Karl’s Chronicles. Article 32 The Roman Five
Tunisia’s history is as rich as it is varied. A heavy necklace of Muslim dynasties that shaped the land, under the command of outside forces, or like the Fatimids in Mahdia, exercised power over foreign nations—constructing mosques, theological schools, hammams and kasbahs. Cultural edifices that have remained operational, hardly changing in style from their original purpose. Supported and directed by the profound religious influence that Islam projects. Others, like the ksar (communal granaries) and the kala’a (hill fort), have long since fallen out of favour. Replaced by modern living and changing arms of mechanisation, left to the elements and the curious disturbance of visiting tourists.
Though the impact of Muslim conquerors lives on, brought into focus under the Muezzins call to prayer as the faithful fill the prayer halls and courtyards, constructed centuries past by their distant forefathers. We turn the dial back before the arrival of Islam through the Arab conquests, before the brief anarchy and religious persecution imposed by the Vandals and their fast defeat by General Belisarius at Carthage in 533AD. Both weakened by the insurgent Berber’s who consistently implemented aggressive strategies of non-compliance—assuring the Byzantines as much as the Vandals, that the indigenous people were not going to be subjugated to foreign rule. We arrive finally at the time of the Romans.
With the victory of the third Punic war finally sealing Phoenician defeat, the Romans sacked Carthage and formed their new territory over the Phoenician one, only re-designating Carthage in 44BC. The Romans had no plans for colonisation; the war only executed to protect routes along the Straits of Sicily. With the destruction of Carthage, the Romans inadvertently opened up a power void, necessitating the defeat of King Jugurtha. His original allegiance against the Phoenicians ended on Rome’s victory.
After the fall of Pompey at the Battle of Thapsus, Roman territory rapidly expanded, linking Hippo Regius in Algeria to Tripolitania in Libya. For the Romans, Africa stood as a considerably easier land to defend, requiring a fraction of the legions needed in France. To stave of periodic panic in Rome over grain shortages, the Romans invested substantial energy and knowledge improving Africa’s infrastructure. As Roman Africa’s population and prosperity increased, so did their demand for sophisticated cities, literally hundreds. All of them implementing a standard policy of presenting and fostering Roman values through Romanization.
Tunisia offers unbeatable opportunities for exploration, none other than her well preserved Roman ruins. I have listed five of the best, based on location, uniqueness, scope and beauty. You could spend weeks rambling around the forums and capitols, surveying the landscapes from an amphitheatres top row, questioning their gods and be hypnotised by the astounding quality of their mosaics.
Dougga. (UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997)
Deservedly seen as the most beautiful example of Roman planning and implementation anywhere in Africa, easily rivalling Libya’s Leptis Magna. Dougga’s striking favourability is its astounding location, high up in the valley with unhindered views across Oued Khaled, a montage of arable land and olive groves. Historians have questioned whether the origins of Dougga began with the Romans who typically preferred a more level playing field. King Massinissa, a Numidian had acquired considerable credit from Rome in the second century after providing support during the confrontation with the Phoenicians over Carthage. The Kings allegiance brought Dougga higher noticeability and successive prosperity by the second century, expanding to accommodate a population ten thousand strong. Under the reign of Augustus, Dougga’s status became complicated, included in the territory of a Roman colony but with the influence of a separate community of Roman colonists. The city ruled by two civic and institutional entities, incorporating their own magistrates, councils and local administrations. The Romanisation of the town brought the two communities together with the council making unified decisions. Dougga was soon granted Roman law under Marcus Aurelius with the magistrates instantly acquiring Roman citizenship, and its inhabitants accredited equal rights to Roman citizens.
Between the reigns of Diocletian (244-311AD) and Theodosius (379-392AD), the city reached its zenith, seen in the most ambitious monuments such as the large theatre and the temple of Tellus (though funds came from wealthy local donors). By the fourth century, Dougga fell into a period of stagnancy succeeded by an early decline. Several buildings were destroyed when the Byzantines took over, providing materials to construct a fort, located close to the forum.
Located at the southern end of the fertile Tell region, Roman Sufetula close to Sbeitla is known for its finest existing representation of its forum. Temples to Juno, Minerva, and Jupiter cleverly shadow its more confrontational history. Little has been recorded about the settlements rise and following prosperity garnered by the productive olive industry.
Founded during the decade long reign of Emperor Vespasian between 69-79AD. The site supports a landscape of Roman and Byzantine remains. The Triumphal arch on the cities southeast periphery honours the four emperors, known as a Tetrarchy, where government power was divided among four individuals, ruling independent sections of the empire. An adopted term in recording the system of government instituted by Emperor Diocletian, signifying the end of the crisis of the third century (civil wars) and a return to the Roman Empire.
Sufetula became the stage of a significant battle in 647AD, between the Arab forces of Egypt’s Rashidun Caliphate and the Byzantine Exarchate of Africa. The Arabs, in their advance west, had already seized Cyrenaica and Tripoli a few years before. Rome, already weakened by a rebellion initiated by Gregory the Patrician against Emperor Constans II support for Monothelitism. Giving way to deeper-seated issues conveyed in a Byzantine threat from the Muslim conquest of Egypt. Gregory’s death came at the hands of the Arabs at the battle of Sufetula who soon sacked the city and induced raids across the Exarchate. Failing to breach Byzantine fortifications, the Arabs agreed to depart in exchange for a tribute paid in gold. The rebellion and the Arab victory broke the supremacy of Byzantine rule in Africa, heralding the beginning of the end. With the Berber’s throwing in their allegiance, Carthage lost its grip on the majority of Tunisia.
Rarely visited due to its proximity to the Algerian border and exasperated by difficulties regarding accessibility. Haïdra, also known as Ammaedara displays a series of barely excavated, well-preserved monuments, ensuring this Roman outpost is one of Tunisia’s most rewarding. Haïdra’s strategic location projected similar responsibilities today, in an area that is still geographically sensitive. Built simply as a border post to strengthen Rome’s province of Byzacena under the military of The Third Augustan Legion. Haïdra gained credence as a critical defence, its size mushrooming, but following on from the Islamic conquest, it slipped back into its primary role. The Legion held some duty in the urbanisation of North Africa, constructing roads and bridges. The size and scope of Haïdra’s fort is testament to the scale of operations. Turning in the middle one notices the remarkably impressive level of craftsmanship. High, broad walls covering an enclosure several acres in size, intersected at the top right by the cardo (north-south) and decumanus (east-west) roads. For whoever passed through town would need to approach the fort. The Basilica of Melleus featuring columns in Chemtou marble is a further high-light, an astute partnership of artisan perfection towards religious design.
Much admired for their exquisite mosaics, the subterranean villas of Bulla Regia were a distinct but impressive peculiarity in Roman planning. Reasons for structuring below ground have remained unexplainable as the rock here was pliable enough to excavate. Typically, part of the villa reverberated across the ground floor with the dining room and bedrooms positioned underneath. The House of the Hunt contains a grand dining room with its mosaic still in place, while The House of Fishing even had an underground fountain -Roman ideas towards air-conditioning. Amphitrite, a sea goddess, is seen in an elaborate mosaic that covers the basement in The House of Amphitrite, while a second depicts Cupid riding a dolphin under the beauty of Venus.
Before Roman construction, the site had been home to both Berber and Punic settlements. Bulla became a free city under Julius Ceaser, a reward for Bulla’s loyalty (perhaps neutrality!) in the civil war. Like many Roman towns, it remained occupied during the Byzantine era until its abandonment from the 7th-century Arab conquests. Bulla Regia stayed preserved, thanks to drifting sands until its re-discovery in the early 20th century.
El Jem (UNESCO World Heritage Site -1979)
Incongruously rising above a neighbourhood of small houses, the formidable amphitheatre stands just as impressive as Rome’s Colosseum. The single most magnificent structure in all of Roman Africa, able to accommodate over 40,000 spectators, who travelled far to enjoy the games. As gladiators fought to the death, animals were presented to the baying crowds in cages, brought up by a series of ropes from rooms beneath the arena. Unleashed into the mayhem as entertainment in the empires macabre way of keeping its populations happy.
Constructed in the first half of the second century AD in Thysdrus, which formed part of Africa Proconsularis province, El Jem stands on the same site as two previous amphitheatres. During the middle ages, the population sought protection within El Jem from the Vandals in 430AD and the Arabs in 647AD, refiguring it as a fortress. By the turn of the 19th century, the arena was being used for the manufacture of saltpetre.
Bulla Regia can be reached on foot from the town of Jendouba, a pleasant three-kilometre walk. The entrance is noticeable on the left side of the road. El Jem and Sufetula are in town, a short walk from the hotels. Dougga can be visited either from Tunis or El Jem as a day trip. With the latter enjoying fantastic views, a relaxed pace of life and offering further excursions, it is a better place to base yourself. You can take a louage (yellow-banded minibus) from El Kef to El Krib, changing there for Nouvelle Dougga from where it’s possible to walk to the entrance or negotiate a taxi. Transport for El Krib also leaves from Teboursouk 7km to the north of Dougga, linked by a steep road. For Haïdra, your only options are to charter a taxi from Kalaat Khasbah 18km away or hitch-hike. Using the roundabout a kilometre out of town as a point to flag down passing transport. Returning from Haïdra, one can follow the road uphill to Thala and wait for a louage to leave.
Tunisia is blessed with many excellent museums; three come to mind that beautifully showcase the fascinating wealth of Roman Mosaics. The Bardo museum in Tunis is the best and worth visiting before and after your exploration of the Roman cities. The Archaeological Museum in El Jem and The Kasbah Museum in Sousse both present a beautiful collection on intact mosaics.