Christian neighbourhood seen from the entrance to the archaeological site
city is at the end of a long, twisting road which
seems to promise it at each turning and appears
thereby so much the longer. When, on a faded
tableland sunk among high mountains, its
yellowing skeleton rises finally, like a forest of
bones, Djemila presents the symbol of that lesson
of love and patience which alone can lead us to the beating heart of the world. There, amid
a few trees, some dry grass, she defends herself
with all her mountains and all her stones
against vulgar admiration. (..) Towards evening we climb the slopes
which lead to the village and, retracing
our footsteps, we listen to explanations "Here
is the pagan city, this quarter which rises out of
the earth is that of the Christians. Later ... "
Yes, it is true. Men and societies have followed
each other here; conquerors have marked this
countryside with their civilisation.
Albert Camus - The Wind at Djemila - 1936 - translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy
Entrance to the Christian Neighbourhood
The site has also been marked by Christianity in the form of several cult buildings: a cathedral, a church and its baptistery are considered among the biggest of the Paleochristian period.
From the 1982 UNESCO brief synthesis of the outstanding universal value of Djemila.
The existence of a Christian community at Cuicul is attested from the middle of the IIIrd century. In the first years of the Vth century the Christians built a cluster of episcopal edifices at the top of the hill. Two basilicas were placed next to each other. Nearby was a round baptistery, as well as a bishop's mansion and a complicated group of annexes. This complex of buildings is the first which is seen when entering the archaeological site.
Basilica of Bishop Cresconius and its crypt
The unity of the Christians of Cuicul was marred by a rift which originated at Carthage during the persecutions ordered by Emperor Diocletian. Some deacons and priests were charged with having betrayed their faith during that period. In 311 the election of Cecilianus as Bishop of Carthage led to a reaction by a number of bishops and their followers who regarded him as a traitor. The appointment was confirmed by the Pope and this led to a split of the Christian community into two parties who were divided also on some theological matters. Those who did not accept the Pope's decision were known as Donatists, after one of their leaders. They had their own religious hierarchy, cathedrals (as at Sufetula), properties, etc. In 411 Donatism was declared a heresy by Emperor Honorius who endorsed the outcome of a council held at Carthage. In this context Cresconius, Bishop of Cuicul, decided to build a very large church where all the Christians of the town could gather.
(left) Basilica adjoining that of Cresconius; (right-above) its crypt; (right-below) passage between the crypts of the two basilicas
The new basilica was built at the side of an existing one and the crypts of the two buildings were linked by a corridor. The crypts housed the tombs of local martyrs and bishops, which were visited by pilgrims. A long mosaic inscription in Latin verses, very similar to that found at the Basilica of Bishop Alexander in Tipasa, celebrated the construction of the basilica and the deeds of Bishop Cresconius.
Columns and building materials were taken from temples and other ancient buildings. The fact that the Christian neighbourhood was built at the top of the hill indicates that maybe the Old/Lower Town had already been abandoned for a more defensible location.
While the design of Christian basilicas followed a pattern which had already been developed for civilian buildings, that of the baptisteries had to meet the requirements of a new ceremony which had an extreme importance for the early Christians. In general these buildings had an octagonal structure which reflected that of S. Giovanni in Fonte or Battisterio Lateranense, which is thought to be the first monumental baptistery (the octagonal shape can be seen also in the two baptisteries of Ravenna, that of Neon and the Arian one). At Cuicul baptism was administered by immersion and the font was placed at the centre of the building and under a canopy as at Sufetula.
(left) Interior of the Baptistery; (right) stone decorated with a hexagonal cross, a sort of Chi-Rho, a monogram for Christ
St. Augustine, Bishop of nearby Hippo Regius, wrote a treatise to prove that the Donatist position on baptism was wrong. In particular he condemned the Donatist practice of baptizing a second time those who returned to the Church after having abandoned it. Baptism was reserved to catechumens, adults who had gone through a process of learning about the principles of the Christian religion. It was usually administered during collective ceremonies; at Cuicul the catechumens waited for their turn in niches along a circular corridor. This design is still evident, notwithstanding many changes, in the Baptistery Hall of Battisterio Lateranense.
Small baths near the Baptistery: (left) a basin; (right) a latrine
Funerary inscriptions indicate that Cuicul was still populated after the Vandal invasion of 429. There is no evidence of a fortress, so perhaps it was already a small village when the Byzantines reconquered Numidia a century later and built many fortifications to strengthen their control of the country, as they did at Musti and Thugga. A Bishop of Cuicul is listed among those who attended the Second Council of Constantinople in 553; it is the last historical record of the town.
French archaeologists detached a series of large mosaics which they found in private houses and placed them in a museum, which however did not have enough room for all the other findings, including the gigantic heads of Emperor Septimius Severus and his wife Julia Domna. They are therefore placed in a courtyard outside the building and in the adjoining garden.
A column with an inscription marking the restoration and enlargement of roads which had been damaged by creeks shows that Cuicul authorities did not have much luck when they celebrated their achievements and dedicated them to the ruling emperor. In 211 they had to delete all references to Geta by order of Emperor Caracalla, his brother, who had him assassinated. In 235 they had to do the same after Emperor Alexander Severus was killed with his mother at Moguntiacum, in a mutiny of the legionaries on the Rhine border. Capelianus, governor of Numidia and commander of Legio III Augusta, supported Maximinus Thrax, the new emperor, and crushed a revolt against him.
The halls have very high ceilings to allow the vertical placement of the mosaics, which entirely cover their walls. Overall they have a pleasant blueish tint. A small number of statues, including one of Venus, which were mainly found at the Great Baths are also on display.
The mosaics of Cuicul are very similar to other works made in Roman Africa. They depict mythological events, hunting scenes and geometrical motifs which can be seen also in the collections of the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Many houses (of the Ass, of Europa, of Bacchus, of Amphitrite) were named by archaeologists after the subjects of the main mosaic which embellished them.
Museum of Djemila: mosaics on the external walls of the building
Lol or Caesarea Mauretaniae (Cherchell)
Cirta or Constantina
Castellum Tidditanorum (Tiddis)
Hippo Regius (Annaba)
Archaeological Museum of Algiers