“ Location: 35° 13′ 47″ N, 9° 7′ 46″ E „
Sbeitla is a small town in north central Tunisia and its claim to fame is the nearby ruins of Sufetula which are absolutely stunning to explore and to look at.
We approached the ruins from the South and pulled over to look at the Triumphal arch of the Tetrarchy which was the main gate into the ancient Roman city commemorating the four emperors that governed the Empire in the year 300.
We parked near the museum opposite the small Roman settlement where we bought tickets to enter the city. We were able to take advantage of the café on site ordering drinks at the bar after which the waiters brought them to the tables. We paid a dinar to take photos at the site which cost 1 dinar each around about 50p There were toilet facilities here which were clean and a good idea to use them before you enter the city as there are no toilet facilities once inside the ruined city.
This small town was quite prosperous and earned its money through the olive industry and prospered up to the 2nd century when its popularity declined. However during this prosperous time the city beautiful temples, gateways and one of the best preserved forums in the world were built. After the invasion by the Vandals they also added to the city building their own temples around the city until the city came under the control of the Byzantines. Eventually they fought with the Muslim army of the Berbers in 647AD and the city then went into decline. It used to be a very rich city but now it is one of the poorest areas in Tunisia.
Entering the city through one of the main splendid gateways we came across an old olive ware house and processing plant. There was a massive olive press still in situ. It was quite large and beside it were vast stone storage tanks in which to store the precious olive oil. There are several such presses still quite obvious throughout the ruins of the city. We walked along the ancient Roman road ways with the remains of the houses and merchant shops on either side of the road. Eventually we reached the cistern where the water was stored to feed the city. The cistern was not dissimilar to a step well as there were steps leading down into it on either side. The purpose of the steps was to give an indication of how much water was still inside the reservoir and also as a means to get down to the water in times of drought.
The Roman roads were set out in a grid like formation and were all straight. The main road way led up to the forum and we entered the massive square through the Antonius Arch which had a large central archway and two smaller archways to the side. The square was really large and would have accommodated 1000's of people. Straight ahead were three very large Capitoline temples dedicated to the Roman Gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. After walking across the forum towards the temples we then went behind them and continued to explore the streets. Throughout the old city there were quite a few churches that had been built. The outline and about four foot high walls remained and you could quite clearly pick out the shape of the church, the nave and the chancels. Each of the churches had their own sunken baptismal fonts decorated with mosaics similar to but not as perfect to the one in the Bardo Museum in Tunis.
After exploring some of the ruined churches we made our way down towards the massive public baths. These were absolutely huge with beautiful mosaics all over the floors but open to the elements. You could quite easily see the underneath passages which transported hot water from the springs and heated the flooring and the baths themselves. I found these particularly interesting as they were mostly intact but obviously without any roofs left to protect the mosaics.
After continuing down one of the roads we came across the huge theatre which is really well preserved and almost perfectly preserved. I understand at times throughout the year they still hold concerts and other events here.
Would I recommend a visit?
Yes it is a beautiful city and if you put your mind to dream mode you can actually visualise how the city must have looked and functioned when it was inhabited and intact. I found the whole visit quite fascinating as the ruins are in pretty good nick bearing in mind they are nearly 2000 years old. You can quite easily spend 2-3 hours here exploring the streets and the ruined buildings. There is quite a lot to see and although we were there for about 2 and a half hours there was still a sizeable amount we did not have time to discover for example the massive Amphitheatre to the northern outskirts of the city. I would warn you to take some kind of head covering as your head is exposed to the sun and there is very little shade around the old city. I would also advise you to wear sturdy shoes and take water with you. A fantastic insight into the old Roman city.