Here's something I bet you didn't know...
There are as many (if not more) Roman ruins in North Africa than there are in Italy.
Here's a map of the Roman Empire at its fullest extent. Notice that it includes damn near ALL of North Africa. Modern-day Algeria falls into what, on this map, is mostly labeled as Numidia and Mauretania.
Seeing those classical white stone columns against the backdrop of such arid, Islamic countries as Tunisia and Libya might strike you as odd, but this region was once a vibrant and vital part of the Roman Empire. Algeria is no exception. It was called the "breadbasket of the Roman Empire" because of Rome's heavily reliance on Algeria to meet their agricultural needs. At various points in history, there were actually Roman Emperors who were, themselves, Algerian. The name "Constantine" might ring a bell as being an important city in the Roman Empire (eh?). Well, today, it's actually the 3rd biggest city in Algeria. So Algeria is a country whose history is deeply connected to that of Rome.
The Algerian countryside is absolutely filled with ancient Roman debris scattered about, almost to the point of it feeling messy. But on top of this, there are also a number of giant ruins sites that exist here as well. And of these sites, undoubtedly the most famous is a city called Timgad. It's one of the largest and best-preserved Roman ruins sites in the world, and probably the best surviving example of the grid system that was typical of Roman cities. If you're interested, you'll need to Google it, because that's not where we're going today. We're going somewhere almost as cool though!
Today we're going to be doing a double-header: Cherchell and Tipaza. These places are not quite on the level of Timgad, but they are still going to be interesting and gorgeous. So buckle in kids! It's time to drive out into rural Algeria for some adventuring!
Part 1: Cherchell
+ The Tomb of the Christian Lady
So, if you've been following this series on Algeria, you know that I was traveling with my mother. One little-known fact about my mom is that she's secretly a bad-ass and had actually lived in Algeria briefly in 1980. So this was a long-awaited return trip for her. During that time, although she did spend some time in Oran and Algiers, the majority of her stay was spent in a tiny town called Cherchell (pronounced "share-shell"). To hear her reflect on the time she spent here, she really didn't have a lot of positive things to say. This was 30 years ago, and small towns in rural Algeria were very conservative places. The oppressive gender roles of Muslim society had definitely soured her sentiments about this place, but she was interested to return. I felt like I was seeing this place through her eyes.
So we set out from Algiers early in the morning, riding with a guide that we had hired named Boualem. (He was great btw, I've included his contact information at the end of this article). It was raining that morning. The ride out of Algiers was gray and muddy. For most of it, we had the Mediterranean coast to our right, and a steep set of mountains to our left. It was a little more than a 2 hour ride to Cherchell, so with the raining pounding against the window of the car, I dozed off a bit. Here's (approximatley) the route we took...
I awoke to us stopping along the side of a small, muddy road to buy a bag full of oranges from a local vendor. Orange trees dominate the landscape in this part of Algeria. All across Algiers, there are orange trees growing in the urban centers. The bright colors of the oranges against the white buildings in the crisp Mediterranean air is a magic combination, and this bag of oranges did not disappoint. Fruit just tastes better in places like this. (Insert rant about Monsanto here.)
I was a bit worried that the rain was going to destroy any hope we had of seeing something beautiful, but as we continued onward, I began to see breaks in the cloud cover, with flashes of blue sky in between. On our route, we stopped at a gas station just outside of Tipaza to refuel. Boualem told us that gas prices in Algeria were currently sitting around 25 DZD (0.22 USD) for a liter of normal gas, and 41 DZD (0.36 USD) for a liter of premium. This had apparently doubled since the previous year. Algeria is rich in oil, but as commodity prices plummeted, the government was transferring this cost onto its people. As a result, public transportation and taxis had also become more expensive. The public is not happy about this.
After driving a bit farther, Boualem turned up a small road that made the steep climb up the mountain ridge that had been at our left. This was the road to what is locally referred to as "the Tomb of the Christian Lady." In Arabic, this name actually refers to her as the "Roman" woman. However, more officially, this site is called The Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania. Within this giant pile of rocks are buried the Berber King Juba II and Queen Cleopatra Selene II, who reined over ancient Numidia and Mauretania respectively. It is said that these two were the last king and queen of Mauretania. It is also said that Cleopatra Selene was the daughter of Mark Antony and the famous Cleopatra that we all know. Isn't that interesting? That's one of those historic sagas that feels too romantic to be true, but then, here's their daughter, out here in Algeria!
This tomb dates back to before the birth of Christ. So why is it now called the Tomb of the "Christian" lady? Remember that Christianity wouldn't have existed yet. The story goes that that this nickname was actually given a great while later, well after the dawn of the age of Christianity in Algeria. The faded cross shape etched into the door of this tomb was mistakenly interpreted as a Christian symbol, but it was actually a character from an ancient (probably Berber) alphabet. Don't worry—we'll get to the Berbers later in this article.
The tomb itself is pretty massive, and is said to be almost an exact replica of a tomb that was built by Roman Emperor Augustus, in Rome, years before. The similarities between the two are said to be a sign of King Juba's allegiance to Rome. Here are a few pictures of this weird structure...
On the other side of this tomb, there is a muddy ridge. On the right side of the ridge, you will see Chenoua Mountain sticking out into the sea (which I will talk about soon) and on the other you will see Chréa Valley, which is the last flatland before the Chréa/Blida Mountains begin. This valley is known to be extremely fertile, and a major agricultural center for growing oranges. The mountains that lay beyond are something of a tourist destination within Algeria. In the past, these mountains held ski resorts where Algerians would take their winter holidays, but today those resorts are mostly closed. Even so, it's still supposed to be a beautiful area to travel through. The swirling clouds made for good pictures, but I was mostly just shocked by how GREEN all of this was. When you think of North Africa, you think desert, but this was essentially a mirror image of the other side of the Mediterranean. And it was SO pretty.
From here, we got back on the road, wound our way back down towards the sea, and started heading towards the town of Cherchell. The clouds were moving over us quickly, causing the sky to alternative between gray and blue. Out the window of the car, we saw Roman-era structures scattered around the fields we were passing like they were no big deal. We even passed multiple aqueducts, which were overgrown and mossy. Boualem told us that these sorts of ruins were commonplace around the Algerian countryside, and that the country, as a whole, was only just beginning to consider making efforts to preserve these monuments. Many people, apparently, really just don't care. This was already crazy to me, but the day was only just beginning. There were a LOT of surprises in store for us.
Here are a few shots from out the window as we drove closer to Cherchell.
Rolling into Chercell, we stopped in Martyr's Square, to one of the more depressing public parks I have ever seen. The sky overhead was gray, what would normally be grass was just mud, but most prominently, the square was filled with Elephant Foot Trees. These trees are probably very pretty in the summer, but in mid-January, not so much. This is mostly because they were completely leafless. Without their normal green plumage, the lumpy abnormalities of these trees were laid bare, and—sorry—they were super ugly.
Edit: It turns out that these trees have actually been purposefully and aggressively pruned back to look like this. So this park is probably equally as ugly year-round. 😔
I was surprised to see that, scattered around this public square, there were artifacts that clearly dated back to the Roman era. It was as if this city square had been built right on top of the ancient Roman city that used to stand here. For some reason that felt like a far-fetched notion to me, but it would soon become clear that that's exactly what happened—here and in countless other places around Algeria. On the far side of this square, there was a cliff that overlooked a dock. This dock had a small lighthouse and was full of local fishing vessels. However, the main thing we had stopped here to see was Musée Archéologique de Cherchell (Archeological Museum of Cherchell).
Entry into the Archeological Museum was 200 DZD (1.75 USD). That's actually pretty high by local standards, but we paid it anyway and went inside. This place was sad and shabby at first glance, but then when we actually got to see what was on display... wow. Musée Archéologique de Cherchell is actually full of world-class Roman artifacts. And there were, like, a LOT of them. Big museums in the west with multi-million dollar budgets would be lucky to have half of what is showcased in this place.
Behind easy-to-see-around barriers tucked away at the corner of the museum, there was an area where restoration attempts were still in progress. It was clearly not a well-funded operation, but it was still a cool little museum. And just think about how much MORE there is, right outside their door. Come to think of it, seeing these Roman ruins on display in a museum probably seems silly to people who actually live in Cherchell. Why would they pay money to see what is already strewn all over their city like garbage?
...picking up from that last sentence, there are Roman ruins, literally all over this city. Apparently Cherchell was a notable city during the heyday of the Roman Empire. Today it's a sleepy little seaside town, but to walk around this city, it's former glory is quite apparent. We took a stroll around this town and saw 2 different ruins sites over the course of a 30 minute walk. One of them was a small amphitheater! And it might not look like much from the photos below, but apparently it once seated 5,000 people.
The rest of the town was interesting as well. For purposes of this trip, this was the only glimpse into life in small-town Algeria we were going to get. I expected a small town like this to be much quieter, but walking around Cherchell, things were bustling, There were street markets that were just as crowded as Algiers, and streets that were just as noisy. At one point we walked by a coffee shop around which there were easily 40 men standing, talking loudly, smoking cigarettes. And of course, drinking small cups of coffee.
As my mother walked around this town, her gears were clearly turning. Much of her surroundings were the same as the first time she had been here 30 years ago. However, she said that this town had grown a lot since she was here last, and seemed to be much less conservative. Just like in Algiers, we saw women walking around, alone, without hijabs. That would not have gone over well in 1980 apparently. I think she was picking up on some better vibes.
From here, we got back into the car, did a lap around the city, and then said what would probably be my mother's final goodbye to Cherchell. From there, we headed back east, to what would be the main event of the day: the Roman ruins at Tipaza.
Part 2: TIpAza
+ Fun Facts On Chenoua Mountain
Tipaza is a slightly smaller city than Cherchell, a few kilometers eastward back towards Algiers. The city itself doesn't have much to see, but there's another city here as well—a much older one. Sitting here, the shadow of Mount Chenoua, sandwiched between the city and the Mediterranean, there are the ruins of an ancient Roman city... and they are stunning.
Here's a map of the Tipaza area. The Roman ruins we're about to see are highlighted in blue. You can also see the town of Tipaza all around it, and the huge green area on the left is Mount Chenoua. You can zoom and poke around if you want.
So, before we get to the ruins, I want to talk about Mount Chenoua, because what Boualem told us about this place was super interesting. As you may have deduced, Algeria speaks a combination of French and Arabic. In fact, mainstream Algeria speaks a mixture of the two, like an awesome North African creole. However, "non-mainstream" Algeria speaks a language called Berber.
"Berber" is the name given to a state-less ethnic group that inhabits many different countries across North Africa. And, at roughly 13 million, their largest population is here in Algeria. There are whole Wikipedia pages that refer to them using this name, but the thing is that "Berber" is kind of a derogatory term. It means "barbarian." In every nation they inhabit, Berbers are "the other." But this is not one singular people group. There are actually quite a few different ethnic groups that fall under the Berber umbrella, each with their own distinct culture and language. So calling them "Berber" is a bit like calling Native Americans "Indians." It's not only derogatory, but it's also just flat-out incorrect.
Mount Chenoua is named after the "Berber" city that sits on its slopes. They speak a language called Tamazight—which is actually spoken by Berbers all across North Africa. However, the word that the Berbers use for themselves is "Amazigh," so that's what I'm going to call them for the next few paragraphs. The Amazigh are often at the center of controversy in Algeria, and have asked for independence on multiple occasions. However, Boualem told us that it recently became official that the Tamazight language will be taught in Algerian public schools, along with French and Arabic. That's nice, but I doubt that it will do much to change the fact that the Algerian population is essentially self-segregated between the "Berbers" and everybody else.
As we drove around this coastal region of Algeria, Boualem would point out Amazigh towns as we passed them by. Mount Chenoua specifically has a high density of Amazigh people, and my understanding is that Algerian people don't often come here. In the 1990s, during Algeria's "10 dark years" there were instances terrorism here that forced the Algerian government to close the upper reaches of the mountain permanently. I should add that this is not to suggest that terrorism is prevalent in Amazigh communities. It just so happens that this particular community sits close to a former terrorist hot-spot. Although Algeria is a very safe place today, the one word of caution that I got from Boualem was "just don't go to the tops of mountains." Apparently, if something terrorist-related is going to happen to you in Algeria, it's gonna happen on the top of a mountain. But that's pretty easy to avoid. Climbing mountains is a lot of work.
ANYWAY, let's get into the ruins!
Like Cherchell, it's easy to see that the town of Tipaza was literally built on top of Roman ruins. However, they've roped off a much larger area for historical preservation here. It costs 100 DZD (0.88 USD) to this enter this area, and it's worth every penny.
Immediately upon entry we walked past a large amphitheater area where, Boualem told us, once hosted live re-created navel battles. The pits were filled with water, smaller versions of the boats were set to float on that water, and then people got on those boats and literally killed each other for the entertainment of the crowd. Sooo... Rome was pretty messed up. We walked onwards through the ruins, and then turned a corner to see the Mediterranean stretching out in front of us. At this point I wasn't quite sold on the Tipaza ruins yet. It was still pretty gray, so the water was dull and reflective, and everything around me was muddy and gross. But as we walked down towards the water, the clouds began to part and things started changing. With the light overhead changing rapidly, suddenly there was beauty in everything around me. It sort of hit me all at once.
You'll need to see some of this for yourself. Below are some photos from this walk. The mountain that you'll see sticking out into the water is Mount Chenoua.
Albert Camus (who, if you didn't know, was an Algiers native) used to come here from Algiers to sit amongst the ruins to write. There was a particular spot that Boualem showed us where he used to sit, up on a ledge, in the middle of an enchanting pocket of dead roots and branches, with a view that looked straight out towards the ocean. In fact, the Amazigh/Berber town of Chenoua is featured prominently in his novel, A Happy Death.
Back, tucked away in the ruins site, there was a low point in the brick that was full of water that was pitch black. "Ewwww" I said, leaning over the water. Boualem pointed out the olive tree that hung overhead, explaining that these wild black olives has turned the water black. Wild olives?? That's cool. Obviously that's normal here, but this is a fun anecdote that I often look back on. Gotta love that Mediterranean climate!
It had been a pretty gray day, but as the sun came out, there was a pretty epic rainbow that appeared out at sea. The light coming in through the breaks in cloud cover lit up this rainbow like a spot light. My camera was working overtime as I played with settings and snapped pictures of this thing...
I love those pictures of the rainbow, but what I like even more was this series of panoramas that I took with my iPhone 8 Plus. This was a new phone for me at the time, and I was very impressed with what the camera could do. The sun coming out from behind the clouds lit up the water, turning it soft shades of teal. This teal water next to the brown bricks of the ruins and the green of the trees and mountains was an incredible combination. Life looked pretty great standing here, looking out over these ruins.
Not bad, right?
We had to take some time to be present and drink all of this in. Standing here, atop these ancient cliffs, the only sound was that of a gentle blowing in off the sea. This being Algeria, we were the only tourists here. Aside from a few locals, we had this place completely to ourselves, and I didn't want to leave. The bright sun was quickly drying up the mud and turning this place into a Mediterranean paradise. This would be the only trip outside of Algiers that we were going to make during our visit, and I was already regretting it. I would love to spend some more time driving around Algeria. This is not at all what I expected it to look like.
From here we piled back into the car and drove back to Algiers.
This entire experience was just so surprising and beautiful. And as we sped back towards Algiers, I found myself reflecting. The fall of the Roman Empire probably seemed like the end of the world in these places when it was actually happening. But, of course, it wasn't. The earth kept spinning and life went on. And if you were following the news coming out of Algeria in the 1990s, it probably seemed like the country was falling apart. It was! And It probably felt like the end of the world in these towns all over again. But it still wasn't.
In places with such vibrant but violent histories, visiting them today can feel a bit anti-climactic. As an outsider preparing to visit a place like this, oftentimes all we know about them is their highlight reel of violence and conflict. So it's pretty normal to show up in places like this expecting to find some sort of scary post-Roman, post-Colonial, post-Civil War, terrorist-infested wasteland... but that is almost never the case. And this place in particular turned out to be stunningly beautiful, and above all, peaceful. And people are living their lives here, just the same as you or me, just the same as they always have.
Life goes on.
Boualem: Our Tour Guide in Algeria
Phone Number: 0662 9359 16
If you're thinking about coming to Algeria, but you're a little apprehensive, or you just want somebody to take you under their wing and show you around, this is your man. He will take you, quite literally, anywhere in Algeria. He's been everywhere in this country and he's forgotten more about these places than you and I will ever know. He speaks French, English, Arabic, and he's getting pretty good at Spanish. Oh, and his name is pronounced "Bwah-lem." Hit him up. Tell him I sent you.