Algeria’s Timgad Roman ruins: A “Numidian Pompeii”

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The Timgad archaeological site spreads its sumptuous ruins across the Aurès mountains. Listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, the ancient Roman city, built in the second century, has become a rendezvous point for history enthusiasts.

Standing at an altitude of 1070 metres on the northern slope of the Aures Mountains in south-east Batna, Timgad, the archaeological site of the ancient Roman city, spreads its well preserved ruins across the horizon. Some call it the “Numidian Pompeii”. Besides a seventh century Basilica, all of its ruins date from the second century. Excavations, which began between 1881-1959, has since unearthed the remains of a triumphal arch, the Arch of Trajan, a forum, a library, baths and many private homes – all built with the same dimensions.

Ageless Graffiti

A Latin inscription, with a typographical error, chiseled into the stone steps surrounding the Forum square reads: “To hunt, bathe, play [games or gambling?], laugh. That is life!”. Although the flagrant Latin mistake tends to amuse a few scholars, the light it sheds into the romantic life or aspirations of its happy-go-lucky author is much too alluring.

A marble ball game is also set in stone. The area was probably a playground for the city’s youth. A bit further down the street stands a once busy open-air market which, despite its once a week open market-day, also has fixed shops: probably very well stocked small shops and stalls. The signs on the shops give a wealth of information about their long dead owners. Vine branches in bas-relief above the main entrance door of a shop, for example, means it is the local bar or drinking establishment. There are other signs: fig, wheat, melons, cabbage, grapes, among many others.

14 Spas for 20,000 inhabitants

The military barracks, built on a Roman road and established by the Roman Emperor Trajan in 100 AD, is a perfect example of urban planning at the height of the Roman civilization. Ostensibly displaying the Roman grid plan, it has a square enclosure, an orthogonal design and two perpendicular routes running through the city.

It has two cemeteries (north and south), public latrines, sewers and a water supply system built of baked clay pipes. Running water was already present in the third century when the city had only 20,000 inhabitants. There are 14 spas. One of its main relaxation centres has a solarium, a gym room and a cloakroom.

The ancient Romans were fond of steam baths and loved to while away their time in saunas. This would be followed by a cold water bath before a soothing massage with aromatic olive oil (lavender or rosemary, or perhaps both). The elegant mosaic floors of the bathhouses, discovered in mint condition, are on display in the museum at the site’s entrance.

World Heritage

Along the alley leading to the Arch of Trajan, the deep tracks in the paved lanes bear testimony to the passage of powerful carts that once animated them, just like in Pompeii. After five centuries of commercial traffic – to Mauritania, Tunisia, or Constantine, further north – the city declined along with the rest of the Roman Empire after suffering invasions by Vandals and Byzantines.

Though it was classed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1982, Timgad is far from having revealed the last of its archaeological treasures. There are still a number of quarters that remain to be dug, especially the areas surrounding its western arch.

Today, the modern buildings to the east of the ruins of this once influential city bristle with satellite dishes.

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