Onward to Annaba! This first part of our trip still went quite smoothly, as we jetted along the North African coast. We had booked a fantastic hotel there, as a holiday treat to ourselves: the Sheraton (ok they had not registered we want to share a 2-person room between 3 people and had to do some debating on arrival). (All that sorted) we laid ourselves down next to the pool and to our surprise were actually able to order a bottle of cold white wine. Yes. We had wanted to book a hotel with a beach actually, but found that the actual sandy beach was quite far out of the town centre, and the public beaches were also extremely polluted – so it is a good thing we got ourselves a posh hotel swimming pool.
Important to know: the social contrast in North Africa can obviously be quite extreme, so we felt very lucky to be there. We could afford to stay at the Sheraton because we came with our foreign salaries (and then split a 2 person room between 3, and bought breakfast at a local bakery every day); the other guests were clearly rich Algerian tourists, with nice cars, and nice clothes; those ones. We felt slightly out of place in our flippy-floppies. Anyway sorry I wanted to point that out, because I cannot stand tourists who rock up to e.g. Dubai and spend a week on the beach completely ignoring the political and financial complexities of the country they are in.
Day 1: The City Centre
So, first things first: we had to go see which historical sites Annaba had on offer. We negotiated a taxi up to the Church of St Augustine, a landmark pointed out to us by everyone we’d met thus far. They actually keep some of his bones there which, although I am not religious, was pretty cool I suppose. St Augustine is one of my favourite Saints, having been the author of some very interesting Latin letters. He was originally from Algerian Souk Ahras (Thagaste), the Roman region of Numidia. He later became know as Augustine of Hippo however, Hippo Regius being the ancient name for Annaba. I read about this during my undergraduate studies a few times but I am not sure it really sank in, when I booked this holiday, that I was really going to see this place. The Church itself is a newly built / restored structure with some beautiful colourful paintwork and golden decorations, but not so architecturally interesting considering the grand story of the Saint whose name it bears.
Up on this hill in the middle of nowhere, we opted to walk back to town, hoping to find the ruins of Hippo Regius (Hippone) on our way. Our walking-in-the-sun confused several Algerians, and two even stopped to offer us a ride. These became our new friends, Zohra & Farouk, who were visiting from Oran. They were somewhat surprised and amused about our destination, and – as we would be at most sites, for the rest of the holiday – we were the only visitors there. There was a small museum with nice mosaics and some interesting objects, and then a huge, rather overgrown, archaeological site. A guard followed us as we made our way through the weeds to the Roman forum, then along some houses, and finally shrines/temples, later basilicas/churches. Hippone was a maritime city, first settled by Phoenicians, and I have to say the road to the forum did somewhat remind of Tyre. Later on, this is where the Councils of Hippo were held. There is no (or, at least, we did not find) grand amphitheatre, or well-preserved temple, but I enjoyed the relative peace and quiet of the humble remains of this impressive city.
Day 2: Archaeological Road-Trip
Right, so, this is where the real adventure starts. We planned an itinerary to go see the archaeological sites of Guelma, Khemissa and Madaure, all in one day (a c. 8 to 10 hour trip, we hoped). We asked the hotel reception whether they knew a driver we could negotiate this with, and were quickly connected to someone’s cousin. They were surprised, and confused, but agreed, that if we paid them a lot of money, they would drive us wherever. We skilfully negotiated this down to about 1/3 of the proposed amount of money, and agreed to meet at 7am the next morning. This also gave us a good idea what to pay in future. The driver knew the furthest city we needed to reach (Soukh Agras), and left the rest of the map and road-sign reading (in French and Arabic respectively) to us, combined with stopping to ask locals for directions. We asked him to pause at a bakery to buy croissants for breakfast, and off we went.
The first stop was Guelma (ancient Calama). The archaeological remains of this metropolis have largely been swallowed up by the modern city, but a huge Roman theatre is one of the buildings which remains. It is quite late (2nd or 3rd century CE) and heavily restored, so by no means the most impressive theatre I have ever visited. However, there are not many other comparably well-surviving theatres in Algeria, and, it has some very interesting North-African features. Not necessarily original, but still – i.e. a lot of fascinating Punic funerary stones were cemented into the walls during the reconstruction in the early 20th century. The rest of the city is also well worth a little walk about if you have time; you might stumble on remains on the forum, baths, and ancient city gates incorporated into the modern streets. There is also a very good selection of bakeries.
Onward to Khemissa (Thubursicum). We stopped for lunch just before we reached the site, which was probably the best lunch yet. Just a nameless kebab/grill place, but, crucially, not a fast-food pizza place. Mum invited herself into the kitchen, much to the amusement of the staff and the chef, and picked out some dishes that were the most likely candidates for the label ‘vegetarian’. Meanwhile, the driver had a nice kebab sandwich. Khemissa, unlike Guelma, is decidedly not in the middle of a city, and much more in the middle of nowhere. Needless to say, we were once again the only visitors there. It is not so well-maintained and certainly not restored, and requires some off-road walking. We like to keep things exciting, don’t we.
Khemissa was originally settled by the Berbers, but it was taken over by the Romans around the time of Trajan. It is meant to have one of the most impressive theatres remaining in Algeria, but if I am honest, I was more amazed by Djemila (more on that later). This may have had something to do with the fact that we arrived around 1pm and did not climb to the top however. The top-down photos you find on Google certainly are dramatic. We ran for shade at the next, and maybe more unique, feature: an enormous rectangular pool (with fish in it!). Interestingly, I have consulted a number of books and guides on this structure, and none are extremely clear on what it was. They suggest it was either part of some rather luxurious public baths, or the water supply of the town. Both make sense, but that does not solve the fact that I have never seen anything quite like it before.
Next, we ventured across the entire site, through many ancient houses and two beautiful monumental gates, up the hill. We thought this would be about it; we could enjoy the view of the region, and clamber back into the car. However, in the distance, we spotted some impressive-looking architecture, so off we went again. It turned out to be the ancient forum. Apparently, one of the reasons this is a little bit distant, is because the Romans launched a Numidian expansion scheme after settling North Africa in the 1st century; so they started to monumentalise and grow these cities after they had already been inhabited for a good fifty to a hundred years. I cannot comment on how common this was in the rest of the Roman Empire (I imagine common?) but it does explain the vastness of some of these sites. There was a fair amount of space in-between the hilltop and the forum, which I assume must be unexcavated rather than uninhabited.
So that took a lot longer than expected; but we did urge the driver on to M’daouroch (Madaure or Madauros). This site was likewise much larger than we thought, but the driver did not abandon us to go home for dinner. This site was of course also Roman at one point, but some of the bigger surviving structures today are churches and Christian basilicas. There’s also a little theatre, and some baths. In history, it is famous for its ancient equivalent of schools / universities. For example, Apuleius, yes, the famous Latin philosopher and rhetorician, was born in Madaure. We really had to get back to Annaba however, so we finally started our journey back to our nice hotel. We asked the driver if he’d be up for doing this again the day after next. He said he’d think about it.
Day 3: Intermission
We sat by the pool. That is all.
See the next post for our exciting road-trip to Constantine.