Numidian Monuments of Algeria and Tunisia

We went to Algeria and Tunisia in search of Roman and Islamic histories and hadn't thought a great deal about pre-Roman societies. I had vague notions about the  Carthaginians and the endless Punic Wars and even the famous Dido, but I was entirely unaware of the neighboring Numidian kingdoms. I'm geeky enough to find something exciting about being faced with an entirely new and somewhat mysterious culture. Here were a people hiding in plain site, just there in history waiting to be discovered! But on 'Day One' in Algeria there was no need to be reading a dry history text, here was an enormous ancient tomb practically hitting me in the face with its unusual architecture. 
Have you ever seen anything like it? Known as The Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania, it was completely new to us.
So who were the Numidians?
The Numidians were an ancient Berber culture in North Africa that (I’m massively simplifying a complicated story!)  divided between two regional Kings;   Massylii in the eastern regions and Masaesyli in the west. The Numidians were further split between those who fought with and against Rome and they switched sides repeatedly over time. The story gets confusing because of the shifting alliances, the interchangeable terminology used by historians, (Old Libyan, Numidian, Mauretanian) and because the relevant kings all seem to have names starting with M! 

Known for their military prowess, the  Numidian cavalry fought in a series of campaigns, including first with the Carthaginians and then with and against the Romans. It's significant that they were particularly important to Hannibal in his conquest of Rome.
The first of the Numidian tombs we visited The Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania (not far from the Roman site of Tipasa in Algeria) is also known locally as the "Tomb of the Christian" for the cruciform decoration on the false door which you can see faintly  above. The title is a misnomer and there is no known Christian connection. In fact
this Numidian tomb was built in 3 AD by Juba II for his queen Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. It was serendipitous timing  for us and we were fascinated because we had  just seen Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra in London! As children, both Juba (the son of the Numidian king) and Cleopatra Selene were captured and sent to Rome following the their parents' deaths in the respective Roman conquests of Egypt and Numidia. Interestingly, Cleopatra Selene was raised in the household of Augustus’ famous sister, Octavia who took in her husband Mark Anthony’s illegitimate children by Cleopatra. 
In 30 BC Juba was reinstalled as the Numidian King and proved to be a reliable Roman ally.  He later married Cleopatra Selene in an arrangement sanctioned by the Emperor Augustus who provided a considerable dowry, joining these two children of conquest as effective vessels of Rome. Indeed the success of the Rome throughout North Africa relied heavily on the Romanization of the local people, many of whom became full citizens  adopting Roman ways of life and even Roman gods. Hence the indigenous Berber Numidians become incorporated into the Roman Empire.
I'm covering a long history with little detail, but it's worth knowing that the unified Numidian capital was at Constantine (Cirta) but their state stretched through out the northern regions of contemporary Libya, Algeria and Tunisia. We ran across two further Numidian monuments on our trip. A second circular tomb, found south of Constantine, and the impressive funerary tower (below) at the Roman site of Dougga in Tunisia.

This impressive square tower illustrates the wonderful ways in which one sees cultural overlap between indigenous architectural forms and religious practices in Roman cities. This royal Numidian monument survives from the Second Century BC and is quite unlike anything else I've seen in the Roman world.
Below you can see a carefully sculpted bas relief of the Numidian cavalry, with the horses leaping in  stone. Described as a Punic-Libyan Mausoleum or the Mausoleum of Ateban there is considerable confusion about for whom the tomb was built. It is now believed that the inscription mentions only the architect and those involved in its construction, and that the tomb may have been intended for Massinissa, the first King of Numidia (238-148 BC). The important bilingual inscription (in Punic and Libyan/Berber) was removed in the Nineteenth Century. It played a significant role in the decoding of the ancient Berber  (Libyan) language and is currently in the British Museum

The final Numidian monument to discuss is very similar to the first, a circular tomb known as the Mausoleum of Medracen or Madghacen  25 km north of Batna and  south of the city of Constantine. The World Monument Fund notes there are only six of these significant mausolea (so thrilled to have the opportunity to use the plural of mausoleum!) in Algeria and there are existing concerns  about the ongoing "repairs".

Possibly dating to the third century BC, this may have been the tomb of Madghis, a  Numidian king  mentioned by the great Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun as an ancestor of the Berbers.

Visiting this site was spectacular.  Although it is very impressive they clearly don't see a lot of tourists. We came to Algeria with a focus on Roman ruins but I have to say it is well worth seeking out these Numidian tombs too, which help you understand the Roman conquest in a local context. It's also an important cultural patrimony  and link to  contemporary Berber communities today. 

I only wish we knew more about why they built in this form and the nature of their funerary rituals. If you've enjoyed reading about these more eclectic destinations and cultural histories you might enjoy my posts from our trips to Syria or Sudan...


Greg Anton said…
Thanks for the interesting pictures and the summarized history. Just one observation: Mauretania and Numidia are two different political entities, and one could say they were rivals in the domination of North Africa (not strictly true, but they did invade each other's territories). This difference is even more emphasized today, since Algerian nationalists maintain that Numidia is the origin of Algeria, and that Numidia represented the whole northern territory, whereas Moorish nationalists maintain that the Western part of Algeria was actually part of the kingdom of Mauretania (centered in today's Morocco), and only Eastern Algeria and Tunisia were part of Numidia (I believe this closer to the truth).
In any case, it's incorrect to say that Mauretania is another name of Numidia, since each had its own kings and territories and capital cities, except when Juba II, who was Numidian, became king of Mauretania (appointed by Augustus Caesar), which makes thing even more confusing, since his actual country Numidia remained a Roman province.
But I hope this makes things somewhat clearer.
Thanks so much Greg, I appreciate your post.

North African history certainly isn't my area of expertise and I hadn't appreciated the current nationalistic meaning of these histories or the more detailed place and position of Juba II. The histories are certainly complicated and difficult to summarize for an general audience and so I greatly appreciate your kind clarification.

Mike said…
Before the Punic wars, Mauritania was basically the Northern part of today's Morocco. Numidia was a country west of Carthage and all the way to Mauritania. So parts of today's Northern Tunisia and the whole Northern Algeria.It was divided between the East controlled by Masinissa and the west by Syphax. Syphax was most likely the uncle of Masinissa. After Masinissa helped the Romans defeat Hannibal and Syphax, he unified the entire country. It stayed like this until 104 BC. At that time, it was ruled by king Jegurtha. He was supposed to share Numidia with his two brothers but he killed them instead and Rome didn't like that so they went to war against him.When it became clear that Jegurtha was not going to be defeated easily, the Romans made a deal with the king of Mauritania. They promised him to give him the western part of Numidia if he helps them capture Jegurtha. Jegurtha was his son in law. He betrayed him to the Romans and the war was over. This is how Numidia was divided and the western part of today's Algeria was given to Mauritania. So yes before Jegurtha was defeated, Numidia represented all of Northern Algeria and parts of Tunisia. Later on, there would be a province called Numidia and another Mauritania cesarienne. If you add both you get the Northern part of Algeria. I think Greg confused the country of Numidia with the Roman province of Numidia.
Thanks you very much for adding your comment Mike,
This isn't my area of expertise and certainly there is plenty of room for confusion between these shifting alliances, boundaries and cultural geographies. I also find it particularly confusing when ancient names invoke familiar modern geographies (like Mauritania) without overlapping.
Thanks again, I hope you liked the photographs. We very much enjoyed learning about these histories and monuments.