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One of North Africa's best-preserved ancient Roman cities, Sufetula is awash with temples, monumental arches and bath complexes that speak of an ancient civilisation that knew how to live. Much is still unknown about this evocative site. Some of its Byzantine-era basilicas have beautifully mosaic-covered baptistries still in situ.

Roman Sufetula, established at the beginning of the 1st century AD on the site of a Numidian settlement, seems to have followed an evolutionary path similar to that of other Roman towns in the region, such as Dougga and Mactaris (Makthar).

The surrounding countryside proved ideal for olive growing (it still is), and Sufetula quickly waxed wealthy, building its finest temples in the 2nd century, when the town – like all of Roman Tunisia – was at the height of its prosperity. Fortuitously, its olive groves ensured that Sufetula continued to prosper long after other Roman towns slipped into decline, helping it to become an important Christian centre in the 4th century.

The Byzantines made Sufetula their regional capital, transforming it into a military stronghold from where they could tackle the area’s rebellious local tribes. It was here in AD 647 that Prefect Gregory declared himself independent of Constantinople. However, his moment of glory lasted only a few months before he was killed by the Arabs, who simultaneously destroyed much of Sufetula.

The celebrated temples – Sufetula’s standout highlight – tower over the surrounding ruins. The wall around them was built by the Byzantines in the 6th century AD. The entrance to the forum is through the magnificent triple-arched Antonine Gate, built in AD 139 and dedicated to the emperor Antoninus Pius and his adopted sons Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. It opens onto a large paved forum surrounded by two rows of chopped-off columns that lead up to the three 2nd-century temples, each dedicated to one of the main gods of the Roman pantheon. The Temple of Jupiter, in the centre, is flanked by slightly smaller temples, to Minerva, Jupiter's daughter and the goddess of wisdom, on the left, and to Juno, wife of Jupiter, on the right. Jupiter's temple could only be reached by bridges crossing over from the other two, not from a flight of stairs in the front. The ensemble gives a palpable sense of what the centre of a Roman city looked and felt like.

Until it was sacked by the Arabs, Sufetula was a centre of Christianity in North Africa. The Basilica of Bellator is the first of a row of ruined churches about 100m north of the forum on the main path leading northwest. It was built at the beginning of the 4th century AD on the foundations of an unknown pre-Roman temple.

The adjacent 6th-century Basilica of St Vitalis was a bigger and grander replacement for Bellator. It has a collection of superb baptismal fonts: one is adorned at the bottom with a fine fish-themed mosaic while another has an intricate floral mosaic in brilliant reds and greens, and comes complete with stairs and seats. The basilica was named after the donor mentioned in its mosaic inscription.

The path running northwest from the churches crosses a neat grid of unexcavated streets before arriving at the scant remains of the Arch of Septimius Severus. To the west, before you reach the arch, are the remains of the House of the Seasons, named for a mosaic now in the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Vines are finely carved into its colonnade, and it has a few large rooms surrounded by columns.

A rough path continues north from the arch, past the ruins of a small basilica, to the site of the town’s amphitheatre, which has yet to be excavated at the time of research and is so overgrown that you have to look hard to find the outline. Another path leads east from the arch down to a restored Roman bridge over the Oued (River) Sbeitla.

The ruins of the main baths, east of the forum, are remarkable mainly for their complex under-floor heating system in the hot rooms, easily discernible now that the floors have partially collapsed. Geometric mosaic floors are still in place here, as well as in the connected palaestra (gymnasium) – some are modern replacements but are easily distinguished.

Northwest of the Great Baths you’ll find four precarious-looking pillars of stone – all that’s left of the Church of St Servus, built in the 4th century AD on the foundations of an unidentified pre-Roman temple.

The impressive reconstructed 3rd-century theatre, just east of the Great Baths, has a prime position overlooking Oued Sbeitla and is particularly picturesque in spring when wildflowers are in bloom.

At the far southern tip of the excavations stands the superbly preserved Arch of Diocletian, with its 7½ columns. The lovely grassy gardens between the arch and the tree-shaded pathway just inside the site entrance are perfect for a picnic.

There's minimal signage at the site (a few give the names of the landmarks but no explanations), and there are no guides at the entrance since most visitors come on pre-arranged trips.

The entrance to the archaeological site is across the road from Musée de Sbeïtla. Buy your entry ticket at the modern-looking Complexe Touristique, one building further along from the museum on the main road.

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Nearby Tunisia attractions

1. Musée de Sbeïtla

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The museum across the road from Sufetula has a small collection of mosaics, sculptures, stelae and other artefacts that have been found on the site and…