The day started a little earlier than scheduled by the call to prayer bellowing out of the minaret which so happened to be at the foot of my bed. Well, it sounded like it was but it was right next to the hotel. I readily admit that I am no connoisseur of the call to prayer but if I had to judge this particular call I would return the verdict that it was clear, unruffled and evidently broadcast from a recently purchased sound system rather than a relic from the 80s. This all meant that although it was ridiculously loud it sounded rather beckoning which indeed is the point. Most of my other experiences have been a little of the grinding noise of static with a rumble of a murmured voice.
We drove from Setif to look at an open grassy field. Archaeologists are a strange breed and archaeological geophysicists, of which I am one, even stranger in that this nondescript location was hugely exciting. Fragments of Roman pottery and the odd later piece littered the ground and yet no real evidence at ground level of a settlement, other than a few humps and bumps. Satellite images, by contrast, trace the walls of the settlement which covers about 60 hectares. That’s big by the way. Very big. If you consider that a football pitch is roughly 1 hectare that should put it neatly into perspective. But at the same time, arm a team with geophysical instruments and the likelihood of retrieving a complete town plan in a matter of weeks is pretty high. That was a shameless plug for my work by the way. That is why open, flat fields excite the likes of me. No less exciting is being herded out of the field by armed policemen just as one of my companions decides she needs a human wall while she relieves herself in a stealth-like manner. Living on the edge, us.
A stop for a much needed coffee, distinctly the best coffee we have tasted on this trip, comes further down the road. Lunch is bought and one of the group discovers there is an under the counter racket of a type of baklava (sweet ,sweet cake for the uninitiated). I have never seen the faces of people change quite so fast into smiles between mouthfuls. Caffeined and sugared up we reboard the bus and continue our journey south.
We stop for lunch at a Numidian tomb for a king. It’s enormous and was spotted on the skyline from miles away by our party. No coincidence that it sits on a saddle of land visible all along the valley. It is reminiscent of an Etruscan tomb but a lunchtime discussion after devouring some intensely wonderful food, quickly reveals that it was most likely an imitation of the tomb of Alexander the Great. But since we are not entirely sure what that looked like we are, as someone pointed out, amidst a circular argument. It is round and not too dissimilar to a muffin in form (it was pre-lunch hunger that led me to this analogy). A drum base with a beautifully constructed conical dome.
Back in the bus talk is rampant with expectation for our next stop Timgad.
I have honestly waited more than 20 years to see Timgad. Ever since a first year undergraduate lecture at University on Roman urbanism and a rather yellowed slide of the site slid into view after a whirr and a click of a slide carousel. Since that day when I marvelled at the sheer scale and precise layout of the town with its neat roads, insula blocks and child-like design of a Roman city I have wanted to set foot in it. Algeria was never topped the tourist destination list and certainly in recent history it was the place to avoid so Timgad alluded me. But here I was sitting on a bus rattling my way south seeing signposts to Timgad counting down the kilometres to our destination. Excited? And how.
We caught a glimpse from afar and the layout of the rectangular shaped town divided equally into little islands of buildings by a criss-cross network of roads looked simply spectacular. Walking into the site was pretty awe inspiring as it rises up in front of you and the sheer density of the remains is breathtaking. And all this coming from someone who has spent years working in Pompeii. It takes something quite special, and emotion helps at this point, to stun me. Timgad is stunning.
I break from the group to catch the dying light on site and am not quite sure where to point my camera first. I head to the highest point to survey the town from a vantage point and to simply get an idea of the scale of the town. Jaw droppingly impressive from up high. It just goes on as far as the eye can see and everywhere there are columns jutting out of the otherwise low residential quarters.
The eye is drawn to the spectacular Hadrianic Arch that announces to the arrivals from the west that you are entering the core of the town. It is constructed from a beautiful orange stone and this far south the land is a dusty brown colour as opposed to the lush green environment in the north. But no less majestically, it rises out of the ground and is framed by colonnaded roads. Again the site is scattered with locals wearing bright clothes which is fabulous until I point a camera at something and seemingly the entire visitor population seems to descend on that spot. Patience is a virtue. This time I give in and snap away happily. Safe in the knowledge we will return to the site the next day I take a casual walk to the extreme west gate and since there are no major monuments here I only share the walk in the company of darting lizards. From the west gate it is the magic of turning round and looking back up towards the town, the Hadrianic Arch now inviting and drawing you back to the town. I still cannot believe I am here.
I do get drawn back up the colonnaded street and make my way to the temple but not before I have been asked to have my photo taken by a young family. The irony is not lost on me – there I am trying to avoid people in my photographs and suddenly I am being asked to feature in theirs.
The group meets up by the museum which has been famously closed for an age. But the doors swing open for us (“shrvoom”) and the the incredible mosaics found on site dazzle us. Room after room, wall after wall are covered with stunning mosaics. Each mosaic has a million details you want to capture. Each expression of the faces, each animal depicted, each intricate design, each representation of a familiar food. The eye nor the camera can capture them all.
Back to a hotel in Batna which thankfully does not smell of roast chicken nor bad drains. I have and will spare details but suffice to say this is a great hotel room.