Friday, 23 January 2015

Tunisia’s Unknown Roman Ruins

For most travellers, Tunisia signifies one thing; a sun, sea and sand getaway, where the fish is fresh and the sea breeze even fresher. Few realise that behind the pretty packaging of the balmy blue med lies a country awash with ruins from a non-associated land, and that Tunisia’s landscape is littered with remnants of Roman rule.

The conquerors first landed on African soil around 149BC, demolishing and destroying areas of Tunisia before rebuilding it in their own style. Grand ancient amphitheatres, baths, Roman villas and temples are dotted all over Tunis and the surrounding countryside, reminding travellers that there’s more to this country than what the tourist touts suggest.

El Jem
As Roman amphitheatres go, El Jem – the third largest amphitheatre to have existed during the Roman Empire – is spectacular. Thankfully, the remaining architecture has suffered the test of time well; large sections of the elliptical stone walls and tiered seats are still fully standing. The theatre would have hosted gladiator shows and chariot races, seating a whopping 43,000 spectators (which, compared to London’s O2 arena which seats a mere 20,000, is pretty impressive). Visitors can reach El Jem, which is south of Sousse, easily by train.

Carthage is the most well-known site of Roman ruins in Tunisia, and thus the place you are most likely to have to vie for photo space with other historically-inclined tourists. The city of Carthage, once only second to Rome in its grandeur, now hosts ancient ruins such as the Antonine Baths and roman villas dating back to the 4th century. It’s smaller than most expect, bearing tribute to the extent of destruction in 698AD, but with the sea view in the background it’s certainly worthy of a day trip.

Sousse – mosaics museum
In the coastal town of Sousse, in the heart of the medina (or ‘old town’ – which is certainly worth a visit in itself) you can find Tunisia’s best collection of roman mosaics – all of which have been taken from excavated sites around the country. Entry is cheap at just 9 dinar, and the cool, welcoming underground vaults and courtyard of the museum provide a nice respite from the heat.

Most of the mosaics are incredibly well preserved – but make a special effort to check out the Triumph of Neptune and the mosaic of Medusa.

The UNESCO site at Dougga warrants many more visitors than it currently receives, meaning now is the time to go if you want to wander freely amongst the well-preserved temples of this once prosperous town. It’s set out into the countryside, in the North West of the country, and is thought to have been founding during the reign of the great Julius Caesar.

The most impressive site, however, is the Capitol, built in tribute to the gods Juno, Minerva and Jupiter. The roof and columns are still standing strong, and it’s quite a marvel to see these unexpected Roman ruin in amidst an area of Tunisian farmland.

More pictures of the archaeological sites in Dougga can be seen here.

The temples at Musti have suffered over the centuries, but it’s still easy to make out the remains of the Temple of Ceres, Pluto and Apollo. This area once played host to a large farming population, and continues to be farmed today, in and around the ruins. They worshipped Ceres as the god of agriculture, and Pluto as the god of seeds (rather than the underworld as is sometimes the case). The temple dedicated to the former is in much better condition, though the walls and roof have suffered slightly. More information of what remains can be seen here.

Bulla Regia
This part of the country was brought into Rome’s empire in 1st century AD, and quickly became an area of prosperity, as is evident from the wealthy residential areas whose remains are still observable today. The Worlds Monument Fund has done great work to preserve what is left of this archaeological site; the homes, bath of Julia Memmia and latrines. For those wanting an insight into Roman life in Africa, this is one of the better and more informative spots to visit.

Have you ever spotted any unexpected remnants of the Roman Empire while you were In Tunisia? Let us know!

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