As mentioned in the traveloguey post of our quick lap of the north-west of Tunisia, this region is chock-full of some of the best Roman sites in the country. We ended up taking in six of them – all very different, and all impressive in different ways.
We started off at Sbeitla, not far north of Gafsa. The site is right in the town, making it almost impossible to miss. As you approach the town on the main road – BAM! There it is, just behind a low fence to your left. Three huge and almost complete temples, forming the Capitol of the ancient town, surrounded by a whole raft of other ruins.
It’s the Capitol – the large temple complex at one end of the forum, one of the focal points of the Roman city itself, which is Sbeitla’s real tour-de-force, but there’s other highlights, too.
Apart from a better-than-average selection of intact mosiacs including a baptistry font almost as good as that in the Bardo, there’s an olive-oil press almost identical to some of the much later ones we’d seen around the south of the country, a theatre overlooking a river gorge down one edge of the site, and an impressive triumphal arch. The triumphal arch gives a fine example of Sbeitla’s biggest down-side, too. Being slap-bang in the reality of the modern town, it’s very difficult to get your head into the site properly – you just can’t disassociate yourself from the 21st century sufficiently. From the site itself, you just can’t even get a half-way decent pic of the arch, since there’s a brightly coloured petrol station forecourt right behind it…
That’s not a mutter that you could level at Haidra, way up in the hills right on the Algerian border.
The site does indeed sit on the edge of the modern town, but it doesn’t feel in any way overshadowed by it. That’s probably because there’s virtually nothing to the modern village, with the really rather wonderful (but dilapidated and disused) French colonial railway station about the only visible building.
There’s another triumphal arch, in an amazing state of preservation, thanks to the Byzantines. Back in the 6th century, when Tunisia was an outpost of their empire, after the post-Roman Germanics of various descriptions and before the Arabs, they protected several of the main Roman relics by encasing them in thick stone walls. Nobody really seems to know why, but it was definitely a good thing to do.
The Byzantine walls have mostly been removed, leaving the Roman buildings inside crisply visible, without having been affected by much of the erosion of the centuries. Impressive though the arch here was, though, it was knocked into the shadows by the ruins of the nearby fort, climbing up the hillside from the river gorge below.
It’s difficult to find a suitable superlative to describe the size of the fort – it’s about 100 metres wide, and twice that long. In places the surviving walls are ten metres high and, although the fort is mostly empty, there are a couple of impressive chapels nestling against the perimeter. As you walk along the river walls, outside, the stub of a road bridge juts out above your head – ground level inside. There’s other buildings dotted around the site, including a couple of mausoleums and various “buildings with troughs” (purpose utterly unknown, but they had plenty of stone troughs, several of which had weathered and eroded into the most gorgeous shapes), making for a very pleasant wander around fields, with some great views around.
Makthar presented another approach to the relationship between modern town and ruins – we couldn’t actually find the ruins at first… Even asking locals for directions proved fruitless. Did they even exist? Yes, they did – we found them unsigned behind the museum, skulking in the shadows on one edge of town. The site’s reputed to have fantastic views – to be honest, we were a bit disappointed, especially after Haidra. It’s not that it’s bad, but it’s just not as good as it could be – it’s high up in the mountains, but the vistas from the site are surprisingly modest, given some of the roads we went over on the way to and from it. The amphitheatre was a small one, but if you’d just tripped over it without any context, you’d have thought it a much more recent Spanish bullring or similar. The forum has another well-preserved triumphal arch at one end, and there’s an impressive set of baths just down the hillside. Probably our favourite corner of the site was a couple of small buildings thought to have been used as the base for a sort of paramilitary youth group. Together with the “quadrilobe” next to it, this “scola” was complete enough that you could really identify with the structures, yet just decrepit enough that they felt properly ancient.
Hidden in a quiet, tree-shaded glade, they could easily have passed for a Victorian folly in the grounds of a National Trust property somewhere in the UK. The skies certainly fit that impression, with a solid covering of leaden cloud approaching so rapidly that we were certain we’d be drenched before we’d finished – fortunately, we weren’t.
Dougga’s one of the big names of Tunisia, and has another superb location to go with it, draped across a hillside with truly panoramic views.
As such, though, it’s firmly on the daytrip circuit – with the ubiquitous coach parties being dragged around for twenty minutes, never straying far from their guide before being shoved back on for the return trip to the Zone Touristique by the beach – this time, Monastir and Sousse. Dougga really felt like a city, probably more so than any of the sites since Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Separated by the baths complex from the forum and Capitol temple, there’s a residential area with identifiable houses crammed in cheek-by-jowl, several with multiple stories still existing.
One of them is alleged to have been a house of ill-repute, complete with a large stone phallus outside the door – but this was felt a little graphic for early tourist sensibilities, and removed to a less prominent position on the site. The theatre loomed over the site from above, with tiers of seating curling round the hill behind. Below, a wonderful mausoleum predated the Romans, dating back to their Lybico-Punic predecessors.
Almost every big Roman site, anywhere around the world, will have had bits of Chemtou marble used for the statuary, columns or cladding of some of the most impressive buildings. The most fashionable and expensive of marbles for centuries, the colourful yellow-based stone was one of the Imperial favourites. The quarries where tens of thousands of slaves and prisoners carved it out of the hills south of Ain Draham still sit as raw scars, not dissimilar to a smaller-scale version of the Medulas in Spain. They’re not something you’d go a long way out of your way for, though, if it wasn’t for the museum that sits next to the site. Quite probably the most impressive we’ve seen in the country, it’s definitely the most “European” – probably something to do with a good chunk of the money and expertise for it coming from Germany – a real contrast to most of the ill-labelled semi-random collections of stuff that mostly pass for museums. Once the stone was quarried, it would have had a real trial of a trip, initially by river all the way to the east coast, later by road across the mountains to Tabarka on the north. The bridge built for the journey north lies in pieces in the river – huge chunks of arch showing the scale of what would have been there originally.
Nearby was the final site – Bulla Regia. Probably the most unusual of them all, it’s thought to have been unique in the Roman world, with the biggest and poshest villas being largely built underground. They weren’t quite like the pit houses of Matmata, though – they were more like big multi-roomed cellars, very similar to typical Roman houses, just with a first-floor ground level outside… Some of the houses still boast some of the lushest mosaics not to have been removed to museums.
A definite Romaned-out feeling had started to settle upon us as we wandered around, not helped by the first of the main underground houses being closed for restoration work – but going down the steps into the House of the Hunt really knocked us back out of it and into proper appreciativeness again. Even better, though, was the House of Amphitrite, a Roman sea-goddess. The mosaic flooring really was utterly spectacular.
Half-a-dozen very different sites, all crammed into a relatively small region. I’m not sure that there was any one that we’d have cheerfully missed out, but Makthar probably came closest, with Sbeitla only really saved by the sheer wow-factor of the Capitol. We had nearly missed out Haidra, though – quite a chunk of a detour, not on the best of roads – but it turned out to be probably our favourite of them all. None were anything approaching busy – Dougga was the only one where we even saw more than one or two other foreign visitors. It didn’t stop Sbeitla harbouring a few touts, though – their patter was so predictable – first some coins, then a carved stone head, finally some ceramic oil lanterns – that we managed to discombobulate the last couple – whether they thought we were psychic, I’m not sure, but they really didn’t seem to be expecting us to know what they were about to offer…