B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


I travelled to Cairo a few days before the beginning of the ‘B.C. Archaeology’ tour of Roman North Africa for 2010. Egypt had been experiencing something of a heatwave with a very long and hot summer, and it was over 40 degrees at 10 o’clock at night while I was there! Most of the group arrived in Cairo a few days before the scheduled arrival and spent time in the Cairo Museum or went out to Giza - I was happy to stay in the air conditioned room! The tour group included Denise McKenzie (who had continued her travels after the Greek program), Virginia Stone, Helen Lyne, Kevin Hayes, Robyn Luhrs, Catherine, Helen Fletcher, Robert and Mara de Jongh.

Our connecting flight on the 3rd October was on Egyptair and took us from Cairo to Benghazi, in eastern Libya. Here we were met by our Libyan guide Sanusi - thankfully the weather in Libya was totally different to that in Egypt and was actually in the 20s. A short drive took us through the picturesque Gebel Akhdar (Green Mountains) where we stopped to have a look at a spectacular gorge and suspension bridge. We checked into our hotel at Susa, the ‘lighthouse’ Hotel, on the north coast of Cyrenaica.

The next morning we visited the photogenic ruins of the Greek and Roman city of Cyrene, located on the slopes of the Gebel Akhdar Mountains with glorious views along the coast. We walked through the Roman Forum and saw the Flavian Basilica, and other sites such as the attractive mosaics in the House of Jason Magnus. The old Greek Agora contains remarkable buildings and sculpture from the early days of the site. We had lunch in a nearby cafe and then saw the beautiful temple of Apollo, the theatre overlooking the coast and the impressive Hadrianic baths. The site was enjoyably free of tourists. At the end of the day we explored some of the tombs for which the site is famous.

The next day we visited the site museum of Cyrene which contains an astonishing array of sculpture from the Archaic Greek period down to the late Roman Period, much of it in near perfect condition. We then saw the magnificent Doric temple of Zeus, rebuilt in the Second Century AD to replace an earlier Doric Temple. In the afternoon we saw the site of Apollonia, ancient port of Cyrene. The remains here include a theatre, baths and early Christian churches.

The temple of Zeus at Cyrene
The arch of Severus at Leptis Magna

On the 6th October we returned to Benghazi through the Green Mountains. On the way, we made an unscheduled stop to see the remains of the Qasr Libya church with its fascinating mosaics and then headed to the attractive ruins of the Graeco-Roman city of Ptolemais. Highlights included the well preserved theatre, houses with mosaics and the massive underground Roman cisterns. We had a picnic lunch and visited the local museum of antiquities with interesting mosaics and sculpture from the site. In Benghazi we had the chance to visit the Commonwealth War Cemetery which is well maintained. In the late afternoon we flew from Benghazi to Tripoli, capital of Libya (we had to proceed without Sanusi who caught a later flight). We then drove to el Khoms where we checked into the new Hotel Severus.

The next day was spent exploring the extensive ruins of Leptis Magna, undoubtedly one of the most spectacular Roman sites anywhere in the world. We were lucky again to have the place almost to ourselves - the Financial Crisis in Europe has had a major affect on tourism, and cruise boats no longer stop in Libya which has reduced numbers at Leptis. The ancient city was founded by Phoenician traders and became a major urban centre in the Roman period when a new Forum was added. We explored the main part of the city including the impressive Arch of Septimius Severus, the Roman theatre, the Hadrianic baths, the Severan Forum and Basilica.

Our second day at Leptis Magna enabled us to complete our survey of this remarkable site. In the morning we visited more of Leptis Magna including the harbour with its intact port and well preserved lighthouse, and the fantastic virtually intact Roman amphitheatre and hippodrome. We also saw the superb site museum which contains an outstanding collection of Roman sculpture from the area. In the afternoon we drove to Tripoli and checked into our hotel.

The Roman theatre at Sabratha
The aqueduct of Carthage

On the morning of the 9th October we saw the remarkable collection of Roman sculpture and mosaics in the National Museum. The collection is located in the mediaeval Red Fort which guarded the medieval port. Highlights are the superb cult statues from the Imperial Temple at Leptis Magna. We then went for a walk through the old quarter of Tripoli including the metal working district, until we came to the arch of Marcus Aurelius, one of the few standing remains from Roman Tripoli.

The following morning we drove west along the coast to visit the picturesque Roman site of Sabratha. This ancient port city is very well preserved and contains magnificent civic buildings from the Second and Third Centuries AD. Highlights of the site include the stunning Roman theatre, and the dramatically located Temple of Isis overlooking the Mediterranean. The Forum, located on the sea shore, contains a number of well preserved temples, a bath complex and the Senate House. In the afternoon we had some lunch at a local restaurant and then returned to Tripoli.

The following morning we flew to Tunis, capital of Tunisia. We checked into our hotel (the Carlton Hotel) and then had lunch on Rue Bourghiba, the main boulevard of the new French Quarter of Tunis (the so-called Ville Nouvelle). This part of Tunis was built by the French in the late 19th Century and is full of excellent cafes. The area is dominated by the impressive Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul. We also had a walk in the medina (Old City) with its huge range of shops.

The 12th October was devoted to the magnificent Bardo Museum in Tunis, world-famous for its collection of Roman mosaics. These remarkable masterpieces, derived from a number of Tunisian sites, show many aspects of ancient life and religion. The collection is housed in a beautiful Ottoman Palace together with sculpture and art objects that are representative of Tunisian history. The exhibition is currently being expanded and revamped with parts of the collection being redisplayed in a better manner over whole new suites of rooms. In the afternoon we went for a drive into the countryside to see the remains of Roman aqueduct of Carthage - it was possible for us to walk through part of the pipe which brought water to the ancient city!

The next morning we went for a walk in the Medina (the old city of Tunis) with its busy shopping district and Great Mosque, a wonderful mediaeval building reflecting the rich Islamic traditions of Tunis. We saw the picturesque Tombs of the Beys, enjoyed a coffee in the old suq (covered markets), and visited old merchant houses. There was some free time in the afternoon to walk in the bazaar; the shopping opportunities are endless in this place! In the evening we had a feast at an old merchant’s house which is now converted into a restaurant - we ate very well!

Our next day was spent exploring the ruins of the ancient Punic and Roman city of Carthage which is located only a short drive north of Tunis. Despite being destroyed by the Romans after the Third Punic War, Carthage still retains many reminders of its heroic past. We explored the Bursa Hill acropolis and Punic houses, the Carthage Museum with its mosaics and artefacts, the Roman amphitheatre, the old Punic port area and the Tophet Cemetery - there is still much debate as to whether the Carthaginians made mass slaughters of their children in time of need. In the afternoon we visited the very picturesque village of Sidi Bou Said with its spectacular views of the Bay of Tunis. This area is well known for its blue painted doors and coffee shops, and we enjoyed exploring the less touristy back streets.

On the 15th October we travelled by bus to see the ruins of the Punic town of Kerkouane which is located next to the sea on Cape Bon, a peninsula east of Tunis. This is the best preserved Punic city in the world and is justly famous for the preservation of its houses containing some of the earliest mosaic floors in the Mediterranean. We toured the local archaeological museum at Kerkouane, home to many objects of daily life. After lunch we saw the Ottoman castle at Kelibia with its dramatic view over the coast.

The following day we checked out of our Tunis Hotel and headed westward up the green Medjerja River Valley. In the late morning we arrived at the ancient Roman site of Dougga, one of the great archaeological sites of the ancient world. Here an entire Roman city is laid out before you with spectacular views over the valley. Highlights included the Capitol (the remarkably well preserved Temple of Jupiter), the Roman theatre overlooking the valley, the bath complex and numerous houses with mosaic floors. In the afternoon we travelled the short distance to El Kef where we checked into our hotel.

The Temple of Jupiter at Dougga
The Ottoman fortress at El Kef

El Kef is a small country market town which sees few tourists. The next morning we went for a walk in the town, enjoying the panoramic views over the local countryside. Here we saw the old Roman baths, visited the Sufi school with its ethnographic collection of Berber artefacts and explored the Ottoman fortress. In the afternoon we travelled south to the small town of Sbeitla, location of the ancient Roman city of Sufetula. Our hotel was an oasis of civilisation and a nice place to spend 2 nights.

On the 18th October we explored the ruins of the fascinating ancient Roman city of Sufetula which are spread over a wide area. One of the best preserved buildings is the awe inspiring Temple of Minerva in the Roman forum, still retaining its original architrave. Other highlights included the Roman baths, the Arch of Diocletian, a Roman bridge and house mosaics. In the afternoon there was some free time to rest, use the internet or go shopping in the small local bazaar.

The next day we checked out of our hotel and headed eastwards to the coastal city of Sousse. En route we stopped in the mediaeval city of Kairouan, an ancient walled city founded shortly after the Arab invasion in the 7th Century AD. The most impressive building in the city is the Aghlabid Grand Mosque which incorporates numerous columns from dismantled classical buildings. After lunch we continued on our way to Sousse down on the coast.

The 2010 group near the amphitheatre of El Jem
Mosaic in the El Jem Museum

On the 20th October we travelled south by bus for a day trip to El Jem, location of the ancient Roman city of Thysdrus. In the morning we stopped to see a mosaic workshop and then saw the awe inspiring amphitheatre which still retains its underground cells for animals and gladiators. We had lunch overlooking the amphitheatre and then saw the superb Museum of El Jem which houses one of the world’s best collections of Roman mosaics. A highlight is the reconstructed ‘House of Africa’ which enables us to walk through an ancient Roman Villa. The following day there was some free time in Sousse - some of us went for a walk in the medina (fortified city) of Sousse where we saw the Grand Mosque and the fortified ribat (school) with its impressive watch tower. In the afternoon we travelled by bus to Tunis and checked into our hotel. The tour was now completed and we enjoyed an evening in the Ville Nouvelle. Our flight to Rome left very early in the morning and from there most of us headed back to Australia.

Michael Birrell

Return to the News menu