Tag Archives: Timgad

Algeria: Day 8 Lambaesis, Timgad

The trick in the hotel in order to assure a bright start to the day is to avoid the brown water in the coffee flask provided and order a real and strong coffee at the bar for the princely sum of 30p. Day 8 of our adventure requires me to do this more than on any other day for 2 reasons the first is sheer tiredness, the second is that I am being commandeered to do some fieldwork today and I need to be awake.

Detail of a relief on the 'Praetorium' Detail of a relief on the ‘Praetorium’

Before the research begins we stop off at Lambaesis. Until recently I had not heard of this site but after attending a few lectures in Rome given by Prof David Mattingly I soon understood this to be the hub of urban centres in the fringes of the Roman Empire. I am glad he assured me of that since the site does not wield this sensation at all. It possesses nothing of the charm and character of Timgad and the remains left one devoid of any emotion at all. The site is now overshadowed by the local, but nevertheless substantial, prison. We were then given strict instructions that no photograph could include the prison. Just as well it was a grey day otherwise its best angle would have undoubtedly featured the prison in all its glory serving as the backdrop. Cue one collection of rather drab photos of a so-called “praetorium” – a large boulder of a building squatting on site.

So-called 'Praetorium at Lambaesis So-called ‘Praetorium at Lambaesis

We pay a quick visit to the tiny dusty museum and inside we are met by mosaics, statues and finds from the site. Outside in the garden are inscription after inscription, funerary monument and after funerary monument. It is a little like a showroom of Roman carving and inscribing techniques.

Detail of a mosaic Detail of a mosaic
Bunting Algerian style Bunting Algerian style

And, if for any reason we have a bunting crisis and we find ourselves with a bunting deficit, I am going to Algeria to cash in. The Algerians love bunting and pop it up absolutely everywhere. I love bunting too although I am not entirely sure why a series of small bits of paper or material hanging at regular intervals from a length of string makes me smile and feel good quite the way it does, but it does. I love the Algerians for their shared love of bunting.

The team splits in two for the day. I and my two favourite Pompeiian archaeologists head to Timgad in a car and the others head back to Constantine via various sites along the way. And so the research began. I had the task of recording the presence of troughs called “auge” in all the buildings in the northern half of the town. Armed with an iPad with a database and map installed I began the dizzy task of circling each insula block peering in each room like a nosy neighbour. A systematic approach is obviously the only way to do something like this but it is surprising how disorienting it is circling vaguely identical blocks of houses and knowing where you have been.

Beautiful but inaccurate plan of Timgad Beautiful but inaccurate plan of Timgad

Slow start as I acquainted myself with the program. It is also nerve-wracking to collect data for someone else as you are more than aware that they will have their methods and their needs that you can only hope to emulate. I can say with absolute certainty that I saw half of the town at a level of detail that most visitors do not engage. It felt absolutely great and a huge priviledge to be helping the research and doing fieldwork on this site for these particular project directors. I know I may sound a bit gushy but really, when you respect a person as much as I admire and respect these two people there is little in ones career that trumps just being a part of what they do.

The day passed really quickly and there was somewhat of a race to the finish line in order to complete the site record. It had been grey all day and it had even rained and yet there was this quite magical moment when I had just finished and was heading up the steps to the forum to meet the others when the clouds moved an inch and let the low sun flood its evening orangey glow across site. I watched as the light moved across the ruins like a floodlight revealing the textures and shapes of the urban fabric which until now had been flattened by the overcast weather. It really was astonishing.

View down the Cardo Maximus as the sun broke through View down the Cardo Maximus as the sun broke through
Evening light with theatre in the background Evening light with theatre in the background

I ran to the Hadrianic Arch. It was late and all but a handful of visitors were left on site. I met up with one of the boys and we sat on the temple steps just outside the city with our backs to the sun, gazing across site over the Arch which was bathed in this glorious warm light. This was it. This was the moment of the entire trip for me. I knew it as it was happening too which just added to its poignancy. I reached into my bag and grabbed for a chocolate bar a friend had given me in the UK weeks before. I snapped it into pieces and shared it. A day of non-stop racing around town deserved a moment like this with an absolutely incredible and breathtaking view accompanied by the sweet taste of chocolate. The third member of the team arrived, ate the chocolate I had saved, and we took some photos with us and the arch (although the result was that our heads in the self portrait blocked out the arch but we know it’s there!) This was a powerful nugget of time spent at a site that had just delivered more than I had ever imagined, even after a 20 year wait, with two friends who delighted in this moment just as much as me and after a day of fieldwork. What a reward.

The Severan Arch bathed in evening light The Severan Arch bathed in evening light

We then raced through town to meet our infinitely patient driver and headed for Constantine. Goodbye Timgad. It has been a pleasure. And I am delighted to note that someone has managed to capture the true essence of the Trajanic Arch in the medium of ceramic. My only regret, and it is probably greater than you would expect. is that i didn’t boost the local economy by purchasing one. By the time we left the vendors had shut up their stall. I will simply have to come back one day.

Timgad tat Timgad tat

The journey to Constantine was not without incident. We were subjected to Western 80’s dance music – the driver did not look like he would be a fan of this type of music but looks can be deceptive. In this case, truly deceptive. At one point we spot what looks to be a horse galloping and spinning out of control across a field, the rider, dressed in traditional costume, evidently having no success in reining in the animal he was astride. This was entertaining by itself but only got more comedic as the horse and rider then joined the stream of traffic on the road. Weaving between the thankfully almost stationary lorries and cars the horse still appeared to have the upper hand in the ‘who was in charge’ stakes. Not sure whose decision it was, my money was still on the horse, but the pair mounted the verge on the side of the road and then careered down the narrow path without much attention to the pedestrians only to disappear from view. As we rounded the next corner all became clear – there was some sort of local fair in town and the horse and rider obviously belonged to one of the tents that had been temporarily erected for the occasion. What was never resolved was whether it was a stunt or a genuine runaway moment. My money is on the latter.

We met up with the others in Constantine, at the Hotel Cirta which had begun to feel a little like home, or at least the closest you can get to when you are on the road, since we had spent the most nights here. One of the team had thoughtfully brought a cake from Italy and so we tucked in after dinner to celebrate Easter and to toast our last meal as a group. The next day would see the beginning of the teams’ departures.

Algeria: Day 7 Timgad

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.

View across the forum View across the forum

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.

View up to the Severan Arch with theatre in the background View up to the Severan Arch with theatre in the background

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.

Theatre Theatre

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.

The Capitolium The Capitolium

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.

Field with column Field with column

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.

Watercolour of Timgad Capitolium Watercolour of Timgad Capitolium

Algeria: Day 6 Timgad

Mosque at the foot of my bed, Setif Mosque at the foot of my bed, Setif

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.

Numidian King's tomb Numidian King’s tomb

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 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.

View across Timgad View across Timgad

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.

Severan Arch Severan Arch

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.

View from the West gate with the Decumanus Maximus winding up the hill View from the West gate with the Decumanus Maximus winding up the hill

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.

Detail of a mosaic Detail of a mosaic
Flip-flop advertising mosaic Flip-flop advertising mosaic

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.