Search This Blog

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Discovering a Roman Outpost in Tarifa, Spain

This appeared in the Metrowest Daily News on December 9th. 2012, page C3. but it has yet to appear on its website.

Pictures of Morocco and the Roman town

We thought there were only two reasons for going to Tarifa, a small fishing port on the southern tip of Spain. If you were young, you went to windsurf; if you were old, you went for a day trip to Tangier. We were in the latter demographic and did enjoy our day trip to Tangier complete with camel ride, snake charmer, a delicious mid-day meal, and a visit to a rug emporium as well as wandering through the bazaar. We were absolutely delighted that we had taken an organized tour. I thought, soon after our arrival in Tangier, that there was no way we could have got from the Ferry Terminal into the town just walking. Also the tour took us through the more luxurious residential areas that we could never had reached on our own. And I was very glad that the tour group outnumbered the touts and begging children who tugged at our shirts and trouser legs asking us to purchase their goods or to give them a small donation. If we had been on our own, we would have been swamped.

We watched the windsurfers from a distance. They have a wonderful site as Tarifa is one of the windiest spots on the continent with westerly winds roaring through the straits of Gibraltar. This is evidenced by the wind farms on the hills around the town. Some have the sleek modern turbines that we so admire; others had older pylon supports which were a little uglier.

But when we got to Tarifa, we found that there was one other attraction. About 25 kilometers north west of Tarifa on the coast were the remains of a Roman town: Baelo Claudia. The little village that became the Roman town of Baelo Claudia emerged in the 2nd. Century B.C.E. This was the era that Rome completed the conquest of North Africa . The site was ideal for tuna fishing as well as for the production of salt from the clear Atlantic waters. And it served as the Spanish terminus of the trade route to Tangier. The town was in its heyday during the Claudian era (1st century C.E.) and had declined by the seventh century due to earthquake damage and pirate raids.

We approached Baelo Claudia along the main highway from Tarifa to Cadiz. After about 25 km we turned off toward the modern village of Bolonia and proceeded up a switchback narrow road to the top of a range of hills that separated the main highway from the sea. It was a bit hair raising as the drivers coming down hill roared by scarcely slowing down on the tight turns. I imagined a Roman charioteer struggling to drive has equipage up that long twisting route then I mused perhaps using pack-ponies was easier. But both must have been quite difficult indeed. At the top of the hill, the new town and the ancient ruins could be seen in the distance along the shore – windsurfers were enjoying a stiff breeze. Of course, the Romans serviced the town from the sea, there was no need for chariots or pack-horses. Ship would have been the transportation of choice. Though one could imagine that a Roman pro-Consul full of his own importance and unwilling to risk sea-sickness might have insisted that he and his family be carried in style up the hill. In richly decorated closed horse-drawn in-litters; and all the time the drivers were cursing as they tried to get the horses up the steep pathway; and the pro-consul and his wife were sea sick anyway because of the swaying of the litter due to the rough terrain. Now it was our turn to descend the second series of switchbacks, but I made judicious use of the brakes each time we came to a hairpin bend.

We entered the complex through a dramatic modem building built in 2007 to the design of Spanish architect, Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra. This housed a visitor center and museum. There was a magnificent view over the Atlantic Ocean looking through the building. Europeans were admitted free, but we North Americans had to pay a small fee.

Baelo Claudia was a perfect Roman City in miniature.

It was set out in a grid on a flat plain next to the ocean. Nearest the sea was the factory area where fish and salt were processed. Unfortunately this was closed for additional excavation at the time of our visit. We entered at the northeast corner of the town close to one of the three aqueduct that served the town. Lots of fresh water is needed for fish processing and the manufacture of the town's specialty: fish paste. (garum).
Inland from this industrial area was the Basilica containing a copy of a statue of Trajan (the original c 100 C.E. is in the museum at Cadiz). The roof would have been supported by the magnificent Doric columns seen in the photograph. The Basilica was the local seat of Roman Justice. It is not difficult to imagine our Roman pro-consul sitting in judgment over a terrified townsman who had been accused to stealing another person's catch-of-the-day. If guilty, as he had not been caught in the act, his punishment would have to reimburse the person he had wronged five-fold. To the north of the Basilica is the Forum, a large open space for markets, strolling and discussing the events of the day, and listening to political speeches. These were given from a platform on the north side of the Forum. Even in its decayed state you can see the Romans in their togas chatting quietly about the news of Claudius' being hailed as Emperor by the Praetorian guard; “Can you believe he was hiding behind a curtain; we need a tougher man than that.” How wrong they were. Under his rule the Empire showed great expansion including the conquest of Judea,Thrace, and Britain. It was during his reign that Baelo Claudia became a Roman city whose inhabitants could make the claim, “Civis Romanus sum.” To the west of the Forum are several public buildings: administrative offices, archives (one can imagine the clerks making careful records of the changes in ownership of property, ships, and factories), and a meeting hall To the west is a later addition: a market hall and to its west, that most important of Roman facilities: the Baths. One indication of their importance is that they occupy the same area as the Basilica.

North of the Forum, we come to one of the most impressive surviving buildings: the Theater This is set in the side of a hill which serve as the bleachers. Beneath the seats there are passage ways that give access to all areas of the spectator area. You can see one of the entrances in the photograph. We danced in the open area in front of the seats and pretended we were declaiming to the assembled multitude.

On the way back to the visitor center we pass four temples to a variety of deities:: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, and, a later addition, Isis.
Finally, the visitor center contains an interesting museum showing artifacts excavated from the site since its discovery in 1914. These include models of the town, statues, mosaics, and household and industrial utensils.

The site is well worth a trip from Cadiz, Tarifa, or Gibraltar.

No comments: