Buried in the sand for over a 1000 years, this is Africa’s Roman Ghost City

a lost Roman city on the edge of the Sahara desert that remained hidden beneath the sand for nearly a thousand years – is one of the most impressive abandoned cities in the world. Positively obscure compared to the international notoriety of Pompeii, this ancient city is nonetheless one of the best surviving examples of Roman town planning anywhere in the historical Empire.

Chronology of discoveries and excavations in the Roman Ghost City

It’s amazing how people didn’t care about Timgad for such a long time after it was discovered. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Timgad was first discovered in the 18th century by the British explorer James Bruce. In Great Britain, however, the news of the find was received with skepticism: Bruce was simply not believed. A full excavation began over 100 years later and ended in the 1950s.

The excitement of James Bruce, who happened to be walking through the ruins in 1765, is easy to imagine. Bruce became the first European to visit Timgad in several hundred years. He called the city, then almost entirely hidden in the desert, “small, but full of elegant buildings.”

James and his companions cleaned several statues of Emperor Antoninus Pius by hand. In 1765, photography had not yet been invented, and the travelers couldn’t bring the sculptures with them, so they buried them in the sand again.

When Bruce returned to the UK, his stories were not taken into account, and no one sought out Timgad. Outraged by the prejudice against his story, Bruce soon retires and no one cares about the mysterious city for another hundred years.

An example of mosaics discovered in the city of Timgad. Credit: Messynessychic

Bruce’s research was continued by the British diplomat Lambert Playfer, who, inspired by the scientist’s diaries, which described in detail the finds in Timgad, went to study this place. In his book Travels in the Footsteps of Bruce in Algeria and Tunis, Playfer described the city he had found.

In 1881, control of the area passed to France, when the last large-scale excavation commenced. They continued until Algeria gained independence in 1959.

Archaeologists have concluded that despite the desolation where the city was built, its inhabitants enjoyed a lifestyle of luxury and comfort. What prompted the Romans to build a prosperous colony in such a place?

What is the real purpose behind building Timgad?

The Roman city of Timgad. Credit: Brian Brake for LIFE magazine, 1965

In the simplest terms, Roman expansion in North Africa was not met with fierce opposition from the local nomadic tribes.

The Romans officially established Timgad as a settlement for the empire’s retired soldiers, but their purpose was really to establish a better connection with the local population and weaken their resistance.

Apparently, this was a really successful plan as locals were attracted to the comfortable life in the Roman city and sought to gain admission into Timgad. In the beginning, the only possible way was to spend 25 years serving in the Roman Legion. This is the only way to get Roman citizenship for yourself or your family.

After a few generations, its population grew to 10 thousand and included Romans, Africans and Berbers. Most of them have never seen Rome, but the city government has managed to instill in the local inhabitants a royal culture and belonging, despite the distance from the capital.

Perfect Roman roads in the city of Timgad. Credit: Alan and Flora Botting via Flickr Commons

Giving Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of other countries (and in this case, continents) was a deliberate strategy of the empire. The Romans knew that it was better to let people in than to keep them outside. In exchange for loyalty, the local elite received a share in the mighty empire, its protection and laws, as well as urban amenities: bathhouses, theaters, and libraries.

An artist’s interpretation of the Timgad library
Timgad photographed by Brian Brake for LIFE magazine, 1965
Baptismal font uncovered in Timgad

Many of the buildings that once stood in this magical city are still intact to this day. Excavations have found wondrous mosaics in various locations, a total of 14 bathrooms, a 12-meter sandstone triumphal arch, a 3,500-seat theater, a richly decorated church and even a rare 2nd century Roman public library.

How did a prosperous Ancient Roman City turn into a ghost town?

Timgad photographed by Brian Brake for LIFE magazine, 1965
Another aerial view of the Roman city. Credit: Brian Brake for LIFE magazine, 1965
Timgad photographed by Brian Brake for LIFE magazine, 1965

The Roman city of Timgad began to flourish soon after it was founded by Emperor Trajan. From a town built for war heroes and veterans, it became one of the Empire’s major trading points as well as a source of important commodities such as grain, wine and olive oil.

The only people whose life is not so good are the local farmers, unfortunately, they are not well paid for their production. Coupled with excessive taxes, at some point it forced them to rebel against the authorities. This started a series of civil wars and religious conflicts.

Add the endless barbarian invasions that weakened the Roman influence in the region and we can fast-forward to the 6th century when the Arabs burned down the city and left it into oblivion for a millennium.

“This is life!”

Timgad photographed by Brian Brake for LIFE magazine, 1965

Archaeologists excavating the remains of Timgad were amazed by a Latin inscription they found on the forum. It reads: “Hunting, bathing, playing games and laughing. This is life! ”A French historian said that this “testifies to a philosophy that may be devoid of ambition, but some would take it as the secret of wisdom ”.

In fact, the Romans lived this way for many years. The first-century apostle Paul spoke of people whose life philosophy was, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Although religious, the Romans at this time lived for pleasure without thinking much about the meaning and purpose of life. Although the people of Timgad died 1,500 years ago, the perception of life has not changed much.

Many people today live only for the present. To them, the Roman point of view was quite logical and they did not think about the consequences.

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