Explore the Ruins of Timgad, the “African Pompeii” Excavated from the Sands of Algeria

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Fif­teen cen­turies after its fall, the Roman Empire lives on in unex­pect­ed places. Take, for instance, the for­mer colo­nial city of Tim­gad, locat­ed in Alge­ria 300 miles from the cap­i­tal. Found­ed by the Emper­or Tra­jan around 100 AD as Colo­nia Mar­ciana Ulpia Tra­iana Thamu­ga­di, it thrived as a piece of Rome in north Africa before turn­ing Chris­t­ian in the third cen­tu­ry and into a cen­ter of the Donatist sect in the fourth. The three cen­turies after that saw a sack­ing by Van­dals, a reoc­cu­pa­tion by Chris­tians, and anoth­er sack­ing by Berbers. Aban­doned and cov­ered by sand from the Sahara from the sev­enth cen­tu­ry on, Tim­gad was redis­cov­ered by Scot­tish explor­er James Bruce in 1765. But not until the 1880s, under French rule, did a prop­er exca­va­tion begin.

Today a vis­i­tor to the ruins of Tim­gad can see the out­lines of exact­ly where each of its build­ings once stood (espe­cial­ly if they have the aer­i­al view of the pho­to above, recent­ly tweet­ed out by Archi­tec­ture Hub). This, in part, is what qual­i­fied the place for inscrip­tion on UNESCO’s World Her­itage List.

“With its square enclo­sure and orthog­o­nal design based on the car­do and decumanus, the two per­pen­dic­u­lar routes run­ning through the city, it is an excel­lent exam­ple of Roman town plan­ning,” says UNESCO’s web site. Its “remark­able grid sys­tem” — quite nor­mal to 21st-cen­tu­ry city-dwellers, much less so in sec­ond-cen­tu­ry Africa — makes it “a typ­i­cal exam­ple of an urban mod­el” that “con­tin­ues to bear wit­ness to the build­ing inven­tive­ness of the mil­i­tary engi­neers of the Roman civ­i­liza­tion, today dis­ap­peared.”

“With­in a few gen­er­a­tions of its birth,” writes Messy Nessy,” the out­post had expand­ed to over 10,000 res­i­dents of both Roman, African, as well as Berber descent. “The exten­sion of Roman cit­i­zen­ship to non-Romans was a care­ful­ly planned strat­e­gy of the Empire,” she adds. “In return for their loy­al­ty, local elites were giv­en a stake in the great and pow­er­ful Empire, ben­e­fit­ted from its pro­tec­tion and legal sys­tem, not to men­tion, its mod­ern urban ameni­ties such as Roman bath hous­es, the­atres, and a fan­cy pub­lic library.” Tim­gad’s library, which “would have housed man­u­scripts relat­ing to reli­gion, mil­i­tary his­to­ry and good gov­er­nance,” seems to have been fan­cy indeed, and its ruins indi­cate the pur­chase Roman cul­ture man­aged to attain in this far-flung set­tle­ment.

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Tim­gad’s library is just one ele­ment of what UNESCO calls its “rich archi­tec­tur­al inven­to­ry com­pris­ing numer­ous and diver­si­fied typolo­gies, relat­ing to the dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal stages of its con­struc­tion: the defen­sive sys­tem, build­ings for the pub­lic con­ve­niences and spec­ta­cles, and a reli­gious com­plex.” Hav­ing out­grown its orig­i­nal street grid, Tim­gad “spread beyond the perime­ters of its ram­parts and sev­er­al major pub­lic build­ings are built in the new quar­ters: Capi­toli­um, tem­ples, mar­kets and baths,” most of which date from the city’s “Gold­en Age” in the Sev­er­an peri­od between 193 and 235.

Image Alan and Flo­ra Bot­ting via Flickr Com­mons

This makes for an African equiv­a­lent of Pom­peii, the Roman city famous­ly buried and thus pre­served in the explo­sion of Mount Vesu­vius in the year 79. But it is less­er-known Tim­gad, with its still clear­ly laid-out blocks, its rec­og­niz­able pub­lic facil­i­ties, and its demar­cat­ed “down­town” and “sub­urbs,” that will feel more famil­iar to us today, whichev­er city in the world we come from.

via Archi­tec­ture Hub/Messy­Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vis­it Pom­peii (also Stone­henge & Ver­sailles) with Google Street View

Rome Reborn: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour Through Ancient Rome, 320 C.E.

Watch the Destruc­tion of Pom­peii by Mount Vesu­vius, Re-Cre­at­ed with Com­put­er Ani­ma­tion (79 AD)

See the Expan­sive Ruins of Pom­peii Like You’ve Nev­er Seen Them Before: Through the Eyes of a Drone

Pierre Bourdieu’s Pho­tographs of Wartime Alge­ria

Repli­ca of an Alger­ian City, Made of Cous­cous: Now on Dis­play at The Guggen­heim

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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