Must-See: Dougga, Tunisia

Must-See: Dougga, Tunisia

By Steve English

Must-See: Dougga, Tunisia

The best-preserved example of a Roman city in North Africa, this UNESCO-protected marvel offers a unique glimpse into the past.

In ancient times, caravans bound for Carthage and the Numidian colony of Theveste were a common site on the road beneath Dougga, a wealthy agricultural town in the hills of what is now northern Tunisia. The traders came to barter for olives and grain harvested from the valley’s fertile soil, but the exchanges weren’t purely economic. Today, visitors to this hilltop settlement can see the influence of a variety of different cultures stretching back through history, including Roman, Greek, Punic, and Numidian. Best of all, they’re not difficult to spot. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Dougga is recognized as the best-preserved example of an ancient Roman city in North Africa. As you explore its twisting, decidedly un-Roman streets, it’s easy to imagine what daily life was like here centuries ago. It’s a place where you feel the past as much as study it.

Before the Romans
Dougga has a long and intriguing history that stretches back over more than 17 centuries, well before the Romans arrived. The site’s most unusual pre-Roman structure is its second-century BC mausoleum, a three-story edifice that blends an Egyptian-style pyramid with Ionic columns characteristic to traditional Greek temples, and which once featured an inscription in both Phoenician and Numidian that now resides in Tunis’ Bardo National Museum. Then known as Thugga, the city was likely an early capital of the Numidian kingdom and an important trade center, which may explain the presence of Greek jewelry, pottery, and wine amphorae recovered from the Bronze Age tombs discovered nearby. The city’s inhabitants enjoyed a prosperous and peaceful lifestyle throughout most of its history, thriving equally under Numidian, Carthaginian, and Roman rule.

A synthesis of cultures
Unlike Carthage, which saw its city razed to rubble and its population sold off into slavery following Rome’s victory in the Punic Wars, Dougga somehow survived the resulting Roman conquest of North Africa unscathed. Curiously, the Romans opted to develop the city on top of the existing Numidian street plan, which explains why its rambling avenues don’t conform to the strict grid characteristic of most Roman towns. (The site is considered the best-known example of a Roman settlement adapted to an indigenous layout.)

In addition to the remarkable condition of its ruins, this unusual commingling of cultures is one of Dougga’s most compelling and defining features. Indigenous Numidians and Roman settlers lived side by side here as legally distinct communities for roughly 250 years, peacefully coexisting and making equal contributions to civic life. The Numidian residents were governed by local Punic administrators, while the Romans took their orders from the Roman governors at Carthage. In A.D. 205, Roman emperor Septimius Severus simplified the arrangement, unifying the city into a municipium and granting all residents partial Roman citizenship. (A triumphal arch built in Septimius’ honor stands as one of the site’s best-preserved remains.)

Exploring the site
Despite its wealth and strategic location, Dougga was a relatively unimportant outpost of Africa Proconsularis, Rome’s North African province. But its isolation and insignificance contributed significantly to the site’s ability to weather the centuries mostly intact – with few nearby neighbors and little modern encroachment, the site’s bricks and monuments were never harvested for reuse or damaged by urban sprawl.

The 185-acre (75-hectare) site contains all of the elements of a traditional Roman city from the second and third centuries A.D.: three significant temples, a 3,500-seat theatre, two Roman baths, and private villas (some with remarkably well-preserved mosaic floors. The remains of a Byzantine fort stand on the site of where the city’s arena once stood, and defensive walls built to repel Vandal raids still stand. There are also at least twenty smaller temples, an unusually high number for a settlement of its size; archaeologist initially believed the site to be a significant religious center, but most now agree that Dougga’s preponderance of shrines was built by its wealthy residents to thank the gods for their prosperity.

You don’t have to be an expert in Roman archaeology to appreciate the beauty of Dougga’s ruins and surroundings (although it certainly helps). The goldenrod-colored stone photographs perfectly against the Oued Khalled’s clear blue skies, rolling green hills, and the distant Monts de Tabursuq. Virtually untouched by modern civilization, the site has few amenities for visitors, so come prepared with your own refreshments, plus a good pair of walking shoes – they’ll come in handy when strolling the winding cobblestone streets and clambering up on top of the stonework for to line up the perfect snapshot. If you can, aim to be on site at dawn or dusk; not only will you capture incredible photos of the sun flickering through the time-worn columns, you’ll escape the midday heat, too.

Getting there
Located some 60 miles (100 km) west of Tunis, Dougga isn’t the sort of place one stumbles across on an afternoon stroll. The best way to get there? Book Kensington Tours’ 12-day “Signature Tunisia” tour, one of National Geographic Traveler’s “50 Tours of a Lifetime,” or contact a Destination Expert and create a North Africa adventure all your own.

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