On the fringes of the Sahara desert, a mass of sprawling ruins stand stark against the parched landscape. Many centuries ago this was a bustling Roman metropolis, one of the empire’s last outposts in the south. But then its buildings were abandoned, left to disappear beneath the sand for a millenium. So what happened to the city of Timgad, and where did its people go?
Founded just as the Roman Empire was reaching the height of its power, Timgad was built on the slopes of the Aurès Mountains in modern-day Algeria. Standing at the gateway to the Sahara, it served to protect vital trade routes from the wild tribes of the south. And for centuries it succeeded.
Home to thousands of people at its peak, Timgad’s grand public buildings arguably put it on a par with Pompeii. And with the Third Augustan Legion stationed inside its walls, the city was testament to the might of Rome even at the furthest reaches of its empire. But as time passed, it succumbed to a terrible fate.
Once one of the Roman Empire’s most beautiful outposts, Timgad was abandoned by its inhabitants in the eighth century A.D. And for the next 1,000 years it lay forgotten beneath layers of sand and dust. But in the 18th century, an eccentric Scottish explorer happened upon its haunting remains. So slowly, the story of this eerie ghost city began to unfold.
When the Roman Emperor Trajan established Timgad, also known as Thamugadi or Tamugas, in 100 A.D., he was the leader of the greatest empire in the world. And over the course of his 19-year reign, it would grow to cover over two million square miles, encompassing a population of around 120 million people. Now that’s big.
Stretching from Britain in the west to what is now Egypt in the southeast, the Roman Empire included many grand cities. However, in the Aurès Mountains, Trajan decided to start from scratch. At the time North Africa played an important role in producing grain, and the trade routes needed to be kept secure. Just imagine all of those delicious things getting stolen – it would’ve been a tragedy.
Hoping to secure passage through the Aurès Mountains and on to the Sahara desert, Trajan began work on a new city. And even today it remains a startling example of the Romans’ skill at urban planning. Built following a grid system, the metropolis was laid out in the shape of a square.
Bisecting the square, records show, were two main streets: one running north to south and another from east to west. And at the point where they converged, a forum was built. However, the most striking feature of Timgad’s architecture was a great arch, dedicated to the emperor himself.
Elsewhere Timgad was equipped with a grand library, a theater built for thousands of spectators, a basilica and over a dozen baths. In fact, the extensive facilities and beautiful mosaics were among the finest in the Empire. But it was as a strategic outpost that Trajan’s city really forged its place in history.
To protect the southern border of the Roman Empire, as well as the supply of grain, Trajan stationed the Third Augustan Legion in Timgad. Every other year, the emperor would release some 200 men from service, granting them a plot of land in the city for retirement. And so, many ex-soldiers settled in the region, adding to the sense of security. Given that, how on earth did it end up abandoned?
For many years, Timgad flourished, its Christian residents living in harmony alongside those who followed the old religions. But then something happened that brought the once-grand metropolis to its knees. And by the 8th century, it had become no more than a ghost city, its deserted streets empty of life.
After its abandonment, Timgad was quickly consumed by the shifting sands of the Sahara desert. And for an entire millennium, it remained largely forgotten by the wider world, its ruins known only to a handful of locals. Then in 1763 the Scottish adventurer James Bruce arrived in North Africa.
Initially, Bruce was appointed as consul in the city of Algiers, now the capital of Algeria. But despite extensive preparations for the role – and a sharp, academic mind – he soon fell out of favor. Apparently, his personality was at odds with those of his superiors, and he was dismissed in 1765.
Not one to return to Britain with his tail between his legs, Bruce instead decided to embark on a great adventure. Accompanied by Luigi Balugani, an artist from Florence, he set out on a journey through Africa, documenting his travels as he went. And towards the beginning of their trip, the pair explored the desert in the south of Algeria.
Because Bruce and Balugani hoped to uncover evidence of ancient civilizations in the depths of the desert. And on December 12, 1765, they did just that. Arriving on the slopes of the Aurès Mountains, they soon stumbled across the ruins of Timgad, partially buried beneath the Saharan sand. Not bad for a day’s work.
At the time, the explorers may well have been the first Europeans to set foot in Timgad for centuries. In his diary, the Scottish explorer wrote, “It has been a small town, but full of elegant buildings.” And soon the pair had located and documented the Arch of Trajan, a towering monument some 40 feet tall.
Over the course of their visit, Bruce and Balugani were able to locate the ruins of Trajan’s amphitheater, as well as a number of ancient statues. One, the pair claimed, represented Antoninus Pius, who was Emperor of Rome during the second century A.D. Another depicted his wife, the famously beautiful Faustina the Elder.
Despite these revelations, the explorers didn’t stick around. No. They reburied the artifacts that they had discovered and continued on their travels. Eventually reaching Ethiopia, they claimed to have located the source of the Blue Nile, although this achievement was hotly contested.
In fact, when Bruce returned to Britain in 1774, his reports from Africa were largely met with disbelief. And thanks to this dismissal, another century would pass before the truth about what happened at Timgad was finally revealed. At last, in 1875, another British diplomat managed to relocate the lost city.
Also employed as a consul in Algiers, Robert Lambert Playfair set out to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps across North Africa. Eventually he reached Timgad, where he was able to expand on Bruce’s observations, shedding new light on the ghost city. And as a result, its story began to unfold.
Timgad had been built at the point where six different Roman roads converged, reported Playfair. Plus he noted that the city’s architecture was of a high quality, grander even than that of Lambaesis, a neighboring military capital. So this outpost in the mountains had likely been a settlement of great importance, the diplomat concluded.
By this time, Algeria had come under French rule, and the colonists were expanding their reach beyond the city of Algiers. And in 1881 the Europeans seized control of the region where Timgad is located. For the next eight decades, until the war of independence, the site of the ancient ruins remained under foreign jurisdiction.
Thanks to the French, a number of archaeological excavations were carried out in and around the city. Unlike other Roman settlements, the ruins of Timgad had not been built upon or absorbed by modern developments. And as such they’d remained perfectly preserved beneath layers of sand.
So in part to Playfair and his French successors, the history of Timgad was finally revealed in all its glory. Initially, it seems, Trajan’s city was a place of peace and prosperity, an unlikely bastion of Roman hospitality on the edge of the desert. Plus many of its large structures were improved and restored over the years, while the streets were paved with large limestone slabs.
Aside from the grandeur of its public spaces, Timgad must also have offered a pleasant environment for the average citizen. For example, archaeologists discovered that no fewer than 14 baths served the city, while private houses were often bedecked with intricate mosaics. In the third century, the outpost became a hub of Christian activity, before transitioning to a stronghold of the Donatist sect.
By that time, though, trouble was brewing on the edges of the Empire. Since the second century, a Germanic people known as the Vandals had been at war with the Romans, engaging in conflict along the border regions. And by the fourth century other groups, such as the Huns and the Goths, were contributing to the unrest.
From 370 A.D. onwards, the nomadic Huns began encroaching on the Vandals’ territory, pushing them ever closer towards the Roman Empire. And as the Germanic tribe spilled across the borders, they seized the cities that stood in their way. First, they conquered the region known as Gaul, before expanding into modern-day Spain and, eventually, North Africa.
At some point in the fifth century, the Vandals crossed over into the southern fringes of Roman territory, sacking the city of Timgad. And that invasion spelled the beginning of the end for Trajan’s outpost in the Aurès Mountains. As the once-busy metropolis fell into decline, the entire Empire was almost brought to its knees.
Seemingly unstoppable, the Vandals marched on Rome itself in 455, looting the wealth of the city yet leaving it structurally intact. But despite their good behavior in the capital, they retained control of much of the Empire’s North African territory – including what was left of Timgad. Then, in 477, their leader died, heralding a shift in the long conflict.
Although the Romans began to reassert themselves against the Vandals, Timgad remained weak. And by the close of the fifth century, the city was not strong enough to fight off invasions from the south. Eventually, the strategic outpost was sacked and looted by the very tribes that it had been built to repel. Sad times.
But that was far from the end of the story. In 533 the Roman Empire entered into the Vandalic War, successfully expelling their rivals from North Africa. And when the East Roman general Solomon arrived in Timgad two years later, he found the city abandoned. Still, there was an attempt to revive this outpost on the fringes of the emperor’s domain.
Using bricks from the ruins of Timgad, workers constructed a new fort on the outskirts of the city. But thanks to its remote location, it was dependent on the strength of the Empire as a whole. And when the Arabs began encroaching on the Romans’ southern territory in the seventh century, the region entered a decline from which it would not recover. Oh well.
So in the eighth century, Timgad was abandoned for good. And before long, the Sahara had swept over the city, concealing its grand buildings and streets from view. By the time that the outpost was rediscovered by European explorers, it had been buried beneath more than three feet of sand.
But although the encroaching Sahara soon swamped Timgad, it also helped to keep it in a remarkable state of preservation. That enabled archaeologists to excavate the entire city – a remarkable feat for a site that was abandoned 1,000 years ago. Through their work, a light has been shone on life in the southern reaches of the Roman Empire.
Timgad isn’t the only Roman outpost to survive as an atmospheric ruin into modern times. In the second century, Trajan’s successor Hadrian built a long wall across Britain, marking the Empire’s northern frontier. And today it is famous around the world, running for more than 70 miles between England’s western and eastern coasts.
And in what is now Austria, the city of Carnuntum once stood on the eastern fringes of the Empire. At its peak, it was home to some 50,000 inhabitants and considered one of the most important Roman cities on the northern side of the Alps. But just like Timgad, it was destroyed by a series of hostile invasions.
Today the ruins of Carnuntum are a popular tourist attraction, located between the modern cities of Vienna and Bratislava. But these scattered walls and buildings pale in comparison to the remains of Qasr Bshir in what is now Jordan. Built in 300 A.D., this fortress was located some 2,000 miles east of Timgad, on the Empire’s border with the Arabian desert.
Like Timgad, Qasr Bshir was constructed to protect the Empire from the tribes that lived on the other side of the border. And also like Timgad, it was not built over after it was abandoned, leaving a pristine set of ruins behind. In fact, to lovers of Roman history, it is regarded as one of the era’s most well-preserved forts.
Back in Algeria, though, Timgad has slowly been developing an impressive reputation of its own. Some 20 years after the country gained its independence from France – and the initial excavations ceased – the city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins are particularly notable as an example of Roman urban planning, the initiative notes.
Today Timgad is growing in popularity as a tourist attraction, appearing as a destination on a number of Algerian tours. But while visitors marvel at sights such as the Arch of Trajan, how many of them understand the real reason why this once-great city fell? Like many abandoned ghost towns around the world, it has many stories yet to be told.