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Report from the Field: North Africa’s Roman Legacy
Published on Wednesday, April 16, 2008
USA / Málaga, Spain
Our Mediterranean adventure began with participants arriving independently into Málaga Spain and transferring to the beach-side Hotel Guadalmina in Marbella. We gathered socially for pre-dinner cocktails and to meet our expedition leader, Mike Messick, followed by a welcome dinner.
Marbella / Granada / Motril / Embark Wind Spirit
After breakfast we departed for Granada traveling inland through the Sierra Nevada, carpeted with olive and almond groves, on our way to visit the famed World Heritage Site of the Alhambra, the most celebrated example of Moorish architecture in Europe. From the expansive complex’s hilltop location we were treated to impressive views across the city of Granada, its white walled and tile roofed houses particularly pretty in the sunshine.
The multiple palaces within the Alhambra were built by a succession of Muslim kings of Granada between the 13th and 14th centuries who carried out the original concept of representing paradise on earth. Eight pointed star motifs symbolized the heavens, and a vaulted star-covered ceiling in one palace was a reminder that these were a desert people, used to the vastness of the night sky. Exquisite individual architectural components became blended over time into a magical display of lacy stucco and stonework, slender columnar arcades, graceful porticos, and courtyards that surround a series of light-reflecting water pools.
Following our tour of the palaces we wandered in the well-wooded gardens of the Generalife, with spectacular views back to the palaces of the Alhambra. After lunch at the Alhambra Palace Hotel, we continued on to the coast at Motril where we embarked the Wind Spirit in the early evening and set sail for Algeria.
We had a more leisurely start today, which provided time to hear presentations on A Quick History of the Mediterranean by Emily Teeter, and The Maghreb: Politics of North Africa Today by Paul Harris. By noon we had arrived in the port of Oran, Algeria’s second-largest city, and were soon cleared to set off for our first Algerian exploration. Buses took us to the Sidi Abdelkader Park, the high point of Mt. Haidour with its Spanish and Moorish fortresses and the interesting small shrine, holy to local Muslim pilgrims, from which we had spectacular views out over the city.
Oran was founded by Phoenicians, later seized by Arabs, and occupied by the Spanish in 1506. During the French colonial rule over Algeria, Oran was a department capital, and it is here where we first glimpsed the French influence that weaves throughout Algerian life today and dominates much of its more recent urban architecture. We paused at the 16th century Santa Cruz church, built by the Spaniards, and stopped in town to see the old medina, the Sacré Coeur Cathedral, now converted into a public library, and La Place D’Armes (square) to admire the architecture, including the dramatic Opera House and the imposing lion statues.
At Sea en route to Algiers
Today we spent a relaxing day at sea with plenty of educational stimulation in the form of our lecture series. First, David Mitten gave us his presentation Architecture in Roman North Africa, later in the morning Michel Behar gave a talk entitled The French Colonial Era. Our afternoon and early evening’s entertainment combined a talk by Ron Wixman on The Arabization of North Africa, as we arrived at the port of Algiers, the country’s capital city, followed by a question and answer session with our local guide team of Mohamed Saidani and Said Chitour. Light rain altered the venue for our poolside barbeque, which was accompanied by the varied musical repertoire of the local group The Choukas.
Our initial introduction to Algeria’s capital, the second largest city of North Africa, did not seem promising with overcast skies and rain, but during the course of the morning the skies cleared and it turned into a beautiful day. We combined visits to ancient sites at Tipasa with the more modern features of Algiers. The Roman city of Tipasa, now a World Heritage Site, commands a wonderful position overlooking an idyllic bay and entranced us with its broad streets, its fine baths, theater, amphitheater, and villas. It was once home to 20,000 inhabitants. After exploring the site we turned back towards Algiers, stopping along the way for our picnic lunch at the extraordinary Mausoleum of Mauritania – a great structure of rock resembling a huge tumulus, or a small conical pyramid.
Next on our agenda was a visit to the museums of Islamic Arts and Antiquities, conveniently located adjacent to each other, allowing us to visit both before heading to the famous World Heritage Site of the labyrinthine Casbah of Algiers. Descending through the narrow, stepped streets of the Casbah, between the crowded centuries-old houses, was a fascinating experience. However, the crowning experience was a special visit to a private, three-storied, 500 year old house. There we were served coffee and typical North African mint tea on the roof top terrace affording superb views out over the city. Back on board once more, in time to depart for Bejaia, our evening included our first staff recap of the day’s experiences.
Bejaia and Djémila
We arrived at the seaside town of Bejaia as the sun crept over the horizon, presaging a wonderful day of sunshine. This attractive town was, however, simply our transit point for our excursion inland. Setting off at 0700 we traveled eastwards along the coastal plain with the beach to our left and the mountains to our right. We then turned south and climbed up into the Tellian Atlas Mountains by way of the tremendously scenic Kherrata Gorge. We paused here to view the sobering monument to the thousands of Algerians killed in Setif on May 8, 1945, and to see a small troup of Barbary macaques. Continuing on towards the World Heritage Site of Djémila, we paused brieflyfor mint tea, coffee, and pastries, and viewed more than a dozen white stork nests, before arriving at our destination. At Djémila we spent two and a half hours exploring this stunning sight, one of the finest Roman ruins in North Africa. We enjoyed the large site which was almost entirely deserted. Founded in the first century A.D., to capitalize on the region’s rich agricultural promise, Djémila’s citizens once enjoyed two forums, public baths, a 3,000-seat theater, temples, and a basilica and baptistry. We also visited the museum on the site, the walls and floors of which were covered with an overwhelming array of mosaics.
Annaba (Hippo Regius)
Before our arrival into modern Annaba – the ancient port of Hippo Regius – close to the Tunisian border, we heard Michel Behar’s presentation Post Independence Algeria. Armed with our box lunches, we set off for a tour of the city that was once home to Saint Augustine, one of Christendom’s most important philosophers (396–430 A.D.). We first visited the Basilica of St. Augustine, an imposing colonial French structure built in Roman, Byzantine, and Arabian styles (resembling Sacré Coeur in Paris), overlooking the city and the sea from a hilltop position. From the Basilica we descended the hill to the Roman ruins of Hippo Regius, with its network of large, flat stone roads, large forum, and early Christian basilica. We were also able to visit a local mosque and a Koranic school, before re-boarding the Wind Spirit and setting sail in the late afternoon for Tunis.
This morning we attended two presentations: first Emily Teeter on Carthage and the Carthaginians, then David Mitten on The Magic of Mosaics, on our way to Tunis. After clearing immigration and customs in La Goulette we set off for the ruins of Carthage. Our first visit was to the sobering US Military Cemetery, commemorating the thousands of American men and women who gave their lives in the North African theater of WWII. Next we explored ancient Carthage, a World Heritage Site, where we saw elements of the pre-Roman Phoenician city overlain with Roman remains. From atop Mount Byrsa, we looked out across the site of the ancient city to the extraordinary double harbor from which the Phoenicians and later the Romans controlled this region. The vast thermal Antonine Baths were an insight into the scale of the city and an indication of how important cleanliness, relaxation, and communication were amongst the inhabitants. We remained overnight in Tunis, allowing some of us to wander ashore and visit local restaurants in the port of La Goulette.
Before dawn this morning a small group of naturalists set off to the north to try their luck with the birds at Lake Ichkeul National Park, which proved a fascinating excursion. They traveled through rolling hills and wheat fields to the enormous lake and over forty species were sighted. The rest of us had a somewhat more leisurely start and visited Sidi Bou Said and admired its traditional white houses with pretty blue trim. Our visit to the extraordinary Bardo Museum, with its exquisite displays of Roman mosaics located in a centuries-old Ottoman-style palace, was a major highlight of the trip. Housing the largest collection of mosaics from Roman North Africa, the Bardo was overwhelming in the extent and quality of its fabulous collection of pre- and post-Christian mosaics collected from the floors of cities and villas across Tunisia. Our last ‘adventure’ was a walk through the Tunis souk. In the afternoon, we set sail for our last port of call in Tunisia – Sousse, along the way hearing from Ron Wixman on The Geopolitics of the Near and Middle East.
We arrived early this morning at Sousse, then divided into two groups to visit two very different sites. One was to the ‘the city of fifty mosques,’ Kairouan, the spiritual center of Tunisia founded in 670 A.D., and the fourth most holy city for Muslims around the world. In Kairouan, we visited the Great Mosque, a fortified Islamic monastery, and the walled and turreted medina enclosing a delightful old Arab quarter with a fascinating casbah where some of our friends found beautiful Tunisian rugs to adorn their homes. The other was to the World Heritage Site of El-Jem, approached down a long straight Roman road through rolling countryside with olive groves, wheat fields, and occasional carpets of poppies. El-Jem’s enormous, well-preserved 35,000-seat amphitheater, almost as large as Rome’s coliseum, formed a powerful presence on the horizon long before we reached the ancient town of Thysdrus. Exploring the below-ground cells used for wild animals and prisoners, and walking the upper tiers of the structure, it was easy to imagine the roar of crowds responding to the events in the central arena. An enthusiastic group of shoppers, led by David Mitten, brought back many treasures of traditional Berber silver jewelry. A few minutes away, the El-Jem museum displayed beautifully vibrant Roman floor mosaics, while outside were the extensive remains of a restored Roman villa, complete with the original mosaics. Returning to charming Sousse we explored the medina (another World Heritage Site), and saw the ancient walls of the lower city.
In the afternoon Michel Behar spoke to us about Illegal Immigration from North Africa to Europe, and Paul Harris described Malta: Island under Siege, followed by Captain Andrew Walsh’s cocktail party and farewell dinner.
Prior to our arrival into historic Valletta, we gathered together in the lounge for our disembarkation briefing followed by Mark Brazil’s presentation, The Nature of the Mediterranean. An afternoon excursion into Valletta allowed us to explore this World Heritage Site. An impregnable fortress-like town built by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century, and today Malta’s largest and most enchanting city, it illustrates the country’s long and turbulent history at the crossroads of invaders, conquerors, and settlers of many nationalities. We visited the fortress, the bastions, the Barracca Gardens, which afforded us a panoramic view of the Grand Harbor, then St. John’s Cathedral with its beautiful inlaid tomb covers in the floor, and Caravaggio’s famous masterpiece The Beheading of St John the Baptist. We rounded out the afternoon at the National Museum of Archaeology which set the scene for our visit to the extraordinary Tarxien Temples, a series of monolithic edifices – the oldest in the world – built around 3,600 B.C., and now a World Heritage Site. We returned to the Wind Spirit in the late afternoon for the final recap of our journey by our team of lecturers.
Valletta / Disembark Wind Spirit
This morning we said our farewells to the staff and to the crew of the Wind Spirit as we headed for the airport for our independent flights home.