Dougga

Top choice archaeological site in Central Tunisia

Image by Lauren Keith Lonely Planet

Arguably the most magnificent Roman site in Africa, Dougga’s ancient remains – a Unesco World Heritage site since 1997 – are startlingly complete, giving a beguiling glimpse of how well-heeled Romans lived, flitting between bathhouses, the imposing Capitole, a 3500-seat theatre and various temples. The city was built on the site of an ancient Numidian settlement called Thugga, which explains why the streets are so uncharacteristically tangled. The 2nd-century-BC Libyco-Punic Mausoleum is the country’s finest pre-Roman monument.

A Roman city with a view, Dougga is set on an enchanting hillside surrounded by olive groves and overlooking fields of grain, with forested hills beyond. Built of yellowish-tan stone, its mellow tones meld harmoniously with the brown, tan and dark-green landscape of the Kalled Valley and the Teboursouk Mountains.

Nestled into the hillside, the outstanding restored theatre, whose 19 tiers could accommodate an audience of 3500, was built in AD 168 by one of the city’s wealthier residents, Marcius Quadratus. The nosebleed seats have spectacular views of the encircling valleys. Today, the theatre serves as a superb setting for listening to North African music during the month-long Dougga Festival, usually held in July or August.

North of the theatre, the ruins of the Vandal Church of Victoria are the only evidence of Christianity at Dougga. The church was built in the early 5th century using stone taken from the surrounding temples. The small crypt next door is packed with large stone sarcophagi.

A bit further north stands the Temple of Saturn, which must have been a magnificent sight after its completion in AD 195, but today only six stunted columns remain. Built on a platform facing east over the valley of Oued (River) Kalled, it dominated the ancient city’s northern approach. The structure stands on the site of an earlier temple to Baal Hammon, the chief Punic deity, who was reinterpreted as Saturn in Roman times and was the favoured god of Roman Africa.

Nearby, the so-called Numidian Wall protected the city in pre-Roman days. At the wall's southern end, the reconstructed apse next to the Temple of Saturn is all that remains of the Sanctuary of Neptune. Dozens of primitive dolmen graves, the oldest structures at Dougga, dot the northwestern edge of the Numidian Wall.

From the Sanctuary of Neptune, follow a rough path west, turn left when it comes to an end and then right for the nine Cisterns of Ain Mizeb. The city’s main water supply, they were fed by a spring some 200m to the west and remain in excellent condition.

Follow the dirt route that leads northwest and then cut across the fields to glimpse the underwhelming remains of the Temple of Minerva. Looking northwest from here, it’s possible to discern the outline of the circus, once the staging grounds for chariot races and now an elongated wheat field filling a saddle between two hills.

A path runs south of the cisterns to the cavernous but not as well preserved Cisterns of Ain El Hammam, added during the reign of Commodus (AD 177–192) to meet the city’s growing demand for water. They were supplied via an aqueduct, sections of which are visible among the olive trees west of the cisterns, fed by springs 12km to the southwest.

Immediately east is the Arch of Alexander Severus, dedicated to the emperor who ruled between AD 222 and 235. The arch was built around this time, and it marks the city’s western entrance.

A path leads southwest from here through olive trees to the Temple of Juno-Caelestis (Heavenly Juno), dedicated to the Roman version of the Carthaginian god Tanit. Funded by a resident made a flamen (a Roman priest) in AD 222, it was adapted as a church in the 5th century. The pillar-surrounded sanctuary retains an impressive portico, reached via a flight of steps.

Pass under the Arch of Alexander Severus towards the town's most impressive feature, the imposing Capitole, built in AD 166. In remarkable condition, it has 10m-high walls and six mighty, one-piece fluted columns – each 8m high – supporting the portico. The massive walls are the finest known example of a construction technique called opus africanum, which uses large stones to strengthen walls built of small stones and rubble. In the temple's inner sanctum are three large niches in the north wall, which once housed a giant statue of the Roman god Jupiter flanked by smaller statues of Juno and Minerva. The carved frieze shows the emperor Antonius Pius being carried off in an eagle’s claws, with an inscription dedicating the temple to the three gods.

The Byzantines were responsible for the fortifications that enclose the Capitole and the forum, built on the orders of General Solomon and constructed using stones filched from surrounding buildings. Look out for pieces bearing the dedication from the Temple of Mercury, which have wound up at knee height on the eastern wall.

The nearby Square of the Winds is bounded by temples and named after the large circular engraving listing the names of the 12 winds. You can make out some of the names, including Africanus, the name of the southwesterly hot desert air. The meagre remains of the Temple of Mercury are to the north of the square. To the east are four square pillars belonging to the tiny 2nd-century Temple of Augustine Piety.

Below the forum is a grand neighbourhood of homes and bathhouses. An unusual solid square doorframe marks the entrance to an unidentified temple referred to as Dar El Echab, after the family that once occupied the site. On the left, sandwiched between the ruins of two houses is the Temple of Tellus, where a once-colonnaded courtyard leads into a sanctuary with stone niches set into the back wall.

Follow the road as it winds southeast to the 3rd-century Licinian Baths. Enter the complex through the vaulted passage originally built for the slaves who kept the baths operating, a reminder of how the good life enjoyed by the Roman elite was maintained. The walls of this extensive complex – an indication of the town’s prosperity – remain largely intact, especially those surrounding the grand frigidarium (cold room). A small tepidarium (warm room) and caldarium (hot room) branch off from the frigidarium. The large room with columns was the palestra, an area used as a gym. Some mosaics and columns are still in situ near the customers' entrance on the northwest side of the bathhouse.

Continue along the road for another 75m and then turn right, descending the steps leading to the House of Trifolium, a huge complex that must have had seriously wealthy owners. It's now been incorrectly dubbed as the 'brothel of Dougga' because a relief of a phallus can be spotted in the street leading to the house, but these symbols were used to protect against bad luck, not to signpost the red-light district. In typical architecture of the region, a central courtyard is surrounded by several rooms, one of which has had its roof restored and is shaped like a clover leaf, giving the house its name.

Next door are the Baths of the Cyclops, named after the remarkable mosaic found here (now in the Dougga room at the Bardo Museum in Tunis). The baths themselves are in disrepair, except for the sociably horseshoe-shaped row of 12 latrines just inside the entrance.

Along the path to the west is the Nymphaeum, a huge, partly restored fountain, thought to have been supplied with water by an underground conduit from the Cisterns of Ain El Hammam. The Ain Doura Baths (also called the southern baths) are further along still. Some geometric floor mosaics remain in place, but the structure isn't as grand as the Licinian Baths.

Near the Baths of the Cyclops are the ruins of the Arch of Septimius Severus, which unfortunately no longer retains the shape in its name. It was built in AD 205 when the city was promoted to the status of municipe (a city in the Roman Empire that was allowed to govern itself and whose inhabitants benefited from Roman citizenship).

On the southerly path below the remains of the arch is the Libyco-Punic Mausoleum. This triple-tiered, obelisk-shaped monument, an amazing 21m high, is crowned by a small pyramid with a seated lion at the pinnacle. It was built during the reign of Massinissa at the beginning of the 2nd century BC and is dedicated, according to a bilingual (Libyan and Punic) inscription, to ‘Ateban, son of Ypmatat, son of Palu’. The inscription, which once occupied the vacant window at the base, was removed by the British consul to Tunis in 1842, who destroyed the whole monument in the process. The stone was taken to England (it’s now in the British Museum in London), and the monument itself was rebuilt by French archaeologists in 1910.

The best time to visit Dougga is early in the morning or late in the day; there's precious little shade to avoid the heat of the midday sun. Dougga is a huge site, so allow at least three hours. There's a tiny cafe that has a small range of snacks and drinks near the car park at the theatre.

The main entrance faces the town of Teboursouk on the eastern edge of the site; there's another entrance via Nouvelle Dougga, where locals who lived in the ruins were required to move to when Dougga became an official site, but this way requires lots of climbing uphill to get in. Guides sometimes hang around the entrances offering tours, and they charge about 25DT per person. The site has some signage in Arabic, French and English.

Dougga can easily be visited as a day trip from Tunis or Le Kef – or en route between the two. If you're coming by public transport, get a bus or louage (shared taxi) to Teboursouk and then flag a yellow taxi to bring you to the site for about 25DT, including two hours of waiting time.

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