Today was devoted to Djemila. The name means ‘beautiful’ and the site did not disappoint. Set high in the hills on a dramatic sloping ridge it occupies a majestic location. Those of the group with specific study reasons to visit and myself who saw the sunshine, the orangey sandstone set against the blue sky and green backdrop and wanted to frame it through my lens, immediately wanted to be on site. We were however diverted into the museum which was amazing, don’t get me wrong, but it was just a shame to miss out on the best of the weather conditions by being indoors. But a kind invitation is a kind invitation and the museum was packed with glorious mosaics displayed on the walls side by side and top to tail over every inch of the wall just like the famous over-crowded, multi-tiered display in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Our group turned into the mosaic paparazzi and there was a throng of camera shutters opening and closing echoing throughout every room.
After a hearty lunch we headed to site. The entrance charge is minimal and brilliant for it. The grassy bank leading down to site was full of people playing football, having picnics and enjoying the view. If there is anything more pleasing than seeing a Nation embrace their heritage then let me know. The flip side to a purist (read fussy) photographer like me, and this is hugely selfish, is that waiting to frame a monument through my viewfinder that is free of humans is a lengthy process. Inevitably the sun dips behind a cloud at the critical point. But that is my problem.
We entered the main core of the town by the Severan Arch which leads into a large open space dominated on one side by a Temple dedicated to the Severan family. Winding down the ridge by way of the colonnaded street and it became a game of dashing ahead to capture the view empty of people. Issue here was that the group was playing the game and we were all speed walking to be the first to steal the classic and iconic views. Soon though, people became entranced in their field of study and we dispersed in smaller groups.
With a site of this magnitude it becomes overwhelming very quickly you have to accept that you won’t see everything and the pleasure comes from taking routes through the site dipping in and out of houses, public monuments and not having the sensation that you might be missing something behind each wall you pass (even if you are!)
We clamber up the site through some unkept ruins which are evocative for the very reason they are not completely excavated leaving the immagination to run wild as to what lies beneath.
At the crest of the hill lay the Byzantine churches reached by way of a processual route up a street sectioned off with what would have been a series of doors – as each one opened you could progress a few more more metres. Gladly one of the group reinacted the “shrvroom” sound of a door opening as we processed our way over the last lip of the hill to the baptistry.
We bump into our different groups at various points but we all reconvene at the coffee shop at the entrance. At this point it is a delight to hear how each group experienced the site, gleaned the information (or not) that they were seeking to find and all whilst supping on a much needed coffee.
We drive to Setif where we are priviledged that the archaeological museum has stayed open for us and we are treated to an intricate and richly coloured mosaic depicting the Triumph of Dionysus. It is the most fabulous 3rd century AD mosaic depicting the transport of wild animals from Africa. Replete with a giraffe, elephant, lion, camels and a mixture of natives and Romans the scene is spellbinding. For a moment the group is lost for words and then the excited chatter starts again.