North Africa is famous for its bustling souks, nomadic ties and the expanse of the Saharan sands, yet it is also rich in Roman legacy. These incredibly well-preserved remnants of an empire dot the rugged and sweeping landscapes from Morocco to Egypt in stunning and even remote locations.
Although the fall of the Roman Empire occurred more than a millennium ago, the grandeur of its exquisite and ingenious architecture has never failed to sustain the intrigue for this timeless civilization.
One of Morocco’s must-see sites from the Roman era is Volubilis. This former administrative city of the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana boasted its prosperity through the fruitful production of olive oil, and the buildings dedicated to this successful profession still exist.
This ancient outpost remained occupied well after the Romans had left, but it was in the 18th century that King Ismail Ibn Sharif had many of the structures in Volubilis torn down for use towards building his posh residence in nearby Meknes.
Despite the king’s brazenness and the passing of time, Volubilis continues to display its richness in antiquity. The fourth century basilica, the soaring columns of the Capitoline Temple and the Arch of Caracalla are prominent features of this ancient skyline. The cherished prize of Volubilis is its 30 exquisite mosaics, which cover the floors in the site’s former residences.
Set in the undulating hills of northern Algeria, Djémila, formerly known in the ancient world as Cuicul, is one of the country’s greatest treasures from the days of the Roman Empire.
In the first century AD, the Romans established Djémila as a garrison to keep the success of the agricultural region in check. As a result of the city’s growth, development expanded beyond the city walls and included the construction of two forums and a theater to seat 3,000 people.
Although deserted in the fifth century AD, Djémila has aged gracefully with time and many of its ruins, such as the visible pipes that carried water to the Grand Baths, have held up extraordinarily well. The excavation of Djémila began in 1909 and lasted until 1957, producing a cache of artifacts for the site’s museum—items range from marble statues to traditional cookery. Yet, Djémila’s mosaics are the pièces de résistance: ‘The Abduction of Europe by Jupiter’ and ‘The Toilette of Venus’ are among many of the precious artworks to appreciate today.
For a stroll down Roman history lane, Dougga is the place to be. Although its collection of priceless mosaics and statues are on display in Tunis’ Bardo Museum, this ancient administrative center certainly captivates visitors with a venerable ensemble of not only its Roman past but that of Numidian, Punic and Byzantinne influences as well.
Of Dougga’s twelve temples, the Capitol is its most impressive. Constructed in 166 AD, the Romans dedicated this grand structure to the Capitoline Triad: Jupiter (king of the gods), Juno (Jupiter’s sister/wife and queen of the gods) and Minerva (born from the head of Jupiter she became the goddess of wisdom and the arts). Each marble statue had their individual niches, which remain visible in the Capitol today; however, only portions of the imposing statue of Jupiter survived the ages while the other two did not.
One other feature to highlight in this ancient city is its theater. Originally built to accommodate an audience of 3,500, this second-century venue hosts classical performances at the International Festival of Dougga every summer. A seat from this lofty perch also provides a panorama of the fertile valley fields below.
Originally founded in the tenth century BC, Leptis Magna was the hub of regional trade, and its economy grew from its wealth of agriculture, specifically olives. As a result, Julius Caesar happily imposed a yearly tax of three million pounds of olive oil on the coastal city in the year 46 BC.
Recognition for many of the vestiges in Leptis Magna goes to Lucius Septimius Severus, who was from here and became a Roman emperor in the year 193 AD. During his reign, Severus undertook ambitious construction plans to enhance the city, such as a 12-mile aqueduct, the Hunting Baths, which display the names of honored hunters on the walls, and an initiative to improve the main harbor. Although Severus oversaw the beginning of the city’s new forum with an adjacent basilica, it was his son Caracalla who ensured its completion and inaugurated it five years after his father’s death in England. In honor of the native son who became a ruler of Rome, the citizens of Leptis Magna constructed the Severan Arch on the north-south cardo, the splendor of which still stands today.
Also formerly known as the place of culture and the arts, Leptis Magna’s first century theater dramatically illustrates this. The stage’s soaring columns and the cobalt blue Mediterranean in the background have elevated Leptis Magna to one of North Africa’s celebrated icons of ancient Roman architecture.
Famed for Pharaohs and pyramids, Egypt’s Roman influences are subtly present and what better place to see traces of these than in Alexandria. The ‘Pearl of the Mediterranean,’ founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, was the Greco-Roman capital of Egypt and the center for learning in the ancient world.
Although archaeological digs in the area have revealed a treasure of Roman ruins, such as the exquisite floor mosaics in the ‘Villa of the Birds’, one of Alexandria’s distinguished attractions is its Roman theater from the second century AD. Discovered by chance during the excavation process for a government building in the 1960s, this odeum is the only one of its kind in Egypt and could seat an audience of 600 – 800 people under a semi-circular roof. The chiseled Roman numerals in the thirteen rows of marble benches are still noticeable, too.
Though these exposed ruins have withstood the influences of time and humanity, they also display in their fragility that even the mightiest of empires can fall.
Sources:501 must-visit destinations, unesco