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THEVESTIS (Tebessa) Algeria.

The Merdja plain is a corridor between the high plains of the Constantinois and the Tunisian steppe. To the S the Merdja plain is bounded by a mountain chain which rises to more than 1,500 m. The urban center of Thevestis was situated at its foot on an ancient alluvial cone. The only irregularity in the terrain is provided by the very narrow bed which the wadi Zarour cuts into the gravel.

Human occupation of the region around Tebessa began at a very early date. The Acheulian locality of El ma el Abiod, the Aterian site of Bir el Ater, and numerous Capsian remains attest to the antiquity of human settlement. Texts of Diodorus and Jerome seem to suggest the existence of a pre-Roman town. This is often identified with the Hecatompylus of Polybios and Diodorus, which is supposed to have given 3,000 hostages to Hanno.

At the beginning of the 1st c. A.D., the Third Augustan Legion, which was charged with pacifying the S part of the province of Africa, had its camp at Ammaedara (Haïdra in Tunisia, a short distance from the frontier). This town became a colony in the Flavian period. It is thought that Thevestis then became the residence of the legate and his legion. This would explain the presence of many inscriptions about soldiers and the administrative role which Thevestis retained after the legion set up its camp farther W at Lambaesis, either in the reign of Titus or at the beginning of the 2d c.

After the legion left, the town was raised to the rank of colony. It was also the capital of an administrative and estate district, for numerous imperial domains existed in the area. They were connected either with the domains in the countryside around Hippo or with those near Hadrumetum, and were run by a procurator. A whole bureaucracy of freedmen and imperial slaves, as well as augustales, appears in the funerary inscriptions of the town.

From the time of the synod of Carthage in 256, Thevestis had a Christian community and a bishop. The acts of the martyrs Maximilian and Crispina attest to persecutions there at the beginning of the 4th c. Possibly, the great Christian basilica in the N necropolis was built in honor of Crispina and her colleagues.

The Vandal presence is indicated by various funerary inscriptions and also by wooden tablets and the ostraca found in the region, both to the SE and in the Nementcha hills.

Like the nearby center of Ammaedara, Thevestis seems to have recovered military importance with the Byzantine reconquest. A very large enclosure was built by the general, Solomon. Under its ramparts he engaged the natives of the region in combat and emerged victorious. The town preserved a certain importance after the reconquest. Arab geographers from the 11th to the 14th c. mention it many times.

The extent and plan of the ancient town are poorly known. Certain monuments have been restored or excavated and can help us establish an impression of the colony. The modern town has, in effect, occupied both the interior of the Byzantine fortress and the built-up area of the 1st to the 5th c. The forum seems to have been in the middle of what became the fortress; a theater had been built not far away. Over the last few years an amphitheater on the left bank of the wadi Zarour has been uncovered. It was enlarged and remodeled several times. The original building could well go back either to the beginning of the colony or to the time of the presence of the Third Augustan Legion. The oval construction (about 86 x 80 m) was made of seats placed directly on the ground by means of cut and fills. The monument was greatly altered either at the end of the 3d c. or during the 4th c. The wall of the podium dates to this period; on it ran a balustrade on which one can read the names of the leading families of the town. During the 5th c., or later, after the reconquest, the amphitheater was used for habitation.

A temple, mistakenly attributed to Minerva, is almost perfectly preserved within the Byzantine walls. The cella has preserved its exterior decoration: pilasters, frieze, and an attic decorated with marble columns. Not far away stands a four-sided arch built under Caracalla in 214.

Farther N stands the great Christian basilica, excavated and restored in the last century. It is placed within a large rectangular enclosure reinforced by towers on the inside. A large garden preceded a monumental staircase. This went up to an atrium which led to the church proper, a three-aisled structure with galleries. Paving of geometrical mosaics has been preserved. To the right a staircase led down to a large trefoiled room, apparently a martyrium: excavations have uncovered an inscription about a group of martyrs. In the vicinity of the basilica within the enclosure, there were other buildings: a baptistery, a smaller basilica, and a huge stable above which, on the second floor, there may have been an inn. Recent work permits one to affirm that the date of this group of buildings must be the beginning of the 5th c.

As for the Byzantine fortress, it has the shape of a rectangle, 320 x 280 m. It is built of large-scale ashlar and is reinforced with rectangular towers at the corners and upon the fortified curtains. One of these towers included the Arch of Caracalla. The whole is relatively well preserved and restored. Mosaics, inscriptions, and various artifacts are in the Temple of Minerva. Other inscriptions are collected either in an epigraphical garden or in the gardens of the Christian basilica, which with its associated structures belongs to a uniform program conceived and executed about A.D. 400. It was intended primarily as a shrine for pilgrims and secondarily as a monastery.

Near the town is another large site, which has been partially excavated: Tebessa Khalia. It consists of a complicated group of buildings: large trefoiled rooms, an oil works, a round temple, public baths; to these is added a huge rectangular enclosure. The monuments and pieces of decoration discovered apparently belong to the end of antiquity.


A. Ballu, Le monastère byzantin de Tebessa (1897); S. Gsell, Les monuments antiques de l'Algérie (1901) esp. I 133-37, 179-85; II 265-91, 354-57; Le musée de Tebessa (1902); Atlas archéologique de l'Algérie (1911) 29, no. 101; L. Leschi, Etudes d'épigraphie, d'archéologie et d'histoire africaines (1957) 117-31; R. Lequément, “Fouilles à l'amphithéâtre de Tebessa,” Bulletin d'archéologie algérienne 2 (1967) 105-22; P.-A. Février, “Nouvelles recherches dans la salle tréflée de Tebessa,” Bulletin d'archéologie algérienne 3 (1968) 167-91; J. Christern, “Il complesso cristiano di Tebessa, architettura e decorazione,” Corsi di cultura sull'arte rav. e biz. (1970) 103-17.


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