Curtains of cold drizzle sweep over the plateau. The nearby hilltops, just two or three hundred metres higher, are flecked in snow. To keep warm, I’m wrapped up like a bear, in fleeces, thermals and gloves, but still the cold bites into any exposed skin.
For as far as I can see, the plateau is littered with columns and broken-down walls. A few arches stand tall above everything else, and at the far end of the plateau, I can make out the layered seating of an ancient theatre complex. It must once have been a city that vibrated in life, but on this cold and bleak day, it’s silent and lifeless. Nothing at all moves and not a single other person walks the cobbled streets. Nearly 2,000 years ago, this had been a thriving Roman garrison town. Noisy markets would have been stuffed with produce from across the empire; soldiers would have stamped down the streets; priests would have lit incense in the great temples; and laughter would have echoed out of the theatre. But today, the city of Timgad, high on an Algerian mountain plateau, seems forgotten by the world.
Algeria might be the largest country in Africa, but by and large, it tends to keep to itself. With the ending of a vicious civil war in 2002, Algeria has almost totally fallen off the world’s radar. Oddly, this silence has left most of us assuming the worst, and when I tell friends at home that I’m off to Algeria, they generally fall into one of two camps. By far the majority utter dark warnings along the lines of: “But isn’t it dangerous there?” One or two, though, were more positive: “I once saw a programme on the Roman ruins there. They looked unbelievable.”
It turns out that the minority are correct. After 10 days, I decide there’s little to fear and a lot to like about Algeria. The buzzing cities are brushed in French colonial architecture, the cafes are filled with people who refuse to let me pay for my own tea, and everywhere I go, there’s always that sense of excitement of never knowing quite what would be found around the next corner. But it’s the history of Algeria’s Roman conquistadors that really leave the strongest mark on me.
My journey back in time doesn’t start in Timgad. I begin in the ruined Roman city of Hippo Regius, close to the frontier of Tunisia. Set along the shores of the Mediterranean, in a perfect natural harbour, Hippo Regius has been inhabited seemingly forever. The Phoenicians first made a home here some 3,000 years ago and there were undoubtedly others before them. It was the Romans, though, who really built Hippo Regius into a great city of trade. Slowly, over the centuries, later rulers and conquerors moved the centre of the town a few kilometres north, the name was changed to Annaba and nature was left to try to reclaim the original Roman stones.
On the day I choose to visit, the weather is a melancholy theatre of filtered sunlight and dark storm clouds that occasionally erupt with lightning. The temper of the sky contrasts vividly with…