After leaving our comfy digs in Djerba, we found we were pretty much cut off from internet access in our hotels. While a couple of the larger ones did provide access, for what seemed like a steep fee (TD 5/hour, when you can get a café au lait for a quarter of a TD), most of the smaller ones we stayed in had no connectivity at all. This was both good and bad. We were feeling the pressure of moving on from one amazing place to the next because now, in addition to our usual costs, we had added the expense of a rental car. We stopped in here and there to check email at small internet cafes, but they weren’t places one would want to spend much time, especially not time to upload photos and work on my journal.
The unexpected side benefit of all this was that we went to bed early and were up and breakfasted early too and we could set off to explore around 8:00am instead of our more usual 11:00am. As our fellow traveller Audrey Hawn once commented, we like to get moving around ‘the crack of noon’. We left our hotel in El Kef and drove the 66km to Dougga, on a bright, clear morning with birds chirping and the grain in the fields waving as we passed by.
We arrived at the entrance to Dougga before the guard had even wandered down to the gate to open it for the day. He seemed surprised to see anyone so early, and we later learned we that most tourists come by bus from Tunis and entered through the main gate on the opposite side of the ruins. This meant we had the place all to ourselves, and that we walked towards the ruins along a small rocky path that was intended to give access to the cisterns and baths as tourists made their way from the major sites to the less visited ones.
By now, we were getting a little jaded with Roman ruins. I was beginning to think that I should change the name of this year’s journal from ‘Circle The Mediterranean’ to ‘A Tour Of The Roman Empire’. I thought about adding the word ‘Holy’ into the title, but we are currently in the midst of a huge scandal involving Pope Benedict and his alleged involvement with the attempt to cover up decades of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. It seems there was nothing holy about how the Romans behaved in ancient times, or in modern times.
We saw Roman ruins in Spain, France, Italy of course, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and now Tunisia. I’ve never been a fan of ruins in the past, though I must say seeing the Pyramids in Egypt (which has been a dream since childhood and I visited in 1972, and again with Anil in 1977), has long been a highlight of my world travels. We skipped Egypt this time, but perhaps will include it in Year Six when we hope to focus on Africa. While most of that trip will be in Sub-Saharan Africa, it would be easy to add Egypt, if we are approaching the continent from Europe.
Dougga is one of the most impressive Roman monuments in all of Africa, and was declared a UNESCO World-Heritage site in 1997. The ruins are incredibly complete and we were thrilled to explore them undisturbed by other visitors. As we walked towards the largest of the monuments, I was bowled over by the carpet of wildflowers growing in and around the various ruins. I have often read about just such a sight, and indeed, we have tons of wildflowers in Canada in the spring, but we were always hampered by Anil’s teaching schedule and couldn’t travel at that time of year.
Once again, the Romans merely established their fine city on the site previously chosen by those who came before. The location is fed by several natural springs and overlooks fields of grain dotted here and there with groves of olives trees in neat rows. The mausoleum standing alone far from the Roman ruins, was built at the beginning of the 2nd century BC, long before the Romans arrived and was once graced with a bilingual Libyan/Punic plaque dedicating the monument to ‘the son of, the son of’. The plaque now rests in the British Museum in London.
Dougga is dominated by two magnificent monuments; the Capital and the Theatre, which could accommodate an audience of up to 3500. Today the Theatre is the setting for the month-long Dougga Festival, when classical dramas are staged to entertain today’s elite. I won’t go into any detail about them; the photos speak volumes about their beauty and state of preservation. After getting our fill of their massive proportions, we spent the remainder of our three hours at the complex, wandering around the smaller, yet no less impressive ruins.
Most entertaining of all were the baths and latrines we discovered in the area of the town that is thought to have housed the local brothel. It must have been a busy place because the baths contain a horseshoe-shaped set of twelve latrines next to the large and luxurious Cyclops Baths. We understand the baths got their name from a remarkable mosaic, which is now on display in the Bardo Museum in Tunis. We debated on visiting the Bardo before touring the country, but after seeing those twelve seats, side by side in situ so to speak, I know the Cyclops mosaic will hold more meaning for me than if I had seen it before the ruins here in Dougga.
We were intrigued by a large circle cut into the stone in the centre of the Square of the Winds. Our guidebook didn’t explain that the engraving was on the floor of the square and it took us some time to figure out where to look to find the names of the twelve winds. Most of the names have been worn away by the feet of the multitudes who passed through the square in the last 2000 years, but we did manage to find the name Africus, the ancient name given for the hot winds that blow from the south of Tunisia. Today, these winds are known as the sirocco.
The tour buses started arriving from Tunis, the visitors coming on a day trip from the capital. We used the great toilet facilities that have been built to accommodate the large groups of tourists and wandered back out the way we had entered. It wasn’t long before we felt alone at the site once again and we were happy we had made the one-hour drive from El Kef instead of opting for a tour.
We were free to coast along the small provincial highway, with almost no traffic to speak of. Along the way we passed countless clusters of sheep, each with their own shepherd. I pulled to a stop and got out to ask one man and his wife if I could take their picture. The man smiled broadly and stood with his flock, but the woman sidled out of the camera’s range. Yes, it’s a posed shot, but I don’t like to take photos of people’s faces without their permission.
We were surprised to find ourselves back at our hotel shortly after mid-day. I guess my father was right; a great can be accomplished in the early morning hours. This morning’s adventure was just that, truly Great.