Limin Hersonissou (Chersonesus)

Hersonnisou is something of a surprise. Known mostly as a tourist resort and modern town, few of the foreign visitors seem to be aware that they are amid the ruins of an ancient Cretan, then Greek. then Roman, then Byzantine town. Indeed, it only lost a level of precedence when the Arabs invaded and founded Heraklion (Chandax).

Chersonesus was clearly a thriving city even before th Roman era, and only increased in population  and importance throughout Roman history and into the Byzantine era, when the place was a bishopric. When the Arabs invaded and founded Chandax down the coast a little way, Chersonesus quickly faded from the scene, spending a long time as a tiny, coastal town, ony growing to prominence again in the 20th century.

There are three levels of remains to be seen in Hersonissou. The first are the famous things, mentioned on maps and signs. These include a well-preserved fountain next to the seafront with fish designs picked out in mosaic, the stonework of the Roman port, visible just below the waterline close to said fountain, and the late Roman/Byzantine basilica on the headland above the harbour. This last was dusty and overgrown during my 2003 visit, but was sealed of for work in 2015, so should soon be well looked after.

The second level are the things you can find out if you do some research. The Roman theatre is visible on Dimokratias street. It is rather hard to make sense of until you look at it on google earth, but when work is complete here, it should be an impressive monument. Some miles inland, in the valley on the way to Potamies, you can discern the remains of the aqueduct that fed the city, including ruined bridges crossing the valley. At the far (eastern end of the city) the small church of Agios Nikolaos sits amid hotels and waterparks, but amid the low preserved ruins of a Byzantine basilica.

The third level is the most fascinating for me. Wherever there is a vacant lot or scrub land in the town, work has been done over the last half century to bring the civic remains to light. There are at least half a dozen overgrown areas of ruins that clearly display streets, houses, bath suites, shops, basilicas and the like. There are numerous of these at the town’s western end, mostly around Dimokratias, Sanoudaki and Dedalou streets. Basically, anywhere at the northwest end of the town, between the main drag and the sea, you will find fascinating areas of consolidated ruins just between hotels by the side of the road.

Limin Hersonissou is a town with a secret. Go there and stay there. It makes a good base to visit the ruins of the island, and a few days there will allow you plenty of time to explore the interesting byways of the time, and walk among the ruins.

Remains: 3/5    Atmosphere: 3/5   Access: 4/5    Overall: 3/5

Carthage

I have visited three of what I consider the ‘great cities’ of the Roman world. Clearly, the top two on that list are Rome and ‘the New Rome’ of Istanbul. But the third is Carthage. And Carthage is not a place to even consider attempting with less than a day to play with. I added the Bardo museum in. Tunis to my schedule and because of that I missed two of Carthage’s sights, even though we stayed until sunset.

Carthage was founded, according to legend, by Queen Dido and Phoenician colonists in the earlt 1st millennium BC. It was most certainly a Phoenician colony, heavily populaced by local Berber peoples. Within a few centuries, it had become the centre of the most powerful sea empire in the Mediterranean. For over a century, from 264 to 136 BC Carthage and Rome fought a war for control and dominance, ending with the fall of Hannibal and the destruction of the city in 146.

Rome has a history of razing the site of its worst enemies. The people of Corinth knew this in spades, when their city vanished from the face of the earth when Rome beat them, and a new Roman city sprang up higher up the hill. Carthage suffered destruction, and it took some time for it to begin to resemble a city again, but Rome hated waste, and so from the ruins of the great Punic city sprang its Roman successor, founded by Julius Caesar during the civil wars.

Carthage survived throughout the Roman era and passed through an era of Vandal control into the hands of the Byzantine emperors. Its prominence only began to decline around 700 AD following the Arab conquest, when it was largely replaced by the new city and port of Tunis.

There are a few relics of ancient Punic Carthage still visible. The Byrsa ruins below the cathedral, the ports – a marvel that could easily have rivalled the seven wonders of the ancient world – and the Tophet (one of the sights I sadly missed.)

Roman Carthage has bequeathed us some astounding treasures. A fascinating amphitheatre, a largely-restored theatre and the sparse foundations of an odeon still exist. The end of the same aqueduct that begins at Zaghouan and passes Oudna terminates near a well preserved huge, multi-chambered cisterns of La Malga. Like most sites in Carthage, tourists usually turn up in coaches, park up by the side of the road above the cisterns and look at the roof for a while before moving on. A little investigation turns up all sorts. Workers on the site might show you round the generally closed areas of the site, including the interior of the cistern. They might try to sell you Roman coins too! The archaeological park that contains the Antonine baths is phenomenal, and the baths themselves are some impressive remains. The Magon quarter is interesting (closed by the time I got there.) The museum by the cathedral contains some excellent items. The Roman and early Christian museum I missed too.

Then there’s the late Roman and Byzantine ruins, including some wonderul basilicas scattered about, mostly in the north area, and the Baths of Gargilius, famed for their connection with St Augustine and the early Christian church.

It is quite simply folly to attempt a thorough visit of Carthage without a plan. Acquire a map of the ancient sites and plan a route. I would recommend taking the local metro from Tunis out to Sidi Bou Said and working back towards the Tunis end, probably visiting the Basilica of Saint Cyprien first and then arcing out towards the cisterns and amphithetare before working back towards the theatre and the Antonine baths. Definitely the best way to visit will be from Tunis by the metro and a lot of walking. Car will almost certainly involve driving either through Tunis or around the edge, and neither can be highly recommended. On another logistical note, unless you eat well before you go, your only real chance to eat will be at the start in Sidi Bou Said. The ruins of Carthage occupy an almost entirely residential area. If this doesn’t suit, take a packed lunch. Whatever happens take plenty of water.

And if you get around the sites and the sun is still up, try and visit the Bardo in Tunis on the way home.

Tunisia is, at the time of writing in 2016, not the most stable country to visit, but I am hoping that soon the mindless lunatics who have brought destruction and violence to a country that I found to be full of friendly, welcoming people will be driven out and tourism will return. When it does, and you feel safe to do so, go to Tunisia. Go to Carthage. Your reward will be memories to keep for a lifetime.

Remains: 5/5    Atmosphere: 5/5   Access: 4/5    Overall: 5/5

Oudna (Uthina)

Tunisia abounds with Roman sites. Some are obscure and small (Pupput) – some are immense and famouse (Dougga). And then there are a few that are simply astounding places that are virtually unknown to tourists. Such is Dougga. We spent several hours there and the only other living things we saw were a small team of archeologists and a recalcitrant donkey.

In Tunisia, Roman sites whose Latin names start with ‘Th’ (and particularly ‘Thu’) are names that have come down from earlier Numidian settlements, and so their origin is obvious. See Thugga, Thuburbo Maius, Thubursicum etc. Thus Oudna might be seen as a later settlement. There is evidence that Oudna was originally a fountation of settled veterans the 3rd legion, given a stone that references them visible at the Oudna farmhouse and the Augustan name ‘Colonia Pietas Iulia Tertiadecimanorum Uthina‘. The city grew in prominence until the third century when it was attacked and never fully recovered. In the Byzantine era, the capitol was formed into a powerful fortress.

Oudna’s most notable attraction is its amphitheatre, which is being reconstructed with relative sympathy compared with, say Istanbul’s walls. The amphitheatre is a stunning sight and makes the visit worthwhile just on its own. Add to that several townhouses with mosaics and baths, a theatre currently little more than a depression in the ground, a ruined cistern or two, the capitol and forum buildings, two public baths and various odd ruins jutting from the undergrowth, and Oudna is a joy to explore. The forum/capitol area is an impressive survival. The ‘Great baths’ were closed for excavation while I was there, but their scale is impressive, especially given that what is left is the fragments after a stray bomb strike in world war 2.

Not far from the site itself is the line of one of the most intact and impressive aqueducts I have seen. This channel, which ran from Zaghouan in the south to Carthage in the north, over 80 kilometers, is at its most impressive around Oudna.

The loneliness of the site adds to its draw. Never devote less than half a day to it. You cold wander the place for hours, finding fascinating nooks and crannies. And the rural setting is beautiful, with the Djebel Zaghouan rising blue-gray in the distance above the fields. Oudna is a highlight of Tunisia for me. It’s only negative is ease of visiting. Taxi, Louage or hire car is the only feasible possibility.

Remains: 5/5    Atmosphere: 5/5   Access: 2/5    Overall: 5/5

 

Masada

Anyone ever see the mini-series ‘Masada’ (aka The Antagonists) with the magnificent Peter O’Toole? Well if not, head over to your favourite retailer and buy it post-haste. It is one of the most astounding and evocative historical dramas ever made and O’Toole’s Roman general Flavius Silva is so hard to beat as a character that he became the basis for my own fictional Roman – Fronto. But the thing is, the reason Masada was a great series is that the story behind it and the setting, both of which are genuine, is simply up there in the top 3 in all Roman history for me.

Masada is a self-contained fortress-city built atop a plateau near the Dead Sea in Israel. Due to the incredible depth of the Jordan valley, the fortress rises a thousand feet above the desert lands, and yet is only just above sea level at the top. Originally constructed in the 1st century BC, Masada grew and expanded, especially under Herod the Great, who built the impressive palaces that hang over the prow point of the mountain.

Masada was seemingly impregnable. It entered the history books in 72AD when Jewish Sicarii rebels took and held the fortress in a last stand against the might of Rome in the region. Flavius Silva brought the 10th Fretensis, and vexillations of other legions to the mountain to end the revolt. He was faced with an almost impossible siege. What he achieved with his army ranks up in the top sieges of all history, perhaps more impressive even than Caesar at Alesia. Unable to assault the mountain up the winding ‘snake path’, and faced with sheer rock at all other angles, Silva began a siege ramp. A ramp that would rise a thousand feet through the desert. A ramp that would take months to build. Silva’s army faced dreadful hardship and innumerable deaths in the process, but finally his army reached the top, breached the walls, only to find that the Jewish defenders had killed themselves, men, women, and children.

It is one of the most poignant moments in history. And in the series mentioned above, it goes some way to showing the tragedy from all angles.

So that is why Masada is important. Why should you visit?

The mountain contains remains that date from the early days, the Herodian era, the Roman era, and even the Byzantine era. There are decorative columns, wall plaster, baths, walls, vertiginous paths, hanging palaces, mosaics. All in one of the most breathtaking locations on Earth. And above and beyond this, there are the remains of numerous Roman fortresses ringing the mountain, dating from the siege. And best of all, the siege ramp Silva had built is STILL THERE! Admittedly, the 20 centuries in between have seen it say to maybe 2/3 of the original height, but it is still clear and damned impressive.

Masada is one of the must-go places in the world. If you love Roman history… if you love history… heck, if you love a real good story, do your best to go there. And be prepared for the heat. Oh…. and the ascent. The fortress can be reached by cablecar, which is a short ride with an amazing view, and for those of us with vertigo a dreadful, horrible, wonderful ascent. Or by the snake path that winds up the mountain. On foot. In the desert. In the blistering heat.

Tough choice. But it’s worth it either way.

Remains: 3/5    Atmosphere: 5/5   Access: 3/5    Overall: 4/5

Philae

 

It’s an odd thing, but it’s common to picture Roman architecture as exactly the same in all regions and over all periods – a sort of standardised brick structure sheathed in marble and with arches and columns. And, of course, that’s ridiculous. Take Philae, near Aswan in Egypt, for example. Several of the structures on the island belong to the Roman era, and yet to the everyday visitor, it would be hard to think of them as anything other than ancient Egyptian.

Philae had been a holy island (actually a pair of islands forming one civic group) throughout the days of the Hellenistic Pharaohs . In its heyday it was the home only of temples and priests and everyone else was forbidden entry. That changed over the Greek and Roman eras, and the place became something of a pilgrimage centre. The Roman buildings there date numerous periods. The Byzantine empire also held Philae converting some of the religious structures to churches, though pagan worship seems to have remained in practice at Philae until 550AD, when Justinian ordered the closure of the pagan sites.

  • Hadrian is accredited with the gate on the north side of the island.
  • The Temple of Horus Avenger was built by Claudius.
  • The Mammisi was finished and decorated by Tiberius.
  • The Temple of Augustus was constructed for that emperor.
  • The triumphal arch and quay are said to be Diocletianic.
  • The famous ‘Trajan’s Kiosk’ is an Ulpian monument.
  • Several coptic churches existed but are now gone beneath the water.

Visit to Philae is only possible by boat. It lies on the island to where it was moved after the building of the High Aswan Dam and the flooding of Lake Nasser. Trips are easy to arrange from Aswan. The island is stunning and contains more than just the Roman remains. Highly recommended for a visit.

Remains: 4/5    Atmosphere: 5/5   Access: 3/5    Overall: 4/5