How A Beautiful Roman City Was Forgotten In The Desert For Centuries

In the middle of the scorching Sahara Desert lies an ancient metropolis that was once bustling with the Roman people. One of the last remaining southern strongholds of the empire, it was abandoned by its creators for some reason. Known as Timgad, this once-important city was left to be consumed by the sands of the desert for centuries, with archaeologists today trying to figure out why.

Built For Protection

Picture of ruins
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

The city of Timgad was established by the Roman Empire at the height of its power. It was decided that it would be built on the sides of the Aurès Mountains in what is modern-day Algeria.

The purpose of the city was to serve as protection for the extremely valuable trade routes of the empire against the tribes in the south. Timgad accomplished this vital purpose for several centuries, and the routes were safe.

It Was Not Small By Any Means

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Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although Timgad may have been built far away from the heart of the Roman empire, it had no shortage of citizens and was called home by thousands of Romans. Impressively, Timgad’s public buildings have even been described by experts as being on the same level of size and complexity as those in Pompeii.

Timgad also housed the Third Augustan Legion, making it quite a formidable city. Therefore, it’s understandable how it was still a thriving establishment so far south.

Found Beneath The Sands

Picture of stone relief
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Analyzing the ruins, it’s easy to imagine how Timgad was most likely one of the empire’s most lavish outposts. Yet, for some reason, it was completely abandoned in the eighth century AD.

For the next 1,000 years, the once-great city would turn to ruins, eventually melting into the sands of the Sahara Desert. There it remained until the 18th century, when a Scottish explorer stumbled upon the ruins. This is when the story of the city begins.

It Started With Trajan

Statue of Trajan
Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It was the Roman Emperor Trajan that built the city, although it was then known as Thamugadi or Tamugas. Back in 100 AD, the Roman Empire was so vast and powerful that it made Trajan one of the world’s most powerful men.

Under his reign, which lasted for 19 years, Rome would expand exponentially, covering more than two million square miles. Within all of that land, Rome had an estimated population of around 65 million people at its peak.

Timgad Was One Of Many Cities

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Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

At the time of Trajan, the Roman Empire spanned from Britain into what is now Egypt. Sprinkled all over, there were numerous cities, with many of them being more impressive than most people know.

When it came to establishing Timgad, Trajan wanted to build it from the ground up in the shadow of the Aurès Mountains. Trajan knew the importance of protecting the trade routes in North Africa that were crucial for the circulation of grain throughout the empire.

The City Was Meticulously Planned

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Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Before the first brick was ever laid, Trajan and the city planners put a lot of thought into how the city was going to be built. Modern experts were beyond impressed when the city was first discovered, mostly due to the grid system that it was laid out in.

Designed in the shape of a square, it was bisected by two main streets, with one running north and south and another east to west. Where the two streets met, a forum was constructed.

It Had All Kinds Of Amenities

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Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Despite being located in the middle of an African desert, Timgad had no shortage of amenities for its citizens. Just to name a few, the city included a massive library, theater, a basilica, and well as dozens of bathhouses.

Additionally, along with its grand architecture, the city was also covered with beautiful mosaics, which are considered some of the finest in the empire. To top it off, there was a massive arch built that was dedicated to Emperor Trajan.

Trajan Ensured The City Was Protected

Relief of soldiers
DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

To keep the southern border of the empire safe from its enemies, Trajan knew that he needed to establish an army in the area that was so far away from Rome. So, he stationed the Third Augustan Legion there to defend it.

Every other year, Trajan would release around 200 soldiers from service, granting them land in and around Timgad. So, Timgad became a popular home for retired soldiers who could fend off attackers if needed.

It Flourished And Then Wilted

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Then and Now Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Then and Now Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images

For a long time, Timgad was a flourishing and diverse city shared by both Christians and those who followed older religions. Yet, during this time, something happened that resulted in the metropolis crumbling.

By the 8th century, it was no more than piles of stone as the surrounding desert sands slowly consumed it. There it remained, lost, except for a handful of locals, until one curious Scottish adventurer arrived in the area.

In Comes James Bruce

Picture of James Bruce
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1763, Scottish adventurer James Bruce came to North Africa. There, he was appointed as consul in Algiers, which is now the capital of Algeria. Although he was fit for the job, being so driven and intelligent, he didn’t get along with his superiors. This resulted in him being dismissed from the position in 1765.

However, he had no intention of returning home and, accompanied by the Italian artist Luigi Balugani, he began a journey through Africa.

Searching For Lost Civilizations

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DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

As it turns out, when wandering through the desert of southern Algeria, Bruce and Balugani actually had the intention of finding the remains of an ancient civilization. On December 12, 1765, they stumbled upon something incredible.

On the side of the Aurès Mountains, they found themselves among the ruins of Timgad. The city was partially buried by the desert sands, but it was still obvious to the two explorers that they had found something spectacular.

Untouched For Centuries

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Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When the two explorers stepped into the ancient city of Timgad, it made them the first Europeans to have been there in centuries.

In his private diary about the city, Bruce wrote, “It has been a small town, but full of elegant buildings.” It also didn’t take long for the two men to find the Arch of Trajan, which stands around 40 feet tall.

More Surprises

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PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After wandering around the ruins, it isn’t surprising that the two men also came across the massive amphitheater, which is hard to miss. They also were able to recognize several of the statues of famous Romans sprinkled throughout the city.

According to the two men, one of the statues was of the image of Antonius Pius, an emperor of Rome during the 2nd Century AD. Another was of Pius’ wife, Faustina the Elder.

Few People Believed Him

Picture of Bruce
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Instead of running back to report what he had found, Bruce did the opposite. He buried whatever artifacts they had found and the men continued on their travels through Africa.

When they reached Ethiopia, they even claimed to have found the source of the Blue Nile, although this is debated among scholars. Finally, when he did return home in 1774, his report about his discoveries in Africa was doubted by many.

Rediscovered In 1875

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Then and Now Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Then and Now Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Then, in 1875, it was announced that a British diplomat had discovered the lost city of Timgad. This was done by Robert Lambert Playfair, who ironically also worked as a consul in Algiers. He as well set off on a great journey through Africa and found what Bruce had been talking about.

Playfair didn’t walk away from the discovery but began to research and excavate the location, making new connections about the city so he could understand what happened.

Playfair Made Some Groundbreaking Observations

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DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Upon first analyzing the city, Playfair proclaimed that Timgad was at the exact location where six major roads converged. He also noted that he believed the architecture of the city was superior to many Roman cities, even Lambaesis, a neighboring capital.

All in all, he came to the conclusion that the city served an important purpose and that it shouldn’t be ignored as it had been in the past. He knew there was a lot to learn here.

The Ancient Ruins Traded Hands

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Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

At the time of Playfair’s rediscovery, Algeria had come under French control, with the French colonists beginning to settle beyond the city. Then, in 1881, the Europeans managed to seize control of the area that Timgad is located in the mountains.

From then, and for the next eight decades, until the Algerian war of independence, the ancient ruins of Timgad remained in the hands of a foreign power.

The French Got To Work

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Carl Simon/United Archives/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Carl Simon/United Archives/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While in the possession of the French, researchers and experts were quick to begin excavating and examining the ruins of the city. It didn’t take long for them to realize that they had found something incredible.

Unlike most of the ancient Roman cities that have been discovered, this one was not tainted by the modernization of the city, as Rome itself was. For the most part, Timgad was completely untouched and had been preserved by the desert sands.

The French Made Several Findings

Picture of ruins
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Thanks to Playfair and the excavation by French researchers, the world would now learn the story behind the lost city of Timgad. The French concluded that Trajan had established the city as a place full of prosperity that wasn’t meant to be some random outpost in the middle of the African desert.

It was also discovered that many of the structures found had been added to and restored over the years of the city’s existence.

Life In Timgad

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DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

From their findings, the researchers assumed that life for the average citizen in Timgad was most likely superior to most other parts of the empire, in addition to all the lavish public areas provided.

There were more than 14 bathhouses throughout the city and what appeared to be private homes decorated with intricate mosaics and other luxuries. Interestingly, by the 3rd century, Timgad became a popular place for Christians before it became the location of the Donatist sect.

The Empire Fell On Hard Times

Mosaic of warrior
CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images
CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Unfortunately, during that time, the Roman Empire was experiencing some serious problems of its own. Since back in the 2nd century AD, the Germanic people, also known as Vandals, were wreaking havoc on Rome’s borders, constantly engaging in violence.

By the time the 4th century rolled around, the Vandals weren’t their only worry. Now, they also had to deal with threats that included the Huns and the Goths. The Roman Empire was feeling the pressure.

Roman Cities Began To Fall

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After 370 AD, things were not looking good for the Roman Empire. From then on, the Huns slowly made their way into the Vandals’ territory, which in turn forced them into the Roman Empire.

The Germanic tribes then began pouring into Roman territory, seizing the lone cities that they found along their way. This began with the region known as Gaul before they made their way into modern-day Spain and, soon after, North Africa, where Timgad was.

Timgad Was Sacked

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Algeria, Timgad City, Roman ruins of Timgad, UNESCO, (W.H.) Sertius Market.. (Photo by: Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Algeria, Timgad City, Roman ruins of Timgad, UNESCO, (W.H.) Sertius Market.. (Photo by: Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Tragically, during the 5th century, the Vandals had become such a powerful force in the Roman territories that they managed to make their way into the southernmost region of Rome. It was then that they sacked Timgad.

While the loss of Timgad was terrible for the Romans, at this point, it was the least of their worries. As Timgad fell to the Germanic tribes, Rome was beginning to really feel its losses as the whole empire began to crumble.

The City Of Rome Was Next

Picture of the sack of Rome
Prisma/UIG/Getty Images
Prisma/UIG/Getty Images

After the fall of Timgad, the Vandals were essentially an unstoppable force and fixed their eyes on the city of Rome itself. The Vandals finally succeeded in their goal in 455 AD and sacked the city, although most of the historic structures remained intact.

The Vandals then controlled much of the Roman Empire, including their territories in North Africa, which included Timgad.

Rome Tried To Fight Back

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Then and Now Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Then and Now Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Despite the losses suffered from the Vandals, Rome was not going to give up easily. Slowly, they began to subdue the Germanic tribes in hopes of re-establishing their once seemingly unstoppable empire.

Timgad remained weak, too far away from the empire for help. However, in 533 the Roman Empire entered the Vandalic War, in which it retook its lands in North Africa. Yet, when the general Solomon arrived at Timgad, he found that the city had been abandoned.

Rebuilding What was Lost

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Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Rome didn’t want to just leave Timgad abandoned, so they attempted to rebuild what once was. On the outskirts of the city, they began to build a new fort. However, because it was in such a remote location, it was completely dependent on Rome in order to survive.

When the Arabs began to make their way into Rome’s southern territories in the 7th century, the region suffered to the point that all hope was lost.

Abandoned For Good

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Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In the 8th century, the once-great city of Timgad was finally abandoned once and for all. Once everyone had left, the Sahara’s sands reclaimed the city. Before long, all of its spectacular architecture and bustling public spaces were covered with sand.

It remained beneath the sand until it was finally discovered by European explorers. By that time, it was already buried a whole three feet under, so it’s fortunate that anyone ever discovered it at all.

The Sand Wasn’t All Bad

Picture of mosaic
Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although the sands of the Sahara may have almost completely covered the massive city, it came with a benefit. Incredibly, the sand actually helped to preserve much of the architecture and art that would have surely been lost otherwise over the millennia.

This allowed for an extensive investigation to take place. For one of the first times in history, modern society got a clear glimpse into what the southern ends of the Roman Empire looked like.

Timgad Is Especially Notable For One Thing

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Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While Timgad may have been lost to history for some time, it has become a place of learning for many. Around 20 years after Algeria gained its independence from the French and excavation of the city was ceased, the ancient city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Today, the city is studied by historians, architects, and other researchers, most notably for being a detailed example of the intricacies of Roman urban planning and just what they were capable of.

It’s Become A Popular Tourist Attraction

Picture of ruins
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Since the city has essentially been completely uncovered since its first discovery, it seemed a shame to keep Timgad hidden from people. So, it has become a popular tourist attraction in past years and is one of the hot spots to visit in numerous tours around Algeria.

While many visitors marvel at the wonders left behind like the Arch of Trajan, few actually realize how great it once was and what actually led to its demise. Surely, there’s still more to be discovered… only time will tell.