The site on the northern bank of the Oued Medjerda was originally a Numidian (Berber) settlement and marble from here was used to construct the monument of Micipsa in Algeria in 130 BC. The region came under control of the Romans when Caesar defeated the combined forces of Pompey and the local Numidian king. The unusual pink-veined yellow marble was exported throughout the Roman Empire; a symbol of Rome’s domination over exotic lands, looking for all the world like gold.
Slaves were pressed into the difficult job of cutting the huge blocks of stone, transporting them on rollers to the Medjerda River and floating them downstream to the port of Utica on barges. When the river eventually silted up, a road was constructed up and over the Kroumirie Mountains to the port at Tabarka. It is astonishing to see the center portion of the mountain carved away as the marble was extracted. A huge pile of rubble stands as testament to the effort made by the slaves to free the stones using simple hammers and wedges.
We approached Chemtou from the east and as we neared the site, we could see the remains of a massive aqueduct that was constructed to bring spring water from the Kroumirie Mountains, 30km to the north. Chemtou marble ranges in colour from dark red to green but the most highly valued shade was golden yellow. When Caesar was murdered, an eight metre high column of Chemtou marble was placed in the Forum, in Rome, in his honour.
The marble continued to be quarried during the Byzantine times in Tunisia but was halted with the Arab invasion in the 7th century. A very modern museum has been constructed at the site with assistance from the French and Germans. Too bad that Britain, the US or Canada was not involved in the financing or we might have seen English captions on the exhibits as well as Arabic, French and German.
It was well worth driving the short distance from the main highway to Chemtou. I have never been to a marble quarry before and it was something to see the dramatic rock in situ. I especially liked seeing the samples of the marble extracted from other quarries in the Roman Empire. When contrasted with the white, black, grey and green marbles, the incredible colour of the pink/yellow stone is striking. It’s easy to see why it was so highly prized, and why Chemtou became the largest quarry in all of ancient North Africa.