Italy is famous for its ancient Roman ruins, but that’s not the only place you’ll find them. At its height in the 2nd century AD, the Roman Empire stretched from the Middle East to Great Britain. The adventurous Romans also explored south of the Mediterranean, establishing outposts along the African coast. Thanks to an isolated hilltop location in modern-day Tunisia, Dougga is one of the best preserved Roman towns in Africa. So what’s it like visiting Dougga Tunisia today?
Dougga is perched above a fertile valley dotted with olive trees and grazing sheep. Local families lived in the crumbling town until the 1950s, when archeologists forced them out. Many now reside in the new town three kilometers away while still maintaining their original farmland surrounding the site. A well at the bottom of the hill remains a water source for the community.
While Dougga is known as a Roman town, its history is much more diverse. Early records indicate Dougga was a well-established outpost of the Numidian Kingdom in the 4th century BC. All of the thick stone walls surrounding the lower half of the site are from the Numidian era. Power was ceded to the Punic Kingdom around the 2nd century BC.
The Roman Empire didn’t come knocking until the 1st century AD. Rather than wipe out the existing civilization like they did at Carthage, the Romans incorporated themselves in the existing town. This combining of histories is what makes Dougga so special.
What to See at Dougga
The archeological site’s main entrance sits beside an impressive Roman theater that dates to around 168 AD. An elevated stage faces a semi-circle of stone seating that can accommodate 3,500 people. Be sure to climb to the top of the seating area for great views over the valley.
A cool feature that my tour guide pointed out is the theater’s whispering gallery in one of the wings. Supposedly, someone could feed lines to the actors onstage without being seen or heard by the audience. She also mentioned that performances are still held here during the summer months, but I haven’t been able to find a website with program or ticket information. Ask your hotel concierge about it if you are visiting during July or August.
Strolling along the wide stone roads, many rutted from centuries of carriage wheels, your eyes will naturally be drawn to the Capitol. Built by the Romans in 166 AD, this temple is in remarkably good shape. Corinthian columns support a pediment featuring an eagle in the frieze and the back walls are mostly intact. The large sculpture of Jupiter that once had pride of place in the temple was moved to the Bardo Museum in Tunis.
Right next to the Capitol is the Square of the Winds. This spot is notable for the large compass engraving depicting the 12 winds. The small mosque facing the square was built over a temple to serve the families who lived within the ruins.
Other nearby plazas include the forum and marketplace. These are great spots to see stones carved with ancient inscriptions.
Another must-see area is the Licinian Baths. You’ll enter the complex through a tunnel once used by the slaves who kept the place running. There are hollow tubes in the tunnel wall that conveyed hot air from the furnace below – use your phone’s flashlight as there is no lighting in the tunnel. Also don’t miss the mosaic floor and headless statue in one of the back rooms.
Below the baths and the forum lies Dougga’s residential quarter. The layout of the homes is clearly visible, as are the communal public toilets. Some mosaics remain on the ground, but all the best ones were moved to the Bardo.
One of the buildings has been partially restored. It features a central fountain surrounded by a courtyard with columns and several small rooms. My guide explained that this was the town’s brothel, but I’ve read online reports disputing that legend. Since the only folks who knew for certain are long since passed, you are free to believe what you want.
Below the residential quarter stands the Mausoleum of Ateban. This grand tomb was erected in the 2nd century BC for a Numidian prince. It originally contained a rare bilingual Libyan-Punic inscription, but this was taken by a British explorer in 1842 and installed in the British Museum in London, where it remains. The Brits dismantled the entire structure to get at the inscription, and French archeologists put it back together based on earlier drawings.
At the western edge of town, through an impressive ceremonial archway, is the Temple of Juno-Caelestis. It was dedicated to the Roman goddess Juno, and was paired with a temple to Saturn on the eastern border. Quite a few of the temple’s Corinthian columns are still standing, as is the semi-circular wall behind it.
You’ve probably noticed by now that Dougga is surprisingly free of crowds. This is especially striking if you’ve ever been to Pompeii, which is bursting at the seams with tour groups. (Dougga’s ticket price is also a fraction of what you’ll pay in Italy.) Despite its UNESCO status and historical importance, international tourism numbers are low. (This is true for Tunisia overall. The tourism industry is sadly underdeveloped.)
English signage at the site is limited, so I recommend hiring a guide for a richer experience. You might be able to find a guide at the main entrance on weekends during peak season, but it’s probably best to have your hotel arrange one in advance. At the time of writing, the Dougga entrance fee is 5 dinars, or about €1.50. My guide charged 100 dinars (€30) for a three-hour tour. Cash only.
How to Get to Dougga
Dougga is located about 110 kilometers from Tunis, and the drive takes about two hours. There is no public transportation option, so you will either need to hire a car or join a group tour. Signs on the highway will direct you to the site’s main entrance. Follow them even if your GPS says otherwise, lest you end up at a dead-end on a dirt track in the roadside village. Ask me how I know.
Where to Eat at Dougga
The best place to eat is Dar Jdoud Dougga, an open-air restaurant serving Tunisian specialties like couscous with roast lamb. A set meal comes with spicy soup, bread, and assorted salads. There will also be spicy harissa paste and olive on the table for your bread. Mint tea and fruit will be served at the end. Note that vegetarians are not easily accommodated.
There is often a band performing traditional music while you eat. I recommend sitting outside on the patio, if possible, as the music can get quite loud. Whether you dine inside or out, you will almost certainly have several cats circling your table, hoping for a handout.
Dar Jdoud is located just outside the back entrance of the Dougga archeological site. There are car parks and ticket booths at both entrances.
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