Lonely Planet review
Nothing in the surrounding area – certainly nothing in concrete-clad Batna, the jumping-off point 40km away – prepares you for the grandeur of Timgad . Even the entrance is deceptive, a large car park, a line of trees, a museum and then… an entire Roman town. At first sight it may seem just a vast field of stones and rubble, but walk around, take the time, inhabit the place, and Timgad will more than repay the effort. Whatever happened at this site before AD 100 is of little consequence: the story of Timgad begins in grand style when the Emperor Trajan decided to build a colony for soldiers and veterans of his Legion III Augusta. The Colonia Marciana Traiana Thamugadi, to give it its full name, is, in the words of the Unesco report that recommended inscribing it on the World Heritage list, ‘a consummate example of a Roman military colony’. Timgad was intended to provide accommodation for 15,000 in all, but it soon outgrew that number and moved beyond the original grid, with new quarters being added to the original ground plan over the next 300 years, leading to a quadrupling of the original camp. During its 2nd- and 3rd-century heyday, Timgad stood as a clear expression of Roman power in Africa – solid, brilliantly conceived and executed, and perfectly located at the head of the Oued el-Abiod and a crucial junction that gave Romans control of one of the main passes through the Aurès Mountains, and therefore of access to and from the Sahara. There was a Christian presence at Timgad from the mid-3rd century, which grew to such prominence that a Church Council was held here in AD 397. The Vandal invasion of 430 brought an end to any centralised power and at the end of the 5th century the region was so weak that Timgad was sacked by tribes from the nearby Aurès Mountains, the very people the camp had been designed to control. Timgad was revived in 539 under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, when a fortress was built outside the original town, reusing many blocks from earlier Roman buildings, but this remote outpost could only survive with a strong central power and, with the Arab invasion in the 7th century, the end was at hand. The site was abandoned some time in the 8th century. The entrance leads to the museum which contains a particularly impressive collection of more than 200 mosaics. Among the masterpieces here is a large still life (in the first hall) with panels showing various foods, The Triumph of Venus (right-hand room) surrounded by a grand decorative border, and the mosaic of Filadelfis Vita, in which the god Jupiter chases Antiope. From the museum a path leads northwest to the Great Baths of the North, a huge public place of some 40 rooms built outside the original camp walls. The baths were designed symmetrically, with the same latrines, warm and hot rooms on either side of the complex, leading to a central frigidarium, the cold room with an icy plunge pool and a room off either end for relaxing after the bath. Just beyond this are the remains of a large private villa, evidence of the wealth Timgad enjoyed. Apart from a number of good-sized rooms, the owner of this desirable residence had his own baths, in the hot room of which once stood the mosaic of Filadelfis (now on show in the museum). Back towards the museum, the path, which was once the road to Constantine (then Cirta), continues to the town’s north gate. The original Roman town was designed as a perfect square, 355m long on each side, with this gate set into the middle of its north wall. From here you’ll hit the cardo maximus, the main north–south street, a long straight stretch of chariot-rutted paving that runs uphill to the centre of town. Five metres wide and 180m long, it covered one of the main drains and was, in its prime, bordered by colonnaded arcades or porticoes. The first building on the left inside the gate was another of Timgad’s 14 baths or spas, while the house next door, one of at least a hundred that have been excavated here, shows evidence of having been turned into a Christian chapel at a later date. The most interesting building of all along this street lies five insulae or blocks in from the north gate, before reaching the centre. Designed in the 4th century reusing an earlier structure, this is one of only two known Roman-period public libraries, the other being at Ephesus. The most easily recognised part of the public library is the book shop, a semicircular room which still shows the niches in which the ‘books’ (actually manuscript pages or parchment rolls) were stored. Just beyond here, the cardo ends at a T-junction with the decumanus maximus, the town’s main east–west artery. There’s a great view of rows of columns west along the street, and, in the distance, Trajan’s Arch. Eastwards the paved way leads to the east baths, completed in AD 146, and the Mascula Gate, which marked the eastern end of town and the start of the road to what is now Khenchela. But continue immediately south, across the decumanus, to the large open space that was the forum. The street side of the forum was taken up with a row of shops and, on your left were the public latrines, a large room with 24 squat holes over an open drain along which, one hopes, water constantly flowed. The forum, 50m by 43m and surrounded by limestone Corinthian columns, statues, temple, municipal offices and, later a large basilica, would have provided some welcome open space in town. It seems also to have inspired an envy-worthy sense of well-being because engraved on the steps is the following slogan, Venare, lavari, ludere, ridere, occ est vivere – hunt, bathe, play, laugh, that is life. Due south of the forum, the theatre was one of Timgad’s civic joys. It was created in the 160s by cutting into a hillside and had seating in its rows, for as many as 3500 people. French archaeologists reconstructed most of what we see today; the original was quarried by the Emperor Justinian’s soldiers when they built the nearby fortress in 539. Whatever went on here in antiquity – and whatever happens here during the summer Timgad festival – the main spectacle for visitors today is the great view of the whole site from the ‘gods’, the theatre’s uppermost seating. From here or from the hill beyond it, you can use our map to identify the major monuments, from museum and baths in the north to the Byzantine fort in the south, the southern baths just below you, Trajan’s Arch in the west and, in the distance, the Aurès Mountains. From the theatre it is worth walking across the pitted path and through the scrub to the fort. The Byzantines chose to build outside the original settlement, on the site of an earlier shrine to the guardian divinity of a water source. In contrast to the original camp of Timgad, which was never walled, the fort is a massive military structure, 112m by 67m, its limestone walls 2.5m thick, defended by towers in each corner and at the gate. Inside the fort, officers were quartered on the right, around the basin associated with the water deity, and soldiers on the left. The remains of barracks and many other rooms can be made out among the overgrowth. The land around the fort, like much of Timgad, has yet to be fully excavated. Returning towards the centre, veer left towards the remains of the capitol, easily identified by two vast columns still standing on its raised platform. The capitol was dedicated, like the temple it echoed that stood in the centre Rome, to the gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. This was the most sacred place of pagan worship and, when it was completed in AD 160, the most impressive, enclosing a larger space than the forum, reached by a flight of 28 steps. Little remains beyond the two reconstructed, 14m-high columns and some fragments that have fallen nearby. Lack of perspective sometimes makes it difficult to grasp the scale of these buildings, but you can get an idea of scale by standing beside the decorated capitol in front of the pedestal, which is more than man-high. This outer road continues past the ‘new’ Sertius market, with its slabs where traders laid out their wares, to one of Timgad’s major monuments. When it was first built Timgad had a western gate much like the gates at the other cardinal points. But at the beginning of the 3rd century, when the town had already spread westward beyond its original grid and was closed by a new triumphal gate, the original inner gate was replaced by Trajan’s Arch. The soaring, three-arch pile helps to join the new town to the old and is the most elegant of Timgad’s surviving structures. The high central passage was reserved for chariots, their passage smoothed along the bumpy stones by the cutting of guiding grooves. The arches either side were for pedestrians, who passed beneath a pair of tall flanking columns and the gaze of imperial statues.