Back to Timgad. None of yesterday’s excitement has actually dissipated as I walk through the entrance gate to site. I busy myself with acquainting myself with parts of the town that I did not visit yesterday. Overwhelming is the topography.
We, as a group, have all been staggered by the undulating topography of Timgad. As archaeologists, we have considered the town plan and aerial photographs of this site and as a group we are all fully aware of the site whose layout exemplifies the archetypal “playing card” town with its regular square blocks of buildings and street grid. What none of us, who had not previously visited the site, had anticipated was that the town was built on a slope which in turn incorporates at least two hills. Town plan drawings and aerial photographs have a habit of flattening reality into a comprehensible and readable singular plane. Never did I think there was anything like the dramatic contour lines onto which the town is surplanted. It may be a detail but it changes the experience, feel, and character of the town. Suddenly the town has vastly more personality than I thought it would have. Suddenly there are vistas across site that I didn’t think existed. Suddenly there is a wonder in terms of how the architecture of the city copes and overcomes the difference in height, sometimes within the space of a singular block of buildings. Suddenly everything is more interesting. and suddenly walking around the town is hugely more exhausting.
The theatre is nestled against a hill using the natural topography to support its bulk. Below is the forum which is not the prettiest I have ever seen but sits in a commanding position adhering to the text book example.
From the forum the Arch of Hadrian stands proud of the ruins and is the natural magnet of all visitors. But I avoid temptation and head for the southern end of town where the only tourists are members of my group exploring a bath house, their voices echoing from the underground rooms.
I head to the Capitolium temple and am immediately stunned by the scale of the architectural fragments. There is something quite humbling about standing next to a column capital only to find you are shorter than it (I should qualify that I am 1.72m high). The fluted column drums lie strewn around and these too make me feel Lilliputian in size. The sun bursts out and the shadows and colour of the stone pressed against the blue sky punctuated by white clouds is simply irresistible to the lens. Of course simultaneously, seemingly the population of Timgad’s visitors are also drawn to this precise spot and I stand at the ready to grab the break in the tourist flow before the break in the cloud snaps shut.
Lunch is taken at a local restaurant where a table of suitable proportions for our group is assembled in a matter of seconds and chairs appear from nowhere to accommodate us. The most divine bean stew is brought to the table and the ravenous party devours it in seconds; the only noise is the crunch of fresh crusty bread and a communal “mmmmm”.
After lunch I join a break away group and drive off to visit the Roman- Byzantine site Ksar Baghai. I admit at this stage I have not fully understood the plan for the afternoon. I am abandonning Timgad only because I know I have another full day on site tomorrow with 2 others while the rest of the group return to Constantine. We drive for over an hour, get lost in a small village, ask for directions, get a bigger police escort than before but who look awfully smart in green as opposed to blue, and navigate around pot- holed roads until we reach an area enclosed by a prison-like wall. This site must be spectacular to be protected by such a wall. A tanned, blue-eyed Berber opens the gate and reveals the site. Only that once the gate is drawn open all I can see is a field.
Now, I know I said that as a geophysicist I get excited about open fields but there are times and places and this was neither. Seriously. It then became clear that we were here to look at the surface scatter of pottery rather than walk through and admire the ruins, which was just as well since, apart from one column at the far end of the field, they were totally non-existent. In the end we kept ourselves entertained by unsystematically walking over the field hands clenched behind our backs, heads down, like a gentlemanly stroll along the promenade, in search of glazed pottery indicating later occupation of the town. We found some. In fact we found a lot and so those that had requested our eagle-eyed services were delighted. One research question duly answered. One of our party noted that we could be the only tourists to have visited this site. A simultaneous feeling of pride but a stronger feeling of “well, did you see it was just a field? Of course we are” filled the minds of my immediate company. The substantial wall, by the way, acts as a deterrent to looters.
Time to drive back to Timgad and pick up the remainder of our group.
Footnote: Since this day, my amazingly wonderful friend has accepted a (I thought I was joking) gauntlet that I threw down and recreated one of my photos in watercolour. I adore it. I adore the sentiment. I adore the person. Thank you.