Tunisia’s Roman ruins of Bulla Regia majestically stand

Most of the town’s houses had well-developed underground rooms showcasing mosaics, some of which can be seen today.
Sunday 14/10/2018
Entrance to the archaeological site in Bulla Regia. (Wikipedia)
Entrance to the archaeological site in Bulla Regia. (Wikipedia)

BULLA REGIA - From afar, the archaeological site of Bulla Regia stands out in the middle of the expansive green tapestry that is distinctive of north-western Tunisia, which was once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.

The pillars and arches reflect the creativity of the architectural minds that built the ancient Roman town. Centuries later, Bulla Regia has not lost its majesty and sophistication even if its charm is mostly hidden underground, where rooms of Roman houses with rich mosaics and intricate details are on display.

Bulla Regia, 140km north-west of Tunis, is known for its semi-subterranean housing structure. Most of the town’s houses had well-developed underground rooms showcasing mosaics, some of which can be seen today. Others are displayed at Tunis’s Bardo National Museum.

The site, spanning more than 60 hectares, boasts a range of archaeological influences, including Berber, Roman and Numidian.

“The town of Bulla Regia witnessed different civilisations from Roman times, the Numidian rule, the Byzantine and finally the Islamic period, which has enriched the town,” said Moheddine Chaouali, a researcher at the National Heritage Institute who oversees the town’s archaeological site.

Built as part of Roman territory, the town was restored under Numidian King Masinissa, who gave the site the name “Regia” — meaning “royal” — due to its reputation for hosting Numidian kings.

Bulla Regia flourished during Roman times due to its agricultural wealth. However, it declined and was deserted under Byzantine rule. In the mid-19th and 20th centuries, excavations revealed the town’s underground level and vestiges of different time periods.

“Bulla Regia’s golden age was during the Roman time — from the first century to the fourth century,” said Chaouali. “The site of Bulla Regia exhibits a variety of monuments testifying to the existence of many civilisations. Visitors can explore the amphitheatre, the vestiges and the baths as well as many artefacts in the museum adjacent to the site.”

He added: “One of the signs of the richness of the town’s inhabitants was that it became the birthplace of many Roman senators. In all the North African towns, it is the town that had more senators in Rome. Evidently to become a senator and to be close to the emperor meant that you needed to be very rich. This shows that the town was the wealthiest. We can still distinguish many names of the senators belonging to rich families from Bulla Regia.”

In addition to being known as one of the wealthiest Roman towns in North Africa, Bulla Regia was distinct for its underground housing system. Most domestic structures were composed of above-ground rooms open for the sun in winter and an underground level protecting the inhabitants from the scorching summer heat.

Even today, the town’s underground level is fascinating to explore, with different houses displaying mosaics that are rich in details and vivid colours.

“What characterises the town is the existence of residencies and villas with an underground structure that has no similar structures in the world,” said Chaouali. “The houses also have mosaics that depict the daily life and scenes from mythology. One can visit the House of Hunting and the House of the Fishing. Both houses are named after the scenes depicted in the mosaics they host.”

The north section of the town showcases a villa structure in some of the town’s wealthiest residential neighbourhoods. They each include courtyard rooms that allow sunlight to stream in from above as well as an underground level.

Several houses are open for exploration, including the House of Treasure, where Byzantine coins were found; the House of Amphitrite, which includes an exquisite mosaic depicting a nude Venus surrounded by two centaurs and cupids on dolphins; and the House of Fishing, the earliest of the villas.

The Temple of Apollo can be viewed to the north of the site, although the statue of Apollo that was erected there is on display at the Bardo museum.

The colossal Memmian Baths, named after Julia Memia, the emperor’s wife, are a testament to the town’s majesty with their intricate designs.

While most of the artefacts and mosaics from Bulla Regia are kept at the Bardo museum, the town itself has a small museum showcasing Punic artefacts, including remnants of the Punic temple of Tanit and tombstones from different eras.

“Until today, we have yet to fully explore the legacy and the richness of the site,” Chaouali said. “Just now, we are working on excavating the ruins of a Byzantine church.”

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo in Bulla Regia.                 					           (Wikipedia)