Roman Underground

Tunis, Tunisia

Hassan and Hatem picked me up promptly at 8 and we set off for the ancient Roman ruins of Dougga and Bulla Regia.

Now normally I would be super excited about visiting Roman ruins (and quite frankly I was), but my guide Hassan (Mr. Excitement) proved to not only be very informative and very enthusiastic, but very, very chatty. The guy never and I mean never gave it a rest. And to make things worse … he is the master of the obvious. Dee-bor-a. See the trees. Oleander. (Ten seconds later.) Dee-bor-a. More oleander. (10 seconds later). Dee-bor-a. More oloeander. (Ten seconds later.) Dee bor a. Look at the white houses.. Bee-u-t-ful. (10 seconds later.) Dee-bor-a. See the bee-u-t-ful houses. And if I didn’t respond with some effusive comment, he would immediately ask “did you see it?” It was exhausting, and I was still trying to figure out how to shut him down a bit without being rude or offending him. I realized he was just trying to show off his country, but I needed a break every now and then. So I knew getting into the car for the 200km trip to Dougga and Bulla Regia (and that would be each way) that I was in for a loooooong day of nonstop chatter.

Anyway, we set off on Sunday morning through the Tunisian streets and fortunately, Tunisia, like Morocco takes Sunday off unlike other Muslim countries. (The French influence at it again.) As a result, the streets were vacant save for the occasional street sweeper (and that would be a guy with a broom and not the vehicular kind).

Our first stop was about 60 km from Tunisia in a little town called Testour. We didn’t stop for any particular reason except to show me a typical small Tunisian town and to partake in the ritualistic coffee break. Now Tunisians, as near as I can see, believe that any time is a good time for coffee as the outdoor cafes are always full. And the coffee is not the drip kind of coffee. The coffee is a very thick dark espresso like coffee served in a very tiny teacup. Unfortunately, I am not a coffee drinker, but when in Rome…. so we found a small table near the front of the outdoor seating area, took a seat (as dozens of pairs of eyes stared at me), and Hassan ordered me a cup of Tunisian coffee with a little bit of sugar. A very old, slightly stopped man brought me the coffee on a serving tray, set is down in front of me and waited for my reaction so I gave it a go. First sip … thick, smokey with a hint of sweetness. Not bad. Second sip. Mmm not so much. Third sip … now it was just grainey. Fourth … uh I’m done. No more merci.
Men selling produce in Testour

So we took our leave from the cafe and wandered down the narrow street towards the car. We passed men selling fruit (I bought a pomegranate and some grapes), a fellow selling chickens, a baker (who gave me fig cookies – a little dry), and some young man and his barber waving at me from a barber chair. It was a rather friendly town without another tourist in sight. And it was rather apparent from all the stares that they don’t have many tourists through this part.

After our coffee break and walk through town we headed down the road towards Dougga, a Roman city built above the Kalled Valley in the foothills of the Teboursouk Mountains. The original name for the site was Thugga and it was a Numidian town (Numidians were the original inhabitants of what was then Tunisia) believed to date back to the second millennium BC. In the 4th century BC the area was controlled by the Carthaginians (the Phoenicians) when they advanced into the west central interior of what is now Tunisia. After the Carthaginians second war with the Romans (in the 3rd century BC) the town was put back under Numidian control. The town was taken over by the Romans in 46 BC following the Roman civil war between Pompeii and Caesar. Thugga became part of the Roman province of Africa and was renamed Dougga. Over the years, the city became “Romanized” and at its height 5,000 people occupied Dougga. Most people left Dougga by the 10th century AD, although the site continued to be occupied by a handful of people until the 1950s when Novelle Dougga was built a few kilometers away.

Dougga was constructed of light tan coloured stones brought from the local mountains and the buildings, including the amazing Dougga Capitole, used a different technique for construction that resulted in large stones to strengthen walls of smaller stones. (Sounds simple enough, but it was apparently a revolutionary technique.)

View from the Theater over to the Capitole at Dougga

As we got out of the car, the imposing and impressive Capitole came into view on my left and straight ahead was the enormous 3,500 seat theater. After a lecture from my earnest guide about the site, we set off first to check out the theater, which was built in 188 AD and contained 19 tiers. The cool part was that when I climbed to the top of the stairs in the theater, I could see the entire Dougga site. It was simply gorgeous. (And the sound in the theater was amazing … no echo.)

We wandered out the backside of the theater past a variety of remnants from the Temple of the Sun God and towards the Capitole. Every Roman city has a Capitol, which is often the most important temple in the city. This Capitole was in remarkable condition. The portico (the triangular shaped portion of the top of the temple) featured an eagle (allegedly the bird form of a Roman emperor) carrying a man in its tallons. The portico was supported by six mammoth columns each made out of a single piece of stone and topped by a fluted design.
Me in front of the Capitole at Dougga

The backside of the Capitole featured three niches that once housed a giant statute of the the Roman god Jupiter flanked by smaller statutes dedicated to the gods Juno and Minerva. No sign of the statutes now, however.

I wandered around the Capitole for spell before walking back down the enormous steps that I had taken to the top, crossed the Forum (the area that was once an open air public market) and headed towards the Temple of Juno-Caelestis (Temple of the Moon), which was much, much smaller than the Capitole, but still in pretty good shape.

As we walked down a lengthy path to the the temple, it was apparent that there were virtually no tourists at the site. (Quite frankly, the same had been true for the sites I had visited the previous day in Tunis – although the Bardo Museum was the exception.) The only folks wandering the site were a group of Tunisians who appeared to be having a rocking good time banging a drum and singing. We passed this group on the way to the temple and saw 5 people who appeared to be a Tunisian family and that was it. It was great to have the site virtually to myself, but it was sad to see such a magnificent site go unappreciated.
Me at the Temple of the Moon at Dougga

After a visit to the Temple of the Moon, we wandered back down the path where we saw the slave market, and the public toilets (common folks did their daily business at these locations and made it a social occasion – seriously), remnants of some Roman baths, and numerous noble houses with visible signs of mosaics on the floors, before visiting another grand building: the Lyciuian Roman baths, complete with hot and gold areas and a gymnasium. Now these baths were nice, and included a cold room, the hot room, two rooms for cleaning the skin, two rooms that were the equivalent of a sauna and a gymansium (for the naked wrestling), but this Roman bath were nothing compared to the baths we had seen at Carthage the day before. However, the location of the gymnasium did offer a spectacular view of the valley below and olive groves below, including the Lybyco-Punic mausoleum that dates to the 3rd century BC.

Looking across Dougga to the Slave Market

We wandered back up the hill towards the exit through the remnants of an Arch of Triumph, known as the Arch of Alexander, but only portions of the columns remained and there was no arch. We then reached the old Roman road and walked the rest of the way up the hill and our trip here was done. It had been a glorious 2 ½ hour hike through the ruins, although as the day progressed it had become warmer and more humid so it was nice to get back into the cool vehicle and head off for some lunch.

Now lunch was an interesting occasion. We ended up in a little restaurant in a local hotel (we were the only ones there). We sat down and the elderly gentleman brought us out the standard French bread and harissa with olive oil. I asked about the menu and Hassan told me he had ordered for me. Huh?? Clearly these older guides I have had on this trip are a little less appreciative of a woman with her own mind.

Anyway, rather than say anything, I went with the flow. (As it turns out I should have said something.) First my appetizer appeared: it was a briq. A briq is a local Tunisian “delicacy” made up of a fried phyllo dough shell stuffed with an egg (usually soft, but my was not) and any one of a variety of additions including tuna, onions, potatoes, capers and parsley. This briq had egg, tuna, parsley and potatoes. (Oh and about the parsley … for some reason Tunisians believe parsley is a vegetable and not a garnish. To date I have had parsley in everything from a breakfast omelet and scrambled eggs to a salad and stuffed calamari.)

Anyway, when the Briq arrived I ate it, but imagined the cholesterol count in my body going through the roof with each bite. The phyllo dough was fried to resemble the crunch of a potato chip and with the egg added on top, I am certain I had become a walking heart attack.

I finished what I could not wanting to offend my hosts, but when the main course arrived I didn’t know what to do. I was served wild boar (a local staple popular in the forests in the area). I do not eat a lot of beef (only a periodic steak from the Met in Seattle), so this was indeed a challenge. I took one taste and kind of choked it down. It was not fatty or sinewy, but had a slightly gamey flavor. I smiled awkwardly as everyone looked at me, I nodded and proceeded to suck it up and eat the two pieces on my plate. Ugh. At least the pear they gave me for desert was good.

After lunch (which we all agreed was not even close to lunch the day before in La Goulette), we headed off to the second Roman site of the day Bulla Regia, which means Royal Bull (from this day forth my friend the Bull shall be known as Bulla Regia). Bulla Regia was about 60 km from our lunch location and the trip took us through multiple villages and farms lands (where I soon learned from my guide the name of every crop grown in the area MULTIPLE TIMES OVER).

Sheep for sale on the way to Bulla Regia

Anyway, the common theme I saw running through the villages and the areas just outside of the villages were the herds of sheep literally everywhere. With the feast of Eid al Hadda only a week away, every family in Tunisia was on the hunt (so to speak) for a lamb to be ceremoniously sacrificed and served as the main course for the big day. It was fascinating to pass through the villages and see large free space areas turned into sheep markets. There were big sheep, small sheep, fat sheep and on and on. Men chatted with each other as they inspected the herds and figured out that to buy. The price? Well one fellow told me that the sheep in front of me (which by the way followed me back to the car and had a kind of rescue me look to him) would sell for 300 dinar (about $180 USD). Yikes. You better like lamb!

Entrance to Bulla Regia

We finally arrived in Bulla Regia around 3:00 and fortunately, we had a bit of cloud cover to break up the heat. (Also we were a little higher than sea level so it was a tad bit cooler.) The first thing I noticed about the site was that the colour of the Roman ruins was far different from Dougga. Here, the ruins were a tawny golden brown hue with some rust colour thrown in. Obviously the stone found in this area is far different from that found in Dougga.

The Treasure House at Bulla Regia

Now Bulla Regia is in the northern part of Tunisia near the Algerian border. It’s origins are believed to date to the 5th century BC when it was founded by the Carthaginians. Once the Cathaginains were defeated by the Romans, the Roman took over. And because the area was such a rich agricultural community (and the Romans needed wheat and other products to feed the folks back home as well as their mammoth armies), the citizens of Bulla Regia became rich under the Romans. However, Bulla Regia, like all other cities under Roman rule, fell into disarray with the end of Roman Empire and was ultimately abandoned in the 7th century.

The features that make this site so distinct from other Roman sites is the amazing (and virtually intact) underground villas that were constructed by the wealthy Bulla Regia citizens to escape the oppressive summer heat and the cold winter days.

Inside the House of the Hunt at Bulla Regia

Bulla Regia also features the beautiful Memmian Baths, (which were nice, but still nothing compared to the baths at Carthage), as well as a very nice and well preserved theater. But the star of the site were the six Roman villas that featured one floor at ground level and one floor below ground. The ground floor like other Roman ruins was barely visible, but the subterranean sections were incredible. Two villas in particular were really out of this world: the House of the Hunt and the House of Amphitrite.

The House of the Hunt featured an enormous subterranean space with its focal point being a courtyard surrounded by eight pristine pillars. Off the courtyard there was a kitchen (complete with blackened stone ceiling), a large dining room with gorgeous mosaic floor, a small bedroom with mosaic floor and at the far end of the courtyard, a larger bedroom (presumably for the parents) with lovely mosaics adorning the floor. It was surreal to walk through a floor of a Roman residence that was almost 2,000 years old and for all intense purposes was intact. (And oh did I mention the two seater latrine and private hammam on the first floor.) This place must have been amazing in its day.

Venus mosaic at House of Armprhitrite at Bulla Regia

The other remarkable villa was the House of Amprhitrite. Now this villa was not nearly as elaborate as the House of the Hunt, but the mosaics were simply stunning with sharp colours and incredible designs. The main mosaic, in particular, was really, really incredible and featured Venus flanked by two centaurs and surrounded by cupids. Simply splendid.

After spending about an hour and a half at the site, we climbed back in the car for the very long 3 hour drive back to Tunisia. The trip was pretty uneventful … more sheep sightings, but I did notice that as we were driving, the smell of burning wood was in the air everywhere. As if on cue, Hassan advised me that the smoke in the air was from the locals burning olive wood and turning in to charcoal to sell for the Big Feast. Geez … the build up to this event was actually Christmas like.

Damn on the way back to Tunis from Bulla Regia

Anyway, with that explanation, I settled in for the long ride back to the hotel. I needed to get some sleep as we were off at 7:00 a.m. to the Muslim world’s third holiest city: Kairouan.


Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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