Annaba and Constantine are not incredibly far apart, so we arranged for a road-trip, via Tiddis. We drove by the bakery for our morning croissants, and made the c. 2-3 hour journey to Bni Hamden. Most of this was along a huge, empty motorway (apart from the few blockages caused by sheep markets, for eid). However, the last 20 minutes or so were through some of the most beautiful landscape we encountered on our trip around Algeria.
Day 1: Tiddis
Tiddis was built into a rocky mountain side and thus looks very different from any other ancient city. To mind come comparisons to the necropolis of Myra in Turkey, or perhaps Little Petra in Jordan. Having plenty of caves, the Romans who settled at Tiddis appropriately worshiped the mysterious Perso-Greco-Roman deity Mithras. Some carvings can be seen in the rocks, but the majority of the city is heavily eroded. We were of course the only visitors there, and hiked around the mountain without any guidance. A security guard followed us at the bottom, but not further up. There were no marked paths to follow, no signs; only our own interpretation of what may have been houses and may have been baths. There is one monumental arch left standing at the ‘entrance’ but otherwise the site has a very ruined, quiet and abandoned feeling to it. I feel like it would be easy to skip, for lack of information and impressive architecture (and anyone who knows the directions there), but please don’t. Tiddis is vast, and the view from the top of the hill is breathtaking.
Afterward we finally drove up to our long-anticipated 3rd destination in Algeria: Constantine. Mum had been telling us stories of the beautiful old centre and incredible bridge connecting the two sides of the city. We got so lucky: our hotel bar (!) actually had a direct, unhindered, view of the bridge. We spent every evening there, with a bottle of white wine and a little bowl of nuts, just gazing out of the large windows. We stayed at the Marriott hotel (specifically, the Protea, which is the cheaper of the 2 Marriotts there). We had a ‘suite’ which had a double bed, and a double sofa bed. It was incredibly difficult to check in because they had lost our reservation (which, turns out according to online review websites, happens a lot there) so I am not 100% sure I would recommend it? We had to wait something like 5 hours (and were not offered a temporary room or food etc. either) before we could finally crash. However, we did get the rate we had ‘reserved’, and we did get all the sleeping space we wanted without argument (travelling with 3 is a bit difficult) even though it was clearly a surprise, so, well, there’s that.
Day 2: Beautiful Djemila
Because we had five hours of sitting around in the hotel lobby the previous day, we had some time to plan. We straight away asked about a driver, and did some strict negotiating now that we understood the pricing of these trips. It took some phone calls back and forth – but we had time, didn’t we – and eventually convinced someone to pick us up early the next morning. During this time, we also encountered the only two other foreign visitors to Algeria of our entire trip: two equally-confused-by-the-ATMs Danish boys. We nearly convinced them to come with us (and split the costs), but they had a train to catch I believe. More on trains later.
The drive to Djemila (Arabic for ‘beautiful’) (ancient Cuicul or Curculum), like Tiddis, was mainly motorway, but then followed by some scenic mountain roads. It is probably the most ‘touristy’ site we visited, as there was a – don’t fall over now – gift shop; and two (huge) Algerian families on a day out. It has been a UNESCO site for several decades, due to its unique Roman-Berber architecture, adapted to mountain life. The theatre is an amazing example of this: it had to be constructed into the mountain wall slightly outside the city. You can stand at the top and gaze down on the entire structure, but also clamber all the way down and around and look up at the mountain. I found it very impressive anyway. Also insanely beautiful was the new forum constructed around the time of Caracalla, with most the remains of a temple still standing, as well as a massive, intricate, monumental arch.
It does not stop there. Djemila has a stunning colonnade, with a long road that just keeps going and going (like Palmyra?!). As readers of this blog would know, I love nothing more than a good, original, Roman road, on which you can hear your footsteps echo in tune with the past. Along the road were the remains of hundreds of houses, including baths and at least two sets of very well-preserved latrines. A market square also survives, with amazing carved marble blocks and a system used for weighing (?) products. We probably spent a good 4 hours exploring Djemila before the heat forced us to retreat to the little mosaic museum, but I could easily have spent all day there; and I will definitely come back some day.
Day 3: To the Souq!
We also took a day to look around Constantine itself (read: desperately hunt down another ATM). There is an archaeological museum which looks lovely but was sadly closed each time we attempted to go there (pro tip: go there first day, get opening days and times, return later). We had a couple of errands to run e.g. buying stamps (post-cards yet to be located; Algeria does not cater to tourists, as should be clear by now); a new memory card; hopefully a small Algerian rug? First thing’s first: we had a really good café au lait + croissants in a cafe down an alley way, where mum decided to just shoo away some men and claim a table. They were fine with this. Next, we made our way down the street that looked like it could have a good market.
This is actually when we had our only really scary moment of the trip. (Being European, everyone we knew at home had uttered semi-ignorant warnings such as ‘watch out for the terrorists‘.) In the street, two men started fighting over a spot to lay their rug down to sell their goods (tea towels, fake sunglasses, etc.). They got extremely violent and started throwing rocks/bricks, some more people got involved, everyone started screaming and panicking and running away. I did what seemed most sensible: pulled my sister into the nearest shop and shut the door. The shop owner nodded approvingly. Mum however did the opposite, and went a bit closer to the scene to see what was happening (hence how I know what happened really). I guess we now know who would make the better journalist. And also who would survive longest in the job. It was all fine and no one (except the two men) got hurt; but the reaction of the crowd in the street was very much what I imagined a terrorist attack could have felt like.
Alarming moment over, the proceeded with our shopping. I got a rather nice red skirt, but sadly not a rug (yet). We decided to look for the Palais d’Ahmed Bey. We briefly got lost around the vegetable market, but friendly locals tried to help us with our map+offline phone map combo. Ahmed Bey spared no expense, building his house around two central courtyards. He used the best marble and stone, from Africa but also across the Mediterranean Sea. It is probably more interesting, and more authentic, than the Palace in Algiers. There are beautiful frescos surviving on many of the walls, as well as painted woodwork and amazing doors. However, the palace (and Constantine as a whole) was apparently visited (invaded) by Napoleon soon after its construction, and thereafter used by the French army.
Day 4: Timgad & Lambaesis
Time for one last archaeological excursion before departing from Constantine: perhaps equally or more famous than Djamila, the ancient site of Timgad (near modern Batna). Like most cities in Roman-Berber Algeria, Timgad was founded as a military colony – but, in part because of the fertile surrounding land, quickly outgrew its intended population of 15,000. It has a huge forum, where the cardo and decumanus intersect. Just off it are a few stunning ruins: double latrines, decorated with dolphins; and, if you look hard enough, a library. It is not quite the library of Celsus (Ephesus) but this is an extremely rare find.
There is a small 3,500 seat theatre up the hill, and then if you walk all the way around the remains of a massive temple, which was once dedicated to Jupiter. The most monumental feature of the site however, is probably the triumphal Arch of Trajan. It has its own Wikipedia page, so that is saying something. Timgad was also an important Christian centre until the 5th century so the city survived in peace for a relatively long time (until it was sacked by the Vandals, followed by the Arab Invasion). It was not re-settled however, so the ruins have quietly sat there ever since, waiting to be (re)discovered.
After Timgad we also made a stop in ancient Lambaesis, now the village of Tazoult. This has largely been built-over and is now most famous for housing an important prison. There have to be some differences I suppose. We did not have time for the local museum (but do stop by there, it looked nice enough from the outside), but instead picked up a local archaeologist (?) to show us to the remains of the amphitheater. There’s not much of it, making it a tad underwhelming, but the search itself made for a good adventure. The museum aide / archaeologist directed our driver down a very rocky and bumpy dirt road into a field – you know it’s going to be good when you have to go off-road – where we also encountered the mysterious barracks (?). This is a large and well-preserved building, just outside the prison, of which the use is not totally known. It’s been labelled ‘praetorium’, i.e. where the general or governor would stay; but as I understand it most objects found there were of a ritual/sacred nature, so, who knows really.
There are lots of other bits and bops spread throughout Tazoult (e.g. more monumental arches) but the driver was confused, the locals quite unable to give instructions, and information we had pre-found on the internet sparse, so I would not say our trip there was extremely successful. More preparation required next time, possibly in collaboration with the archaeological museum.
We raced back to Constantine after this, in an attempt to enter the archaeological museum (again); but alas, we were too late. We wandered up and down the high street one last time, and then headed to bed early, for our monumental road-trip to Oran.