Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dougga, Tunisia

[Note: This travelogue has been re-formatted within the blog to facilitate better searches and commentaries. The original travelogue can still be found here]

Most tourists go to Tunisia for cheap sunshine. A few go for the archeology and scenery. They are the sensible ones!

For several years during the 1990s I was working part-time in Tunisia and one of the places I often visited was the Roman town of Dougga.

One of my jobs was to look after an oil exploration license in the Sahel, an area in the north of Tunisia that was once a rich province of Rome. The Roman town of Dougga contains the best preserved evidence and is a spectacular place to visit. Yet on average only about 30 people visit the place every day! Here's a virtual tour.

Dougga, Tunisia

The Amphitheatre is the first major area once you enter the ruins. It is a spectacular structure with a commanding view over the valley that now contains the main road between Tunisia and Algeria. There has being ongoing restoration here for many years so it is hard to tell exactly what is ruin and what has been restored. However, much of the restoration is very necessary or the entire ruin would crumble away.

The Amphitheater, Dougga

This is a close up of the central aisle up the semi-circular seating area. A large stage (proscenium) with pillars faces the audience who, if bored by the entertainment, would be able to look out far down the valley in front of them.

The Amphitheater, Dougga

The paved road into the main part of the town has grooves carved by chariots and carts. I had heard that the standard railway gauge (4 feet 8-1/2 inches) was supposed to have been derived from the width of a Roman chariot axle, so I was keen to measure the space between the well worn grooves.

The evidence is quite clear - the gap is a few inches less than 5 feet wide - but whether this proves the supposition to be correct is another matter!

Chariot Wheel Grooves, Dougga, Tunisia

The center of Dougga contains temples and public buildings. The Capitol is the most striking building today and it probably was in Roman times. The Forum lies along side the Capitol but only has pillars with no roof. The Capitol has received a lot of attention in recent years and there may be scaffolding in place should you visit Dougga.

The stone masonry is superb even after two thousand years of erosion and corrosion.

Dougga, Tunisia

As the most impressive feature on the site, the Capitol stands over everything and is visible from almost everywhere in the town.

The Capitol, Dougga, Tunisia

The detail on the front of the Capitol is superb. Unfortunately I had to take most of my photos in the middle of the day in bright sunlight. This is not the best light as it is too harsh.

The Capitol, Dougga, Tunisia

The Capitol can be seen here from one of the many vistas within the town itself. I have to believe that much of the building you see in this photo may have been reconstructed in recent years. I say this because every time I visited Dougga there were a few more walls and arches!

This part of Dougga includes some examples of Roman under floor heating. This was fairly crude in that fires were lit near the base of houses and the smoke and heat from the fire drawn through the basements. Such basements are accessible and they still show signs of black soot from the fires.

Also, do look out for slabs of nummulite limestone - a hard slab packed with fossils about an inch or so long. This is part of the Metlaoui Formation, the principal building stone in the area. A large quarry exists on the road leading up to Dougga - I am not sure if this was originally the Roman quarry used to build the town.

Dougga, Tunisia

The stone work here looks 20th Century to me! This is particularly true for the ceiling. You can see where the original ruin has been added on to.

Roman Arches and Roof, Dougga, Tunisia

Roman Carving, Dougga, Tunisia

Carvings and Mosaics remind the visitor of the high level of craftsmanship that existed two thousand years ago. Unfortunately most of the mosaics have been removed and are in the Bardo Museum in Tunis.

Roman Mosiac, Dougga, Tunisia

I believe this is a temple but I am not completely sure about which one. There were several temples at Dougga. This one has some of its structure still standing.

These photos were taken in spring and the wild flowers are at their best in March and April, particularly if there has been a decent winter's rain (not always the case in Tunisia these days). It is probable that, in Roman times, the area was a lot more fertile than it is today. Fields in the Sahel looks positively green in the spring; by July just about everything is brown.

The area behind the temple is a modern olive grove.

Dougga Ruins, Tunisia

This is the view to the southwest, showing the lower part of the town as well as the valley with the mountains of the Sahel to the south.

The buildings in the foreground are part of the main town. The lower part of town includes two features that are either ignored or stressed by the tour guides and tour books, depending on their position with regard to antiquities.

The building with the courtyard surrounded by small rooms is either known as the Trifolium or the brothel. In polite circles it is known as the Trifolium and the tour group moves on to the next site. Guides who explain its function as the red light district of the town will also demonstrate the hollow stone "door bell" at the entrance.

To the right of the brothel (and not in the photo) is the public latrine. This is an interesting horse shoe shaped communal toilet where Romans could discuss whatever it was Romans discussed in horse shoe shaped latrines! An efficient water system carried the waste in a culvert down the hill.

Dougga, Tunisia

If you engage the services of a local guide then I can guarantee that they will take you to this point in order for you to be able to take your own "postcard view" of Dougga!

The view of the Capitol is framed in an arch and two old olive trees located on the western edge of the city, the furthest distance from the entrance. It is worth the effort though the guides do expect an extra tip for showing it to you!

If you are in Tunisia, even if only to soak up some sunshine, do consider making a day trip to Dougga. Not only do you see a fine Roman ruin but the scenery on the way and while you are there will be worth the effort. There are a few notes below on what to do and expect if you do go to Dougga.

Dougga - the Capitol, Tunisia


There are lots of tourist guide books and sites on Tunisia and they are generally accurate and well written. Websites come and go so I suggest you Google Dougga and see what comes up!

Maps can be difficult to obtain but if you self drive the car rental company should be able to give you a basic road map. Getting in and out of Tunis can be difficult so if you are leary of driving, consider hiring a car with driver.

Driving in Tunisia is generally safe but the main road to Dougga is also the main road to Algeria and the long distance taxi drivers (Louage) and truck drivers often seem to have a death wish, overtaking on blind hills and corners.

There is a hotel in the modern town of Teboursouk, two miles away. This is called the Hotel Thugga (an alternative spelling!) and offers lunches for tour buses as well as overnight stays and dinner for those who wish to spend more time. I have stayed several weeks there while working in the Sahel and have two comments - the food is good but the menu very monotonous! If possible, ask the waiter if you can have an "off the menu" brik a l'oeuf. This is a local appetizer and is delicious. The restaurant also stocks a local red wine that was originally made by monks in a monastery just to the north of Teboursouk. I don't remember the name of the wine but, as far as Tunisian wine goes, this is one of the best (the monks obviously trained the present wine makers very well!)

There is a small charge to enter Dougga and you will also be accosted by tour guides. Do consider using a guide as they know the site and will explain everything. If you have a guide book that includes a map this will help to orient yourself.

It can be very hot in the summer and there is little shade. So take personal sun protection with you and lots of bottled water. Be warned that Dougga can be surprisingly cold in Winter and early Spring.