By now, if you’ve been following my journal, you’ll pretty much know that the Romans did what Romans do all over the lands adjoining the Mediterranean. Anil and I aren’t really too keen on ruins, never have been, but the well-preserved city of Dougga and the underground homes excavated here in Bulla Regia really were exquisite. We were driving north from El Kef towards the coast and I had to twist Anil’s arm to stop here; I’m so glad he agreed as this site really is something special.
We entered the site and walked passed the cisterns without giving them a second glance. We’ve seen a lot of cisterns now, and unless they are like the stunning ones at Kairouan, most can’t even think of competing. Not far from the cisterns, were the ruins of a massive ‘bath’, made notable by the fact that they were built under the auspices of a wealthy woman, the wife of Emperor Septimius Severus. Now isn’t that the greatest name for a husband?
Much of the remainder of the site is below ground, because here the Romans built their palatial homes deep in the ground to escape the heat of the summers. Seven villas have been unearthed in what was then the city’s wealthiest district, and they are all built using the same basic plan – a central courtyard, open to the sky, with rooms leading off into the relative darkness (read coolness).
What makes this place so amazing is that you don’t have to imagine how the Romans lived by walking through ruins that are only a few meters off the ground. Here there are complete rooms, beautifully preserved, with stunning mosaic tiled floors, skylights, fountains, baths and yes, even latrines. We had to walk carefully around the ruins because it’s entirely possible to fall down one of the openings that allowed fresh air and sunlight to penetrate into the underground rooms.
Our only disappointment came when we entered Bulla Regia’s star attraction, the House of Amphitrite. The mosaic floor in this villa is jaw-droppingly lovely. A caretaker had kindly sprinkled water on the tiles before we arrived and the colours of the tiles leapt to life before our eyes. However, a beam of light shining in a side window fell directly on the largest and most spectacular mosaic and washed out the face of one of the two centaurs flanking a nude Venus.
Now I could have understood the sun shining on the Venus, so as to make it difficult to take a photo of her in all her glory, after all we are in a Muslim country, but instead, it obliterates the centaur whose hair is being pulled by the beauty. Perhaps the ‘sun god’ doesn’t want us to see an otherwise powerful male figure being dominated by a woman in this way. However, experimenting with all the various settings on my camera, I was able to get a great shot of the centaur and I think I will have to add it to my favorites list.
The Neolithic tombs clinging to the hills surrounding the archeological site provide proof that the area was inhabited long before the Roman arrived. Bulla came to prominence in the 5th century BC when the rulers of Carthage strove to develop agriculture, primarily wheat and barley, in the region around the Medjerda River. Regia (royal) was added later by the Romans when they allowed the indigenous people some independence before destroying Carthage.
Carrying on what others had started, the Romans expanded the cultivated lands in the fertile area and eventually 60% of all the Roman Empire’s grain was grown along the Oued Medjerda. Tunisia was truly the bread-basket of the known world. This fact was brought home to us in spades because, after spending almost three weeks in Tunisia, this was the first time we had seen rolling green hills, in all directions, as far as the eye could see.
We had to pinch ourselves to remind us that we weren’t in Canada in the early summer, the grain was nearly a foot tall already, heads were forming and it was only late March. We were told that the harvest occurs in July and August, at a time that farmers in Canada are just getting a grip on whether they will have a bumper crop of their own, or not.
No one was more surprised than me to see this beautiful region of Tunisia. I had often described Tunisia as a country of rock, sand and vast salt lakes; bordered on the coast for a few kilometers inland, by massive olive groves. Aside from olives and date palms, it didn’t seem to me that it was possible to grow anything else. We had been enjoying the fresh vegetables in our oversized bowls of couscous with meat, but had no idea that the both the grain that the semolina is made from, and the carrots, fennel, potatoes, tomatoes and cabbage are all produced in this country.
It was the bounty of the agriculture in the fields, surrounding Bulla Regia, that made the Romans living there, wealthy and we are fortunate that they went to such effort to live well, underground, so that two thousand years later, we are able to tour their magnificent homes. Aside from the showpiece House of Amphitrite, I loved the House Of The Hunt, with its mosaics depicting dramatic scenes of a lion chase, with blood spurting from the creature’s wounds. Once again, while the peasants toiled in the fields, the aristocrats were free to entertain themselves with blood sports and boast about it for centuries to come.