Timgad; A Roman Retirement Community in Algeria.

As you can see from my previous posts Algeria is a great place to visit if you have any interest in Roman architecture. The joy is not just the intact nature of the sites and that they're so little visited by foreigners,  it's also that they are so different in  their layouts and situation. In the photographs below I hope you get a sense for the grand scale of the city of Timgad.  While the picturesque Djemilia is up in the hills Timgad can be found further south, in the more arid territory east of Batna. Founded by the Emperor Trajan around 100 AD this thriving Roman provincial outpost  was built for retired soldier and their families, but Timgad was more city rather than a fortress.  I just love the idea of a Roman retirement community in Algeria!
Standing at the intersection of a large number of roads and very well connected, Timgad lay at the southern edge of the Roman Empire. It is still impressive today but imagine the impact the city made when approached on foot almost two millennia ago.   Timgad became a center of power in Roman North Africa and thrived until the 6th Century AD. As with the Roman sites across the region you can of course see later Byzantine ruins nearby, including fortifications and Christian sites of worship.

As Susan Raven puts it in  Rome in Africa, "The most famous of the Legion's towns was not strictly military, however: for Thamugadi (Timgad) was built c. AD 100 not as a fortress but as a colony for its veterans and their families, Yet more perfectly than any other Timgad reveals the military mind at work: the aerial view is justly famous for it shows, within the walls, the typical geometric pattern following the logic of set-square and ruler. At ground level the severity is relieved by the tilt of the site: the streets march straight up it and over the crest regardless, but the eye is deceived into a pleasant impression of variety" (Raven1993, p73). You can see both the scale of the site and the gradation she is referring to above and below.
We were fascinated to find  that in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night the characters mentioned visiting Timgad and Biskra  It’s a reminder that  despite the fact that we saw no other foreigners during our visit to the ancient site,  that these places have been on some sort of tourist trail for over a century - even though conversely they’re not well known today! Whether one is talking about the recent past or the present, what  draws one to Timgad is the opportunity to see a perfectly laid out Roman town. Rather like the grid-patterned streets of Manhattan, this is a place where the planners  envisaged and build a city  based on a clear criteria.

Above you can see the famous arch of Trajan from 100 AD. In addition to the monumental triumphal arch there is a library, theatre, markets, temples extensive residential neighborhoods, public baths and  luxurious city homes - complete with pools where they kept fish for a varied diet.  
We were here for hours and by the end of our visit we were the only visitors left at the site. This was the glory of visiting Roman Algeria, we had the opportunity to meet the locals but also to  commune with the past silently. No cruise ship crowds, no photo opportunities with men dressed as gladiators, no onsite cafes, once the school groups and local picnickers have left it's just history, architecture and nature.
Wherever you go one of the most interesting things about visiting  city ruins is the chance to connect with the everyday lives of Roman citizens. In Timgad you can easily imagine the life of the market when you see the see the counters for the traders below. The highly decorated pediments  announce the wares; grape leaves carved into stone for the wine merchant, wheat for the grain seller. 
Presumed to date from the 3rd or 4th century, the library is estimated to have held three thousand scrolls and indicated the culture of learning even at the far flung reaches of the empire. An inscription  (see below) honors the benefactor of the library Julius Quintianus Flavius Rogatianus  who made a gift of  400,000 sesterces. 
Hopefully the photographs below gives you a sense for the grandeur of the  colonnaded streets. These cities were places for people to come, shop and trade. The main streets in Roman towns were often lined with small shops that ran behind colonnade and the shop keeper often lived in the back with their family.
As with so many Roman cities you can still see the grooves  the  cart wheels created on the stone pavement which gives you an immediate and visceral insight into the past.
The photograph I took below of the triumphal arch at Timgad looks exactly like the black and white   taken in 1928 by the Swiss aviation pioneer and explorer Walter Mittelholzer (see Wikipedia). 
I was interested to juxtapose these two as they demonstrate the condition of  Timgad over almost the one hundred years. 
I'm not sure that Mittelholzer had one in his archive but we took  the requisite picture on a Roman toilet below. Guides always want you to take this shot, no point saying you already have  five photographs from different Roman toilets all over the Mediterranean and that you're still recovering from the description of how they used a shared sponge to clean themselves - yikes! 

Ablutions were not a private affair and these public toilets had a series of seats built over a drain feed by continually running water. There were no doors and you just sat down next to the next person, you can see much the same at a site like Pompeii. I love the carved dolphin  armrests here. Across the way was a far larger toilet with room for many more people to sit together.
We very much enjoyed our trip to Timgad and it combined well with a brief visit to the nearby forehall of the Praetorian headquarters at  Lambaesis, which was the garrison of the Third Augustan Legion for centuries (approximately 1st to 4th century AD). 
Though the situation of Lambaesis is rather desolate, in a rubble strewn field next to a prison, the two storey building is very impressive and this site was connected by an extensive road network to both Timgad and the other regional settlements. On the return trip to Batna we stopped by a stunning Numidian tomb which I blogged about here.
Tip: At these sites it's often best to take a local guide who is immersed in the history of the place. We've had incredibly knowledgable English speaking local guides at Jerash in Jordan, Bullia Regia in Tunisia, Baalbek in Lebanon, Palmyra in Syria  and indeed at Timgad too. Our national guide Samia ensured that this wonderful local chap was there to show us around and we were in his thrall. In fact he was so fascinating that we were joined by large groups of visiting schoolchildren as well as by a very nice woman and her elderly mother (below) who it turns out was  the first Algerian women architect. Such charming people. They invited us to dinner at their home in Algiers but unfortunately we didn't have time to join them.

Hope you enjoyed the tour? Do drop a comment below. It makes publishing all this worthwhile. And let me know if you're considering a trip to Algeria or if you've been to Timgad. If you're interested in reading about  ourfurther travels in the Roman world see my blogposts on Jerash,  Baalbek Palmyra and Ostia Antica. Now I think about it I'm not sure why I never got around to writing about Pompeii?! I suppose its because I always prefer to be talking about the less well known sites...


Tricia said…
Hi Angela, I really enjoyed this peek at Timgad, My husband "discovered" Timgad online a while back and shortly thereafter I saw your Instagram posts from there. Up until then, I hadn't heard of it. Spending a few winters in Croatia's Dalmatia region (which is replete with Ancient Roman sites) solidified our interest in Roman sites. Timgad's scale, coupled with the intimate access you have to the ruins, make it look remarkable. I hope we'll have the opportunity to visit someday!
Thanks Tricia,
I'm so delighted you found this interesting and I can understand how spending time in that part of the world would confirm your interest. We very much enjoyed Diocletian's place in Split and visiting Pula. Timgad is astonishing but I'd also highly recommend Djemila. Happy traveling and I certainly hope you make it to Algeria, it's a country I'd highly recommend.