My husband and I parked our rental car on a quiet little road with a few roadside shacks along it offering snacks and souvenirs to the handful of visitors that pass there each day. No parking lot, no entrance gate, no guide, no other tourists, we walked alone across an open field of weeds to reach the ruins of the ancient city of Dougga, Tunisia. With such a casual, unassuming approach, I wouldn’t have guessed that UNESCO considers this “the best-preserved example in North Africa of the rise, development, and daily life over more than 17 centuries of an indigenous Numidian city.”
Yet, there it was for us to explore almost as if we were the first people to glimpse it in a thousand years. My favorite types of historical and archeological ruins are those in which my imagination has latitude to take off. And one of the requisites for this is, as a general rule, quietness and solitude. Dougga is a wonderful site under any circumstance, but being void of all but a handful of other tourists rendered it that much more excellent.
The city is believed to have been founded sometime before the 5th century BC. In the early 2nd century BC the Numidian ruler Massimissa designated it one of his capitals. In 46 BC Julius Caesar annexed the region as a Roman province and Dougga then became a Roman town. Later civilizations, including the Byzantine empire, utilized it as well, which is partially why the ancient structures remain so well in tact, having been continually occupied throughout such a long stretch of history. In fact, the last families inhabiting the site of the ruins were not removed by the Tunisian government until the 1960s.
The architectural highlight for me was the well-preserved Roman temple known as the capitol. There are certainly larger Roman temples to be found, but the excellent state of preservation here made it a special place. Walking up the steps to the front pillars, I could envision so clearly what it would have been like thousands of years ago when the idols residing therein were beseeched and worshipped fervently.
Many of the interior spaces throughout the city retained some of the in-laid tile floors. Beheaded statues still occupied space with their bodies, their heads long ago carried off, sitting now who-knows-where.
The atmospheric highlight was the triumphal arch of Severus Alexander at the edge of the city. Walking the dusty path beneath it almost gave me chills as I imagined the countless citizens from diverse ethnic and historical heritages passing beneath it, in and out of the city, an untold number of anonymous footprints folded into the dirt throughout the millennia.
At the far end of the ruins near the theater stage, we finally encountered a small tour bus (and behold, a small parking lot) with its clients ready to re-board. I am very seldom appreciative of other tourists in my touring experience – I’m just supremely selfish that way – but in a rare moment, I was actually glad to see them, to know that more people were learning of this amazing archeological site which rightfully deserves a place in our historical knowledge and appreciation.
Dougga makes a fine day trip from the coastal city of Tabarka, lying 95 miles southeast of the city. It’s easy to reach by rental car, or, as we observed, guided tours also stop by.