Image by Photo Ã‚ÂTan Yilmaz Getty Images
One of the finest Roman sites in existence, the ruins of Timgad stretch almost as far as the eye can see over a plain that in winter is cold and desolate and in summer hot and tinder-dry. Its perfect preservation has made it a Unesco World Heritage Site – take the time to walk around slowly, inhabit the place and Timgad will spring to life.
From the entrance the path leads past the museum, which for many years has been closed to the general public and the preserve only of scientists. This is a shame because it contains a particularly impressive collection of more than 200 mosaics found here, some of which are almost the size of a modern house. Among the masterpieces is a large still life 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.
The Great Baths
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).
The Town Centre & Library
Back towards the museum, the path, which was once the road to Constantine (then Cirta), continues to the town’s northern 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 northern 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 in its prime was bordered by colonnaded arcades or porticoes.
The first building on the left inside the gate was one 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 northern 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 (Turkey). The most easily recognised part of the public library is the bookshop, 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.
The Theatre & Fort
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 for as many as 3500 people in its rows. 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 the main spectacle for visitors today is the great view of the whole site from the ‘gods’, the theatre’s uppermost seating.
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.
The Capitol & Market
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. 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.