Dougga: Tunisia’s majestic World Heritage Site
Dougga, Tunisia - In the heart of stretching plains of green fields, a majestic temple, stranded in the vast colour-patched scenery of northern Tunisia, beckons passers-by to venture inside the ruins of the Roman-Berber town of Dougga. The Dougga archaeological site, 110km from Tunis, boasts historical and natural wealth.
Overlooking a mesmerising tapestry of colours, the archaeological site of Dougga boasts one of the few preserved Roman thermaes, temples and mosaics, enticing visitors to explore the lives of the original dwellers of Dougga. The World Heritage Site is believed to be the best preserved Roman town in North Africa.
Dougga is a must-see site for adventurers seeking to explore traces of ancient times. The town exemplifies a crossroad of civilisations, including Numidian-Berber, Ancient Roman, Punic and Byzantine that make its history exceptional.
Dating to sixth century BC, the name of the town has Berber origins. It is derived from the word “tbgg” in Berber, and “tucca” in Punic, which means “to be protected.” Historians say the name refers to the town’s natural protection through its placement at the top of a plain and its rigorous natural surroundings.
“Dougga is deservedly a World Heritage Site for it witnessed the succession of all the civilisations of Tunisia ranging from Berber to Punic and Roman and Arab-Muslim conquests,” said Mohamed Ali Chehidi, curator of the archaeological site of Dougga. “These civilisations co-existed inside one space, as shown in the architecture of the place, which combines elements from host civilisations and those pertaining to colonisers.”
“When you hear of this, you think that there must have been a rivalry between all these groups. On the contrary, Dougga witnessed the co-existence and tolerance among these groups,” he said. “This is evidenced in the existence of the Temple of Massinissa, dedicated to a Numidian king next to the biggest Roman temple of the town, which is the Capitol.
“It is rare that such temples, both of great importance to their respective cultures, co-exist near each other. The communities lived in peace, the Berber and the Punic and the Roman at a later stage.”
The town played an important role throughout history as it expanded and became a connecting point between the Berber and the Punic worlds. During the Roman times, the town covered more than 85 hectares.
“It has a strategic position being at the heart of a fertile land, stone quarry and natural resources and, especially for the Roman Empire, the town was of a high importance as it was on the trade road from Carthage to Sbeitla,” said Mouna Bejaoui, a cultural guide at the site.
The archaeological site of Dougga offers unique insight into the structure and architecture of Roman towns. The ruins of the city are testimony to a history spanning more than 17 centuries, exemplifying the components of Roman towns and illustrating the daily lives of the town’s residents.
In addition to market ruins and courtyards, the site showcases four private and public baths. One of the highlights is the theatre, which is still used for concerts and theatrical performances during the International Festival of Dougga. The site has many temples, such as the Roman Capitol, the Temple of Pluto, Temple of Saturn and the Temple of Massinissa, all preserved in their original state.
“Dougga is a complete Roman city, which means that you won’t see only little pieces of what is left of the city as is the case for other towns,” Chehidi said. “For example, Carthage has only a little left to see but it is the history of Carthage that speaks and constructs the ruins for visitors.
“In Dougga, you can see everything for yourself. You don’t need an architect to map the city for you to imagine what the buildings looked like.”
“You can see the baths and how they were constructed. You can see the old houses and you can see the temples. In Dougga, visitors can see a 3-dimensional authentic Roman city without resorting to software or architects to rebuild the ruins. Dougga is unique in this sense,’’ he said.
In Dougga, the preserved baths offer visitors an authentic vision of the daily lives of the town’s residents. The baths were decorated with mosaics that are on display at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.
There are majestic, 18-metre-tall columns of the capitol that cover an area of nearly 400 sq.metres. The pediment of the capitol depicts Antoninus Pius ascending on the back of an eagle to God. The theatre of Dougga has marvellous statutes and scriptures on pillars that invite reflection on the history of the stage that continues to be used for artistic performances.
One of the most remarkable edifices of the archaeological site is the Libyco-Punic Mausoleum of Dougga, which is one of three examples of the royal architecture of Numidia still in good condition.
“This was the tomb dedicated to a Numidian prince dating to the second century. It was a prototype for construction of the Roman times,” Chehidi said. “It is an example of the royal architecture of Numidia.
“The mausoleum is unique because its top was decorated with a stone that has a bilingual inscription in Berber and Punic languages. It was thanks to this Punic-Libyan inscription that historians were able to decipher the (ancient Libyan) language.
“This stone is unique like the Rosetta Stone because it enabled historians to understand the ancient Libyan language that no one before this finding was able to decipher. The rock is on display in the British museum. Only the mausoleum is still in Dougga.”
There are inscriptions in more than 2,000 languages in Dougga. “These inscriptions are highly important. It is not a question of stones that have writing but it is a wealth of scriptures that offer insight into the history of the town, ranging from Punic to ancient Libyan as well as Latin and Greek,” Chehidi said.
Dougga is an enchanting town that takes visitors on a trip through ancient times, offering an authentic experience of the architecture of the civilisations that succeeded in Tunisia.