Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Byzantine Algeria

Byzantine Algeria
Men at Arab market in front of the Byzantine Gate of Solomon. Tebessa, Algeria. These pictures were taken from 1860-1890.  It may give us a bit of the flavor of what Byzantine Algeria might have been like in the 500s and 600s AD.

Byzantine Algeria  -  The City of Tebessa
  • Part of the Roman Empire 146 BC to 439 AD. 
  • Part of the Kingdom of the Vandals 439 to 534 AD.  
  • Part of the Eastern Roman Empire 534 to 698 AD. 

Roman North Africa dates from 146 BC and the final fall of Carthage and the end to the Punic Wars.  Except for a 95 year period of rule by the Vandals, North Africa remained part of the Roman Empire for about 750 years.  It became a major part of the Empire's economy and often supplied troops for wars in other areas.
Roman Emperors paid special attention to the organization and economy of the area.  Several political and provincial reforms were implemented by Augustus and later by Caligula, but Claudius finalized the territorial divisions into official Roman provinces. Africa was a senatorial province. After Diocletian's administrative reforms, it was split into Africa Zeugitana (which retained the name Africa Proconsularis, as it was governed by a proconsul) in the north and Africa Byzacena in the south, both of which were part of the Dioecesis Africae.
Byzantine ruins in the Tebessa
area (in red) of Algeria.

The region remained a part of the Roman Empire until the great Germanic migrations of the 5th century. The Vandals crossed into North Africa from Spain in 429 and overran the area by 439 and founded their own kingdom, including Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearics. The Vandals controlled the country as a warrior-elite, enforcing a policy of strict separation and suppressing the local Romano-African population. They also persecuted the Catholic faithful, as the Vandals were adherents of the Arian heresy (the semi-trinitarian doctrines of Arius, a priest of Egypt). In 476, when the Roman Empire, had finally fallen, it became a remnant of the Empire. Towards the end of the 5th century, the Vandal state fell into decline, abandoning most of the interior territories to the Mauri and other Berber tribes of the desert.

Tebeaas  -  Byzantine Algeria

In AD 533, Emperor Justinian, using a Vandal dynastic dispute as pretext, sent an army under the great general Belisarius to recover Africa. In a short campaign, Belisarius defeated the Vandals, entered Carthage in triumph and succeeded in re-establishing Roman rule over the province. The restored Roman administration was successful in fending off the attacks of the Amazigh desert tribes, and by means of an extensive fortification network managed to extend its rule once again to the interior.
The North African provinces, together with the Roman possessions in Spain, were grouped into the Exarchate of Africa by Emperor Maurice. The exarchate prospered, and from it resulted the overthrow of the tyrannical emperor Phocas by Heraclius in 610. Its stability and strength in the beginning of the 7th century can be seen from the fact that Heraclius briefly considered moving the imperial capital from Constantinople to Carthage.
Faced with the onslaught of the Muslim Conquest after 640, and despite occasional setbacks, the exarchate managed to stave off the threat, but in 698, a Muslim army from Egypt sacked Carthage and conquered the exarchate, ending Roman and Christian rule in North Africa. Thus the last of the provinces of the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist, 222 years after the fall of Rome and the last Western Roman emperor.
The 8th and 11th centuries AD, brought Islam and the Arabic language.The introduction of Islam and Arabic had a profound impact on North Africa (or the Maghreb) beginning in the 7th century. The new religion and language introduced changes in social and economic relations, established links with a rich culture, and provided a powerful idiom of political discourse and organisation. From the great Berber dynasties of the Almoravids and Almohads to the militants seeking an Islamic state in the 1990s, the call to return to true Islamic values and practices has had social resonance and political power.
The first Arab military expeditions into the Maghreb, between 642 and 669, resulted in the spread of Islam. The Umayyads (a Muslim dynasty based in Damascus from 661 to 750) recognised that the strategic necessity of dominating the Mediterranean dictated a concerted military effort on the North African front. By 711 Umayyad forces helped by Berber converts to Islam had conquered all of North Africa.

Byzantine walls (6th century), popularly known as "Solomon's Walls" and flanked by thirteen square towers.Tebessa, Algeria. Photos taken 1860-1890

The City of Tebessa  -   Ancient Theveste

The ancient city of Tébessa is the capital city of the Algerian province of the same name and is situated about 20 kilometres from the Tunisian border. The city is home to more than 160,000 people and is famous for the manufacture of traditional Algerian carpets. Tébessa has a long and diverse history with many interesting sights for visitors to explore.

Tébessa started off as a town of Numidia, an ancient North African Berber kingdom. In the 7th century BC it became an outpost of Carthage and by 146 CE it had become part of the Roman Empire. The fourishing city with an estimated 30,000 inhabitants was given the designation of collonia during the rule of Roman Emperor Trajan. Under the Ottoman Empire, which reached the zenith of its power in the 16th and 17th centuries, Theveste was home to a garrison of Janizaries, infantry units of the sultan’s household bodyguard troops.
In 1851 the city was occupied by the French and was given the current name of Tébessa.  The town, which is contained within the walls of a Byzantine citadel, has a number of Roman ruins, including an enormous circus, a triumphal arch, and a great basilica, originally a temple of Minerva. It was a military and commercial centre in Roman times.

Door to Byzantine basilica. Tebessa, Algeria. 1860-1890.
The Basilica of St. Crispinus (4th century AD) is one of the biggest in Africa. It has also chapels, baptism urns, catacombs and gardens.

Ruins of a Byzantine basilica. Basilica of St. Crispinus. Interior. Tebessa, Algeria. 1860-1890

Door of a Byzantine basilica, Basilica of Crispinus. Tebessa, Algeria. 1860-1890

Roman Algeria

Tebessa’s ancient name was Theveste. It is assumed to have been founded about AD 71. Situated at the junction of the roads to Carthage (near Tunis), Cirta (modern Constantine), Lambessa (now Tazoult), and Tacape (modern Gabès), it soon became a place of primary importance. It was probably one of the first towns to adopt Christianity after its introduction into Carthage, AD 150. Its period of greatest splendour was the beginning of the 2nd century when the construction of its finest monuments began. Later Tebessa was razed by the Vandals and disappeared from history until its restoration by Byzantine armies.
In and around Tébessa are many monuments and remains of ancient buildings relating to the city’s past. The Gate of Caracalla is a Roman triumphal arch dating back to 214 CE. Free standing, ornately decorated triumphal arches were erected as a monument to celebrate a victory in war or in honor of their leader at the time of the victory.

Men at outdoor market in front of Byzantine walls. Tebessa, Algeria. 1860-1890

Ruins of a Byzantine basilica. Genera view. Tebessa, Algeria. 1860-1890

The richly mosaic decorated Temple of Minerva in Tébessa dates back to the early part of the 3rd century CE. The remains of the basilica of St. Crispinus, complete with chapels, baptismal urns, gardens and catacombs, dates back to the 4th century CE. Sixth century Byzantine walls, which are referred to as “Solomon’s Walls”, are flanked by thirteen impressive square towers. Other places of interest include a Roman theater, an archaeological museum and an amphitheater from the 4th century CE.


Tebessa was first a Numidian town, then, an outpost of Carthage in the 7th century BC. In 146 AC it became part of the Roman Empire and was known as Theveste (Hekatompyle in Greek).  During the 1st century CE, the Legio III Augusta resided there before being transferred to Lambaesis. It was made a colonia probably under Trajan.

There is mention of a council held there by the Donatists. Among its saints were St Lucius, its bishop, who in 256 assisted at the Council of Carthage and died as a martyr two years later; St Maximilianus, martyred 12 March 295; St Crispina, martyred 5 December 304.

Some of its bishops are known: Romulus in 349; Urbicus in 411; Felix exiled by the Vandals in 484; Palladius mentioned in an inscription.  It was rebuilt by the patrician Solomon at the beginning of the reign of Justinian I, and he built a tomb there which still exists. Under the Ottoman Empire, Theveste had a garrison of Janizaries. Tebessa is very rich in ancient monuments, among them being a triumphal arch of Caracalla, a temple, a Christian basilica of the 4th century. At the time of Trajan, it was a flourishing city with c. 30,000 inhabitants.
In the 7th century AD, after the Arab invasion of the region, Theveste lost its importance.  Later, during in 16th century, the Ottomans established a small military garrison there.

Ruins of the Roman Temple of Minerva at Tebessa, Algeria. 1860-1890

Sarcophagus in the Temple of Minerva. Tebessa, Algeria. 1860-1890




Provinces and cities of the Roman Empire.

The Byzantine Prefecture of Africa covered almost exactly the land controlled by the Vandal Kingdom.
Northwestern Africa, along with Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics was reconquered by the East Romans under Belisarius in the Vandalic War of 533, and reorganized as the Praetorian prefecture of Africa by Justinian I. It included the provinces of Africa Proconsularis, Byzacena, Tripolitania, Numidia, Mauretania Caesariensis and Mauretania Sitifensis, and was centered at Carthage. In the 560s, a Roman expedition succeeded in regaining parts of southern Spain, which were administrated as the new province of Spania.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are those roman buildings now , as good as they where in 1860 photografs ?