Lost Cities: Timgad

Returning to our lost Cities series, today we jump back to the African continent, but this time we are going to the north of the Sahara to talk about the formidable city of Timgad. Also known as Thamugas or Thamugadi in old Berber, this settlement dates to Roman times. Located on the northern slope of the Aurès Mountains – the east side of the Atlas system – Colonia Marciana Ulpia Traiana Thamugadi, as Trajan named it, was literally built out of scratch in the year 100AD at a very important crossroad in the Roman province of Numidia; modern day Algeria. According to the volume Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past (ed. By Paul G. Bahn), this was originally established as a military colony for the legionary veterans from Lambaesis, corresponding most likely to the 3rd Augustan legion. Trajan gave the place such an elaborate name in honour of several of his family members most notoriously his mother, father and sister (Marcia, Marcus Ulpius, and Ulpia Marcia…). Like with many of the cities we have been looking at during this series, Timgad was once a centre of great importance, which eventually declined and remained hidden from the human eye for centuries. In this particular case, what actually stopped the city from being undisturbed and preserved since its abandonment in the 8th century, was the endless layers of sand blown straight from the Sahara and encroached by the mountains that kept Timgad from harm. According to Donald Langmead and Christine Garnaut, Timgad remained under Arab control until the annexation of Algeria by France in 1830. It was in fact a French architect, Albert Ballu, who commenced the investigations for the site leading to its eventual rediscovery in 1881. Albert was working then for the Service des Monuments Historiques de l’Algerie. Thankfully for us, Albert was a man of integrity and well learned, and advocated for the preservation of the local heritage according to the traditions of the country. Thank to his care of the site, routinary excavations were carried out all the way to the 1960s, exposing what is believed to be one of the best-preserved representations of a grid plan Roman town. In fact, Langmead and Garnaut state that the city became a key source already back in the day for the development of city plans in early modern society, therefore having a direct impact in architectural development and urban planning. It is very likely that this very knowledge, given Albert’s background, is what allowed him to search for the city and recover it from oblivion. Thankfully for Timgad, unlike many of the other sites we have explored so far, the UNESCO recognised its importance very early on, and has been under their listed of protected monuments since 1982. The Algerian government worked closely with the site too to ensure that no modern buildings would cover the ruins either.

So what do we know about Timgad? In order to understand the reason why the place was created, we can make use of the toponomy and the geographical location to see why this area of Numidia was so important for Rome. The words Thamugas/Thamugadi refer to a peak or summit in the Berber language. Considering its location right off the Aures and the Atlas, this probably makes more sense. The Berbers were the original population of this area, and they lived in the mountains as their natural refuge, which is where the Romans would have got the last bit of the name of the settlement. Numidia was known as the granary of Rome, and the area surrounding Timgad at the time of its creation would have been that of a savannah grassland. Several olive presses have been found in the site as well as the nearby area, and there is evidence for an aqueduct that would have carried water for 3 miles. Therefore, as you can see this was killing 2 birds with one stone: cover your basic military threat and farm the land. Interestingly, and despite the threat of the natives, the city was walled but no fortified. The design of the grid plan suggest it was originally intended to host around 15000 people. However, this was outgrown quickly as the city prospered, leaving its perfect orthogonal shape based on the cardo and decumanus behind, and incorporating suburbs for the new inhabitants. This expansion corresponds with the Severan period, when the vast majority of the public buildings of the settlements were commissioned. According to Bahns book by the end of the 2nd century, Timgad already counted with a great public market and a theatre capable of sitting around 3500 people – which by the way is still in use these days for public functions! The total remains of the buildings erected by the state go up to 20, including a curia, thermae, basilica, and a temple dedicated to Jupiter which is roughly the same dimensions than the pantheon in Rome. There is also the famous Arch of Trajan, also known at the Timgad arch, which is a wonderful triumphal arch that got restored to its former glory in 1900. However, one of the buildings that has interested many scholars is the library gifted by Marcus Julius Quintianus Flavius Rogatianus (as stated clearly on the building site itself), which cost 400 000 sesterces. Although no evidence remains from the examples that this library may have contained, the size and distribution of it suggest it had a capacity for at least 3000 rolls. All the building mentioned above and found in the settlement are made from stone and there are clear since of frequent upgrade throughout Roman rule. Furthermore, investigations carried out by Katherine Dunbabi suggest that during the 2nd and early 3rd century Timgad was also an important centre for the production of mosaics. She has identified remarkable work in geometric pavement patterns, as well as finds amounting to 40 pieces contained luxuriously decorated vegetation motives. Finally, another other reasons why Timgad became a renown city was due to its function as a religious centre, which came a bit later in the 4th century. A famous and respected bishopric, the people of Timgad unfortunately carried the enemy within! Some religious disturbances arose in Numidia due to the practice of Donatism. This is a branch of the early Roman church that developed in North Africa as part of the schisms caused by the Church of Carthage and that advocated for a more rigorous and virtuous dogma. The name comes from a Christian Berber bishop who popularised the practice, Donatus Magnus, and who believed the church and clergy should a place for saints and good actions, with no room for sins and sinners. As it stands, Timgad’s role in the spread of this dogma was vital. Standing on a cross road connecting 6 of the most important ‘viae’ in the area, and with ample trade, Donatism flourished where others may have failed.

Once again you may be thinking, okay, so what happened here for the city to end up abandoned and in ruins? Timgad just suffered the fate of the rest of the empire. The 5th century becomes really tricky for Rome trying to fend off the Germanic groups that had been infiltrating the borders for centuries due to lazy and poor management. The Vandals were a greatly mobile group and very quickly they made their way down from the Iberian Peninsula into the north of Africa, resulting in the sacking of several settlements – Thamugadi included. The area was deprived of the means for preservation and decline followed. There was a brief period of resurgent around 535 after the arrival of the Byzantine general Solomon. He came with the intention to occupy the settlement, but he found it empty, so an attempt to recolonise the area took place, with the Byzantine troops building a citadel towards the southeast of the city, repurposing some of the original construction materials from the site. Nevertheless, our good old friends the Berbers gave Solomon and his friends hell throughout the 6th and 7th centuries which led once again to the stagnation of the settlement with the eventual downfall taking place in the 8th century at the hands of the Arabs. There wasn’t much for them to ransack at this stage, so the place was essentially left to rot and be buried by sand.

*references mentioned in text: 

Donald Langmead, Christine Garnaut Encyclopedia of Architectural and Engineering Feats (Michigan, 2001).
Katherine m. D. Dunbabi, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World (Cambridge, 1999).

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