomad carpet on the floor. The en suite bathroom and electric heater came as a complete shock. That night I was as snug as a bug. Who said the Sahara could be cold?
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by Barnaby Rogerson