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Report 1992: Tunisia - the North and the Roman Sites

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 24 of 30: Roman Sites - Sbleītla

photo by MAW

Baptistry in the Basilica of Vitalis

The ruins of the Roman town of Sufetula are about 1km to the north of the uninteresting modern town of Sbleītla.

This was a wealthy Roman town getting its wealth from olives. It was built up on a grid pattern suggesting it was not built on an earlier settlement. The Byzantines made it their regional capital and military stronghold and a lot of Byzantine work remains. It is one of the best preserved sites in Tunisia as the buildings were not robbed for building stones.

There is a large parking area surrounded by cafes and tatty tourist shops. The ticket office is a desk in a large bare building selling a few postcards and books with basic loos. The museum in a modern building beyond was locked the day we visited.

The well preserved 3rdC Arch of Diocletian, with a small Byzantine fort beside it marks the southern entrance of the town and is the first building you see as you drive to the site. It is a short walk back from the entrance along a well made paved road.

There are carefully tended small plots inside the entrance growing flowers with built up earth walls round them to hold the water.

Further down the paved road towards the main town site are the remains of two more Byzantine forts on either side of the main roadway. They are constructed of massive stone blocks with an outside stone stairway. We were reminded of the bastles found in Northumberland.

Next is a building with two olive presses and a Byzantine church with the ruins of a small bath house behind it. The remains of walls of houses line either side of the road. There are the remains of a massive cistern on the road opposite the great baths. These are one of the more impressive buildings on the site reached down steps from the street. Pillars of the Palaestra still stand and hypocausts can still be seen under the floors. There are several areas of mosaics. The mosaics were still damp from rain earlier in the day with their colours looking bright. So often the mosaics are dry and dusty which leaves the colours looking drab.

The theatre is at the edge of the site above the oued and the seats have been restored. Although not as extensive as the theatre at Dougga it is still one of the best preserved in Tunisia.

We left the Capitol and forum area for later as they had been taken over by a group of Chinese tourists busy taking photos of themselves. We headed to the other Basillicas to avoid them.

First is Church of St Severus on the main road to the forum which is 4thC and still has standing pillars. The Basillica of Bellator is smaller. Again it is 4thC but thought to have been built on an earlier site. It is fairly small with an attached chapel with the remains of a mosaic in the baptistery area. We could see the circular remains of where a reliquary column stood in middle of baptistery basin. Relics would have been placed in a hollow at the top of the column. It is thought these might be those of Jucundus, a Catholic bishop martyred by the Vandals.

Next to it is the Basilica of St Vitalis which is 6thC and the largest building in the complex with five naves and two apses. Just off the road is the beautiful mosaic baptistery dedicated to Vitilis and Cordella which has a mosaic border round it and is decorated with Christian crosses. This must rank as one of the highlights of the site. There is another large plunge pool with mosaics beyond.

We continued along the road past the remains of houses, fountain, temple and scant remains of the Arch of Septimus Severus to the much restored Roman bridge across the oued which is still in use. It was difficult to see because of prickly pear and the fence around Sufetula meant we couldn’t walk onto it.

Then it was back to the forum which we had to ourselves. It is built on a slight rise in the middle of the town and the three massive temples of the Capitol dominate the site. The Temple to Minerva is the best preserved and still has columns supporting the portico. A narrow passageway separates the temple buildings and there are underground rooms off it. Steps lead up to the Temple of Minerva and the Temple of Juno and there would have been a bridge over the passageway to give access to the Temple of Jupiter. There is now a modern concrete bridge from Temple of Juno. There is not much left of the inside of the temples. Minerva and Juno have an apse, Jupiter a flat wall. These are definitely best seen from the outside.

The forum is a large paved area with the remains of pillar bases and bits of carved porticos lying around. At the end opposite the capitol is the triple arched Antonine Gate. The remains of later Byzantine fortifications can be seen behind it. There are the remains of shops lining the road to the forum.

This is one of the best preserved Roman Sites in Tunisia. It gets fewer visitors than Thuburbo Majus and Dougga because it is further from the Tourist resorts. We had taken copy of the plan of the site from Lonely Planet and found we didn’t need a guide to the site.

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