Roman Remains In The Arab World
(photo: Volubilis, Morocco)
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer
Very few people when thinking of Rome and its historical glory will have any inkling that today the Arab world is the greatest depository of Roman remains. From Morocco in the west to the Syrian Desert in the east, the Arab world is literally littered with remains from that illustrious era in world history. Should one want to make a quick exploration of these remains it is best to choose one of the best preserved in each country, starting from the Atlantic and ending in Syria. This sampling will provide an idea of the legacy of Rome still to be seen in the Arab World.
In Morocco, some 4 km (2.5 mi) from the holy city of Moulay Idriss, stands Volubilis – the most impressive Roman site in Morocco. Established first by the Phoenicians, it later became the home of the Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals and Byzantines, until taken over by the Arabs in their first sweep into North Africa. A striking site, visible for miles, Volubilis became a Roman provincial capital and the empire’s most remote outpost in North Africa. Today, it is the largest, best preserved and the finest Roman architectural site in Morocco.
Here, the Latin language survived for centuries, following the Arab conquest of North Africa and continued to flourish in the city for a thousand years. An earthquake in the mid-18th century shattered much of the once intact ruins and was also somewhat demolished by Moulay Ismael in the 18th century in order to use its stones for his palaces in his nearby capital of Meknes. Today, from its once flourishing structures, there remains a good number of mosaics and semi-erect structures – a number partially renovated. In 1997 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognized for the well-preserved Roman ruins that remain telling the story of a city that once flourished.
(photo: Timgad, Algeria)
In next-door Algeria, the Roman Emperor Trajan established Timgad located south of Constantine on the northern slopes of the Aures Mountains as a retirement military colony, in the year 100 A.D. A fine example of a Roman military town, it was designed on the cardo and decumanus basis – two avenues crossing and running through the city.
During its 2nd and 3rd century, Timgad flourished, exemplifying Roman power in Africa. Located at the entrance to one of the main passes through the Aures Mountains, it gave the Romans free access to and from the Sahara. Because of the extensive remains of the Roman city, some writers have labelled Timgad the ‘Pompeii of North Africa.’ In the 7th century the city was destroyed by Berber tribes from the nearby Aures Mountains – the very people the camp had been designed to control. Thereafter the Roman city lay unknown until excavations begun in the 1880s and uncovered the impressive remains.
Today when one first sets eyes on the city it appears as a vast field of stones and broken columns, but the once renowned grandeur of Timgad is soon evident in what remains. From among these are: public baths, a library, a theatre, a triumphal arch, and a forum – the best preserved and most extensive in Africa. The site provides one of the best existing examples of the grid plan that the Romans used in city planning. In 1982, Timgad was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Roman remains in Algeria are over shadowed by those of Tunisia at the top of which stands the massive Roman coliseum in the North African Roman city of Thysdrus, now called El Jem. This sprawling gigantic stadium, the largest of all Roman monuments in Africa, and once the third largest coliseum in the Roman world, is better preserved than its twin in Rome and is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
(photo: Roman coliseum, Algeria)
In its days of glory, this tremendous oval structure measured 149 m (489 ft) long and 124 m (407 ft) wide. Its three tiers of superimposed arches, topped by a fourth story of windows, rose to a height of 36 m (l18 ft) and the arena 65 m (213 ft) by 37 m (121 ft) could hold from 30,000 to 45,000 spectators who came to watch defenceless gladiators being torn apart by starved animals.
Over the centuries, time and the sun have baked the limestone of the amphitheatre into an attractive brownish colour, birds nestle in some of the broken capitals and almost all the tiers of the original seats have disappeared. However one of the tiers and the walls has been partially reconstructed yet, from a distance the view of the coliseum, which seems to have been erected only yesterday is breathtaking. The sheer size of this ochre structure and its aura of grandeur draw the admiration of almost every visitor.
Standing a short distance from the walls, one is amazed how the amphitheatre still thrusts an enormous silhouette up into the sky. This seemingly ageless Roman colossus, its huge bulk standing out like a small mountain, haughtily dominates the small modern town reminding the world of the once splendour of imperial Rome.
(photo: Leptis Magna, Libya)
Next-door Libya offers Leptis Magna – the most complete and impressive Roman ruins in the entire North Africa. Once a city of 80,000, it reached its epitome of glory under the emperor Septimus Severus (193-211) when the town became wealthy from trade in gold, grains, ivory, metals, olive oil and slaves as well as the export of exotic animals for Rome’s public amusement. With its striking public monuments, harbour, market place, storehouses, shops and affluent residential districts, it became one of the most attractive cities of the Roman Empire.
When Rome faded into history, the blowing sand preserved a good part of this Roman city. Today there are a number of spectacular structures such as an impressive forum, a beautiful bath, a theatre and an amphitheatre. One of the best-preserved Roman cities outside of Italy, it is today one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in Libya, being named in 1982 a UNESCO World Heritage site. Leptis Magna’s well-preserved remains gives visitors an idea as to what a complete Roman city would have looked like in its days of glory.
Over the border in Egypt, there are very few Roman remains. The fantastic monuments of the Pharaohs overwhelm all other historic sites. Here and there one can find traces of Roman remains, such as the Roman theatre in Alexandria that once accommodated 800 spectators, but in neighbouring Jordan it is a different story.
(photo: Jerash, Jordan)
Jerash, the Roman Gerasa, nestled in a green valley and once the most spectacular of the ten cities called Decapolis, guarding the south-eastern frontier of the Empire, is a Roman city par excellence. During the pre-classical period of the first millennium, the earliest Arab/Semitic inhabitants named their village Garshu, later Hellenised into Gerasa by the Romans, ‘the region of the Gerasenes’ as mentioned in the Bible (Luke 8:26). Later the name was Arabized into Jerash.. Abandoned in 747 A.D. after a series of invasions and earthquakes, it remained for over 1,300 years, buried under drifting sands.
Beginning in the 19th century, archaeologists from a number of nations gradually removed the sands of centuries and brought Roman Gerasa back to life. Hundreds of impressive columns have been uncovered and re-erected and the reconstructed forum and theatre now appear much as they looked during the city’s height of grandeur.
(photo: Jerash, Jordan)
Jerash, called ‘the Pompeii of the East,’ is perhaps the most complete provincial Greco-Roman city found anywhere around the Mediterranean and beyond. There is still a working drainage system from Roman times and ruts, worn by chariot wheels are clearly evident on the paved main street. Within the sizable uncovered parts of the ruins are colonnaded streets, a semi-reconstructed Hippodrome, two restored theatres, two hilltop temples, baths, churches, fountains, shops and other monuments. They point to the wealth of the city, which in its heyday had a population of approximately 20,000. Amid these monuments, every July, an annual festival of culture and art is held, bringing Roman Gerasa back to life.
(photo: Jerash, Jordan)
Visitors usually enter through the striking South Gate leading to the impressive Forum, or oval plaza, that leads to the magnificent 800 m (2,624 ft) long Cardo Maximums or ‘Street of Columns’ – the grand main thoroughfare, which at the other end of town, is entered by the North Gate. After touring the ruins, travellers almost always end their visit at the colonnaded Sacred Enclosure of the Temple of Artemis – the highest point in the city and once the most renowned of Gerasa’s structures.
(photo: Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, Lebanon)
In Lebanon, the Romans have left us the ruins of the enormous Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, built by the Emperor Augustus in 27 B.C. At its base, lie three hewn stones known together as ‘the trilithon’, each’s estimated weight at over 750 tons. Baalbek, itself, with its massive structures remains one of the finest examples of the height of Imperial Roman architecture and best preserved repositories of Roman ruins in the Middle East. A number of other Roman relics are scattered throughout the country.
(photo: Busra al-Sham, Syria)
However, in Syria the Roman historical presence is still vividly with us, especially in Busra al-Sham (known also as Bosra), in the region of the Hawran, once a prosperous capital of the Roman province of Arabia – filled with Roman ruins and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its historic citadel, ruins and well-preserved Roman theatre. And it is the majestic Roman amphitheatre with a seating capacity of 15,000 that crowns all these monuments. Unlike most other Roman arenas, which were built into hillsides, Busra’s theatre is freestanding. Considered the most perfect and beautiful still standing theatres built in the ancient world, it is the very symbol of the town and is considered one of the most captivating sites in Syria.
(photo: Busra al-Sham, Syria)
What kept the amphitheatre in such flawless condition were the massive walls built around it by Saladin in the 12th century to hold back the Crusaders. This created an almost impregnable fortress, which never fell to the Christians. The only damage to the citadel happened later during the Mongol invasion in the 13th century.
As Imperial Rome expanded throughout the world in its quest to create a world empire, it indeed left its mark. The Romans built magnificent structures in the areas that they subjugated to remind them of their own cities and to be able to live as Romans in whichever area they conquered. Needless to say, with conquest comes destruction but the future of these subjugated regions has provided good income from tourism as international visitors are drawn in to view that which was once Roman. These glorious structures in their day, now ruins, bring to mind Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias who declares:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’