Algeria: Late Antique Secrets

Stefanie Lenk talks about her most recent research trip to Algeria in the company of nine fellow academics from Oxford and the British Museum, and discusses some the highlights of the trip for her own work on Late Antique baptisteries.

Yesterday, I returned from a mind-blowing trip to Algeria. The ever so energetic James Howard-Johnston had organized the 12-day long tour for 10 researchers, most of them affiliated to the University of Oxford. Luckily, I got a place! I am working on the decorations of baptisteries in the 5th and 6th century Western Mediterranean, and the largest part of my source material is to be found in the region of today’s Algeria and Tunisia. While Tunisia is a long-standing tourist destination, Algeria has suffered from the wide absence of tourism since the civil war in the 1990’s. I had never really considered going there myself, assuming that security issues and travel costs would make it too challenging a trip. Our incredible travel agency quickly disabused me of this idea.

View from the Casbah of Algiers over the city
View from the Casbah of Algiers over the city

The tour led us to many of the Roman sites in the North East of the country including St. Augustine’s Hippo Regius, Djémila, Tiddis, and Timgad as well as to the most spectacular museum collections with a conceivable climax at Sétif, before we passed through the stunning Aurès Mountains into the desert.

Dionysiac mosaic, 3rd century AD, Musée National d’Arquéologie, Sétif
Dionysiac mosaic, 3rd century AD, Musée National d’Arquéologie, Sétif

Here we visited the early Islamic site of Sidi Okba which shows a long history of exchange with the Great Mosque of Kairouan, headed northwards again to the 11th century Hammadid capital Beni Hammad and immersed ourselves in more Roman sites in the beautiful cities of Cherchell (ancient Caesarea) and Tipasa west of Algiers.

8th century tombstone and an 11th century wooden door in the mosque of Sidi Okba
Much excitement in front of an 8th century tombstone and an 11th century wooden door in the mosque of Sidi Okba

My travel companions showed much interest and even affection for the all in all eight late antique baptisteries that we came across during our tour. They are quite monumental structures, often detached from the church, with large fonts dug into the ground and usually possess a drainage system. In terms of academic interest, the baptisteries of Algeria have lived in the shadow for decades.

The early 5th century Donatist baptistery of Timgad
The early 5th century Donatist baptistery of Timgad

My personal highlight was the early 5th century baptistery of Djémila. Crab, lobster and octopus witness solemnly the procession into the fountain of life from which the neophyte will rise as a reborn Christian. It is this frankly surprising repertoire of baptismal imagery that my PhD work is concerned with.

Mosaic decoration around the baptismal font of Djémila
Mosaic decoration around the baptismal font of Djémila

Outside the baptistery, marvels continued to appear. The Algerian landscape is as diverse as it is beautiful. Fortunately, we can rely on the Romans to spot the most astonishing sites for their settlements. Moreover, we were all struck by the hospitableness of the Algerians. I failed to exchange money for strong black mint tea (I needed many extra doses out of exhaustion from the constant flow of ruins, sun and excitement) every single time.

Lunch and ruins at Tipasa
The ruins at Tipasa
Much deserved lunch at Tipasa
Much deserved lunch at Tipasa

Finally, the trip would have been only half as enjoyable without my fellow travellers. Lunch in the dust, with a view of the lush palm grove, became an unforgettable treat in your company!

The James Howard Johns[t]on group with Kader and Hassisen in Cherchell
The James Howard-Johnston group with Kader and Ahcicene in Cherchell
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Sincere thanks to the Oxford Centre of Byzantine Research and to Wolfson College, Oxford for their generous support of my trip to Algeria.

Author: Stefanie Lenk

All images © 2017 Empires of Faith

 

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