Curtains of cold drizzle sweep over the plateau. The nearby hilltops, just two or three hundred meters higher, are flecked in snow. To keep warm, I’m wrapped up like a bear, in fleeces, thermals and gloves, but still the cold bites into any exposed skin.
For as far as I can see, the plateau is littered with columns and broken-down walls. A few arches stand tall above everything else, and at the far end of the plateau, I can make out the layered seating of an ancient theatre complex. It must once have been a city that vibrated in life, but on this cold and bleak day, it’s silent and lifeless. Nothing at all moves and not a single other person walks the cobbled streets. Nearly 2,000 years ago, this had been a thriving Roman garrison town. Noisy markets would have been stuffed with produce from across the empire; soldiers would have stamped down the streets; priests would have lit incense in the great temples; and laughter would have echoed out of the theatre. But today, the city of Timgad, high on an Algerian mountain plateau, seems forgotten by the world.
Algeria might be the largest country in Africa, but by and large, it tends to keep to itself. With the ending of a vicious civil war in 2002, Algeria has almost totally fallen off the world’s radar. Oddly, this silence has left most of us assuming the worst, and when I tell friends at home that I’m off to Algeria, they generally fall into one of two camps. By far the majority utter dark warnings along the lines of: “But isn’t it dangerous there?” One or two, though, were more positive: “I once saw a tv show on the Roman ruins there. They looked unbelievable.”
It turns out that the minority are correct. After 10 days, I decide there’s little to fear and a lot to like about Algeria. The buzzing cities are brushed in French colonial architecture, the cafes are filled with people who refuse to let me pay for my own tea, and everywhere I go, there’s always that sense of excitement of never knowing quite what would be found around the next corner. But it’s the history of Algeria’s Roman conquistadors that really leave the strongest mark on me.
My journey back in time doesn’t start in Timgad. I begin in the ruined Roman city of Hippo Regius, close to the frontier of Tunisia. Set along the shores of the Mediterranean, in a perfect natural harbour, Hippo Regius has been inhabited seemingly forever. The Phoenicians first made a home here some 3,000 years ago and there were undoubtedly others before them. It was the Romans, though, who really built Hippo Regius into a great city of trade. Slowly, over the centuries, later rulers and conquerors moved the center of the town a few kilometers north, the name was changed to Annaba and nature was left to try to reclaim the original Roman stones.
On the day I choose to visit, the weather is a melancholy theatre of filtered sunlight and dark storm clouds that occasionally erupt with lightning. The temper of the sky contrasts vividly with the honey-colored columns of the Roman ruins and sunlit yellow wildflowers.
After two or three lonely hours ambling through these fields of ruins, I find myself drawn to the summit of a low hill topped by an apparently out-of-place, garish, modern, pink-and-yellow basilica. Entering inside, my gaze is drawn first to a wall of bright, childlike murals depicting scenes from the Bible. As I wonder why a Christian basilica had been built above Roman ruins in an Islamic country, a booming voice calls out to me in African-accented English: “Aha, hello. A tourist. Welcome, welcome to my church.”
The priest turns out to be a Kenyan who delights in discovering that not only do I speak English (Algeria is a Moorish Arabic-, Berber- and French-speaking nation), but that I also know his home country well. He later explains to me how in the fifth-century Hippo Regius had become one of the most important centers of Christendom and had been the adopted home of the man who would one day be known as St Augustine. The basilica, the priest tells me, was constructed by the French during the colonial period to honor St Augustine, but nowadays, apart from a few curious Algerian visitors, “few tourists come here”. It was a statement that could apply to almost every historical site I visit in Algeria.
From Hippo Regius, I travel inland and upwards. The rain squalls of the coast slowly freeze into sleet and snow, and as we gain altitude, my driver and guide, Ahcicene, begins to fret that the weather will close in and that snow will block the road to Timgad. In the end, we get through without a hitch, and I’m rewarded with a half-day pacing the cold, empty streets of one of the world’s largest and best-preserved Roman cities, all alone.
Timgad leaves me breathless, but Ahcicene smiles when I explain how the experience of walking its streets left me feeling genuinely emotional. “Wait until you see where we’re going next then,” he says, with a cryptic wink.
The following morning, the storm clouds have cleared and a weak, milky sun brings the promise of a warmer day. Ahcicene and I stand on the edge of a barren mountain slope and peer down at Djémila. Founded in the first century as a military outpost and abandoned about 500 years later, the word Djémila translates as “beautiful”. It’s a simple name, but undeniably appropriate. Yes, there are bigger Roman sites in Algeria, but Djémila has a grace and a mountain-meadow setting that speaks of poetry.
For half a day, I explore, again all alone, and let my mind run riot with the spirits of a Roman past. I sit on the stone benches of a theatre and can almost imagine the ghosts of Roman actors performing. In the Forum, I’m sure that, for just a second, I hear an echo of Latin voices raised in debate, and in the shadows of the Arch of Caracalla, I could swear I get a glimpse of a figure in a white toga and sandals.
As we finally turn our backs on the great arches of Djémila and start our journey back, Ahcicene tells me that many people had fallen for the charms of Djémila over the decades. “Indeed”, he said, “the French philosopher and writer Albert Camus described Djémila as “a lesson in love and patience”. Perhaps, I think, smiling happily to myself, this was a line that could be used to describe Algeria in general: a quietly dozing giant patiently waiting for the day when the wider world falls in love with it.
Stuart Butler is a travel writer, photographer and guidebook writer for Rough Guides and Lonely Planet. He was in northern Algeria on assignment for Lonely Planet.