Tunisia, a richly historical land at present under-going a (one hopes, short) period of political instability, has seemingly almost built its services and infrastructure around the needs of the poor peregrinatic tourist, who does not have access to his or her own car. Up early, as Dawn’s rosy-fingers rub the sleep out of her eyes, and to the local louage station: a louage is a kind of shared inter-city taxi, subsidised by the government so surprisingly cheap and a comfortable way around which to travel. As each taxi-cab fills up, it leaves for its destination and the next one starts to take passengers. It is a brilliant way to get from A to B, or in this case our hotel to Hammermet to Teboursouk. Our journey is long but pleasant; so two louage later, a breakfast of bric and a short and cheap taxi ride to the gates of Dougga, one of the country’s six world heritage sites.
Dougga (or Thugga) is situated in the North-Western region of Tunisia, remote and mountainous terrain yet unexpectedly fertile and beautiful. The view looking across the rugged and craggy valleys is an abounding mixture of deep greens and rustic brown, small farmlands and plotted growths. There is a feeling of extraordinary isolation and protection from the mountains as if there is no life beyond the horizon‘s fortresses or it doesn‘t matter. It is remarkably quiet here under the soft, clouded blue sky. Still early, my companion and I are the only two visitors to wander the narrow streets.
The region had a complicated and extended relationship with the Roman world: the original town was part of the Berber kingdom of Numidia, which comprised of modern day Tunisia and Algeria, the rivalrous kingdom to the west of Carthage, first allies and then enemies in the Punic Wars. Under Jugurtha - that wily old foe - Numidia, split in two, found itself at war with Rome; it was later annexed as a province to become part of Africa Nova. While its fortunes ebbed and flowed under the imperial administration it remain a Roman vassal - more or less - until the 6th Century AD.
So Dougga is built on history, an old town whose streets were subjugated to the needs of planning and ideas of what made a Roman city and, as such, provides an interesting, prime example of Africo-Roman life and culture. Although important as an administration centre, the town probably had a population of around 100,000 (Not big: estimates of Rome‘s population start at half a million) and is dominated physically, architecturally and geographically, by the Capitol, which looms over the city’s lowlands. Head on the temple, dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, towers over one: there is something hard and calculatingly beautiful about the building and its presence. The pediment rests on six Corinthian columns so tall and seemingly feeble that you can almost hear them sigh beneath their burden. The pediment itself is amazingly well-preserved and it is still possible to see the depiction of Antoninus Pius’ apotheosis carried by eagle. At the heart of the city is the forum below, now just a scattered square of broken columns, left over the once marbled floors. On the western outskirts away from the cramped locale of houses that surrounds the forum is the Temple of Juno Caelestis. It is somehow more delicate than Capitol temple and heavily reconstructed; built in the mid-3rd century on a high podium with a crescent at the temenos as the heavenly goddess’ sanctuary.
The ‘big theatre’, built circa AD168 in a corner of the city by the pre-Roman wall thanks to the philanthropy of a wealthy citizen, is not in fact very big; it can probably seat between three and four thousand, by the standards of Athens not very large at all, but it is in impressive condition and is a fine example of a provincial Roman theatre built in the Greek form. The curious thing is that from the outside peering into the auditorium from the grass behind the skene, it is beautiful in that romantic sense one gets from ruins but not impressive: it is nineteen tiers in a semi-circle partially obscured by a forest of broken columns. But inside, sitting looking down at the orchestra, provides a panoramic view of the town and surrounding vista, provided by the lack of pediment on the skene‘s columns. In summer the theatre is once more artfully used for its original purpose for classical theatre at the festival of Dougga. To see a piece in an ancient theatre is an exciting experience by candlelight or the fading of the day in glorious purples and orange, and I can only partly imagine what it would be like here.
There are four baths - possibly all public - in the city; most impressive is the Antonian Baths from whose narrow arch one can see the Capitol temple. Its frigidarium is vast compared to the Baths of Cyclopes in the south east of the city and amazing for the simplicity and symmetry. So much of Dougga is 2nd or 3rd Century, built up around the city’s (one assumes) growing importance and prosperity, perhaps coinciding with and pursuant from Marcus Aurelius’ decision to grant the city Roman Law and its status as Roman colony in the reign of Gallienus but it remains founded in Augustan principles. The circus was originally a plain of grass but constructed
ad voluptatem populi in the 3rd century; little remains to be seen today but there are several mosaics of charioteers in the Bardo museum which are a testament to the fact that Dougga was a city of importance alongside, say, Carthage and Utica.
Like most ancient sites, the city has been plundered both legitimately and not; the Bardo Museum in Tunis houses most of the treasures, such as the six metre marble statue of Jupiter that once stood in his central niche in the Capitol temple. But to the sides of near every site of interest and street are inscriptions plaques, half broken and hard to decipher, that form the chaotic charm of the site. Occasional mosaics, damaged, provide that intimate detail that go beyond the splendour of columns and porticos.
Perhaps most remarkable is the 3rd century BC Lybico-Punic Mausoleum, almost phallic in its construct and isolation. Far from the central part of the city it can be easily missed but its soft-toned stone, decorated at the top with friezes of man and chariot horses, and exotic - non-Roman - pyramid roof have an unusual, if alien, grandeur. Heavy is the influence of Egypt here but also of Greece - the second tier of the building is decorated with columns: what can such a building say about a city and its culture? Alongside the old and roughly formed dolmens, it makes up part of the pre-Roman city upon which and around which the later was constructed.
At around eleven o’clock, maybe even as late as twelve, arrives a large coach of tourists. They clamber out of the bus and follow their guide marching around the narrow streets and houses. As my companion and I, finding a rare spot of shade from the noon-day sun, rest with our drinks and food we have brought from our hotel we watch the party attack each point. Its seems that before we have even finished our lunch and resumed our own exploration they have moved on. Soon the bus departs and we and the few others have reclaimed the city as our own. It is such a criminal waste to remain here for so short a time. All ancient life is here: from the dedication of temples and arches, religious and political, in the mid-period of the empire to plain cisterns and aqueducts of daily life and necessity. For me, I am as ever awed to be in an ancient presence that makes me want to understand more of fabric of ancient life that is not told in the histories of Tacitus or the palace gossip of Suetonius‘ biographies. There are books, of course, but these are so distant compared with the reality. Each brick is part of that story and to be physically surrounded by it makes me strangely yearn for a more ordinary but perhaps more intriguing history. But tempus fugit and before the light is lost to dusk we have to rush to catch our ride back to the modern city of cars, pollution and noise, away from all this and say goodbye.