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Djemila’s early history is lost, but it was occupied by Berber tribes in the early centuries BC. The surviving town can trace its origins only as far back as the 1st century AD, during the brief reign of the Roman Emperor Nerva (96–98). As well as the new colony at nearby Sétif, Nerva ordered that some veteran soldiers from the Legion III Augustan, the same who were to found Timgad a few years later, be settled at a place then known by its Berber name, Cuicul.

The site had advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage was its position, 900m above sea level on a spur of land created by two mountain rivers, the Guergour and Betame, surrounded by rolling hills. The hilly stronghold was easy to defend. The main disadvantage was the irregularity of the spur – the classic Roman townplan was a square, bisected by two broad streets, the cardo and decumanus maximus, but here it had to be turned into an irregular triangle to fit.

The early years were some of the best: Cuicul took shape under the Antonine emperors – this was when the forum, the curie (town hall), market, capitol and other temples and even the theatre were built. Growth continued under the Severan emperors (AD 192–235), themselves of North African origin, and Cuicul outgrew its original enclosure wall – new roads were laid out, the great temple to the Severan family built, the nearby baths plumbed, and a new forum was built outside the original town. But even with these developments, Cuicul was never a grand city: its grandeur lies in the location and in the arrangement of stone buildings in such an unrestricted landscape.

Christianity came to Cuicul in the 3rd century – the first bishop, Pudentianus, was first mentioned in AD 255. By the beginning of the 4th century the town, perhaps now with some 12, 000 inhabitants, had spread up the hill and developed what is now known as the Christian quarter, with its chapels, baptistery and basilicas.

The Vandal army reached here in 431 and the town easily fell. The Vandals moved on in 442 and the area was retaken by the Byzantines in the first half of the 6th century, but abandoned on the eve of the Arab invasion of North Africa, after which Cuicul – which the Arabs later called Djemila (beautiful) – sank into obscurity.

Soon after the French conquest of Algeria, attention was turned to the antiquities: the Duc d’Orleans hatched a plan to dismantle Caracalla’s monumental Arch and reassemble it in Paris. Although that plan was dropped, some sculptures were shipped to France in the 1840s, intended for an Algerian museum in Paris that never came to fruition.

The site was excavated relatively late; work started in 1909 and immediate progress was made. In the first year the northern part of the House of the Donkey, the temple and the Severan forum were discovered. The main streets were uncovered and mosaics removed from the House of Amphitrite in 1912. The old forum was revealed between 1913 and 1915. In 1917 the grand baths, theatre and cardo were excavated. Work finally stopped in 1957.

But much remains and is in need of attention. The extremely knowledgeable and friendly M Mohand Akli Ikherbande, conservator of the museum, is unequivocal about threats to the site. A brief look around shows up the problems: even the mosaics removed from houses into the museum for safekeeping are falling off the walls. Whether the Algerian authorities will provide necessary funds before these and other treasures are lost remains to be seen. But with Djemila inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage list as ‘one of the world’s most beautiful Roman ruins’, it would be a matter of national shame and international scandal were this to happen.

In August 2006 the president of Algeria was patron of the 2nd International Festival of Djemila, a nine-day celebration of Algerian music held at the site.