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Soul of Mediterranean culture in the Roman era found in the ruins of Hippo Regius in Algeria

Algeria is home to 36 million people, but occupies almost one million square miles, by far the largest nation in all of Africa, four times the size of Texas. It is a sparsely populated country, especially outside the major cities. Many Algerians live crowded together in large urban areas like Algiers, which has a population of close to four million.

So Algeria is primarily a land of vast deserts, a Saharan nation that provides views far from the cities, vast tracts of land with few people but lots of sky. The coast is wonderfully fertile and well watered, a magnificent country that was once the granary of ancient Rome. In many ways, it has the features that would be immediately familiar to Californians farming that fertile state: an oceanfront plain leading inland to a wall of mountains that tends to keep the plain well watered by blocking ocean moisture so that do not travel through the mountains. This is the same geoclimatological setting along the southern Mediterranean coast and the California coast.

The great Christian philosopher Saint Augustine was the bishop of Hippo Regius, an ancient city whose modern name is Annaba, Algeria. The ruins of Hippo Regius bring me back year after year, decade after decade. I feel, somehow, that the soul of the Mediterranean is hidden between these ancient stone blocks. They are reminiscent of Rome when it entered the Christian era and are among the best in all of North Africa, so they deserve a special trip. We can see why this land was populated three thousand years ago with rich rolling hills covered in flowers, olive groves, pilgrims, home to shepherds and their flocks whose days are enlivened by the singing of birds.

At the height of its activity a couple of millennia ago, the city of Hippo was considered part of Roman Africa, a kind of vassal of the great city of Carthage in present-day Tunisia. Today Hippo Regius is part of Algeria, though not far from the Tunisian border. Saint Augustine was ordained a priest there in 391. He became coadjutor bishop in 395, then bishop a few years later, a position he held for nearly three decades until his death in 430.

The best way to see the ancient city is to approach it from the seafront, which today has moved a thousand feet from where it used to be when the Romans walked these beaches and paths. Walk from the Mediterranean Sea up the small hill to the well-kept Hippo Museum before touring the ruins, as the exhibits will help you put what you see in its proper context, an investment well worth making. For example, the ground floor contains a good collection of sculpture in the Hall of Busts, including a statue of the Emperor Vespasian that was found in the forum. A special gift to me is a very strange piece of armor, nearly two meters tall, covered in a blood-red cloak. On the wall is a meticulously detailed mosaic of four sea nymphs, or water spirits.

There is another collection of fine mosaics in the next room, my favorite being a hunting party from the time of St Augustine in which lions, leopards and antelope are chased into a trap. We easily forget that in those days lions were not limited to Kenya and East Africa. They were common as far north as Hippo Regius. It was only the Mediterranean Sea that prevented the lions from roaming Sicily and Italy. A third mosaic scene, this one of fishermen bringing home their catch, includes what I consider to be the equivalent of an ancient postcard showing Hippo Regius as he must have appeared two thousand years ago.

The ruins of the ancient city occupy many acres of land. You will see that the best houses and the best residential area of ​​the town, in those days as in a modern town, were right on the sea where the sea breeze swept through their open patios. What remains of half a dozen well-to-do Roman villas are in evidence here, their colonnaded courtyards, some of the walls and floors still visible.

Two houses that are especially worth seeing are the Villa del Laberinto and the Villa del Procurador, which seem to me to be the most impressive examples of how the rich organized their private homes. Past these waterfront villas, if you continue past the southern baths, you’ll come to the edge of the Christian quarter and the 150-foot outline of the great Early Christian basilica where Augustine was likely court bishop. The mosaics on the floor are quite beautiful.

No modern visitor to Algeria should pass up the opportunity to visit Hippo Regius and pay homage to this vision of the past.

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