December 6, 2011 | 10:38 am
Posted by Lisa Niver Rajna
Few people visit Algeria anymore because of internal strife, but I hitchhiked across the country in 1975. Theses are some recollections of the country’s greatest archeological site, the Roman city of Timgad, as they appear in my novel, Descending the Cairo Side. Here was once an African center of empire; today the ruins are empty and forlorn:
When I arrived at the nearby modern Algerian settlement, I found that accommodations were scarce. The only lodging proved to be a rather expensive hotel. But I checked in, not wishing to camp in the open. In the lobby I found a map of the ruins.
After securing my belongings and now in a state of bemused contentment, I headed for the ruins, glad that a whole Roman city lay waiting for my investigations. A man at the gate collected a pittance as an entrance fee. It would have been interesting to see if the daily receipts even paid his salary. Certainly, there was not a single other tourist on site. I was completely alone at one of northern Africa’s premium archeological wonders.
The foundations of the town lay ahead, but no buildings stood higher than about three feet. I was somewhat disappointed, thinking foolishly that I would wander the streets of a nearly intact city. This was a naive fancy, of course. The ruins had been picked over for centuries as a source for quarrying stone, and no doubt looters and grave robbers had long ago stolen anything of value that could be easily removed.
I walked down a broad boulevard in the center. The dun-colored stone remains were, in their subtle, discreet fashion, magnificent. A sense of orderliness and tidiness stood out. The city had been planned, much more carefully than were any modern population centers in North Africa. It seemed that the whole thing had been built from a central design. Streets were laid in a grid, and the map I had showed the various public and private buildings, although it would have been hard to discern the function of most of the ruins. On the surface, all was a jumble.
It didn’t take long to tire of picking through the low walls. There weren’t any interesting artifacts lying about, of course, and little in the way of artwork. I was surprised at how fast boredom set in. I felt like an unsatisfied and jaded seeker of lost history.
Yet the scale of Timgad was impressive. The stone-paved streets covered the better part of a square kilometer. Sitting down on top of a crumbling wall, I consulted the map again to see if there were other interesting spots. I had noticed, about a quarter of a mile away, a large structure that looked like a fortress or a castle. It had a non-classical architectural style to my unpracticed eye. What was that?
The structure loomed over the ruins like a giant crashed bird. It was constructed differently from the rest of the city. Although much larger than any other of the stone remnants, it seemed, at this distance, to have been put together from cruder materials. I decided to have a peek. It required a walk outside the perimeter of the Timgad ruins. I read on my map that the fort dated from Byzantine times, which would account for its stylistic singularities. It loomed more and more imposingly as I approached it. As advertised, it indeed was a kind of primitive castle. There was a wide entrance, some twenty feet high, which once may have supported huge wooden doors.
The interior was dark. I pressed on, entering the portico, feeling my way through a great central hall. The fortress was made entirely of small, roughly hewn rocks. Its lines were severe and utilitarian. Above me the ceiling faded into the darkness. Abruptly I tripped over a loose stone in the path, and a loud surprised noise emerged from my throat. Without warning, a great host of bats swooped down from the recesses of the bulwarks, twittering and screeching their eerie cries. I ducked instinctively as they swirled and swooped around me like miniature dive-bombers. It was quite unnerving and I panicked, looking for a speedy exit. They flew through my hair, brushing against my face. I had a flashing thought of rabid animals covering me with tiny painful bites and sprinted for the exit. The bats decided not to follow, but I continued running blindly for a hundred yards, finally coming to rest on the base of a column. The cries of the bats were still audible from within the gloom.
I panted, staring back at the Byzantine fort. This was not part of the bargain. God, bats! I looked around the area for a time, bewildered. The fun had gone out of this expedition. Making my way back to the ruins in the city, I attempted to busy myself studying the vestiges of Roman life, but my curiosity had taken a blow. It felt as though I had been rejected by this place, that it had no connection for me. I kicked a few stones around a small plaza, trying to decide what it all signified. I considered what I knew about Roman history. The usual schoolboy facts. Great conquerors, leaders, civilizers. But the stories from my youth no longer seemed relevant. An idea occurred to me, courtesy of the attacking bats. Maybe the Romans were precursors of a continuum of evil in Europe, proto-nazis from the ancient age. What had they accomplished in subduing and controlling their piece of the known world? Surely, their art, literature and culture counted greatly in the progression of human knowledge, but in the final analysis, their ruins were haunted places, the abodes of night creatures. They enslaved vast regions and peoples in their quest for dominance. The glories of their conquests had long withered, leaving nothing but relics of brutality and fear that gave proof to the lie about empires.
The legions of Rome represented a great leap backward for humanity. The modern history books had it wrong. I walked away from the archeological site, toward the modern town of Timgad, vowing never again to set foot on Roman territory.
Read about his book, Descending the Cairo Side
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