Detail of a mosaic at the Museum of Cherchell
Islet of the harbour of Cherchell where Phoenician/Carthaginian materials were found
The City of Shershell, is in great Reputation for making Steel, earthen Vessels, and such Iron-Ware as are in Demand among the neighbouring Kabjles and Arabs. It is a Collection of low tiled Houses of a Mile in Circuit; but was formerly much larger and a Seat of one of the petty Kings of This Country. What we see of It at present, is situated upon the lower Part of the Ruins of a large City, not much inferiour to Carthage for Extent; and we may conceive no small Opinion likewise of Its former Magnificence, from the fine Pillars, Capitals, capacious Cisterns, and beautiful Mosaic Pavements that are still remaining. (..) Shershell being shut up in the midst of Mountains and difficult Passes, all Communication with It may be easily cut off, whenever the neighbouring Tribes, (as it frequently happens even to This Day) are disposed to be mutinous and troublesome. And, from This Circumstance, we may draw one Argument, that Shershell is the Julia Caesarea, by interpreting what Procopius (Procopius of Caesarea a VIth century historian) relates of It in our Favour, 'viz. that the Romans could only come at It by Sea, Access by Land being rendered impracticable, as all the Passes were then seized upon by It's Neighbours. (..) We discovered, upon a round peninsular Hillock that makes the Northern Mound of the Port and Cothon, several Floors and Pavements of Terrass and Mosaic Work, laid, as it appears, on Purpose to receive the Rain-Water, which was to fall from Them into small Conduits, and from These again into greater, 'till at last They were All to empty Themselves into a large oval Cistern.
Thomas Shaw - Travels, or, observations relating to several parts of Barbary and the Levant - 1738
(left) Column in the main square of modern Cherchell; (right) theatre of the ancient town
Cherchell was originally the Lol of the Carthaginians; and was made the capital of Mauritania, by Juba II, under the name of Julia Caesarea. After various vicissitudes it was destroyed by the Vandals, but regained somewhat of its splendour under the Byzantines. (..) When it was visited by Shaw in 1730 it was in great reputation for making steel, earthen vessels, and such iron tools as were required in the neighbourhood; its ruins were still very magnificent, but it was entirely destroyed by an earthquake in 1738. (..) Ruins of former magnificence exist in every direction, and wherever excavations are made, columns and fragments of architectural details are found in abundance; unfortunately little or no regard has been paid to the preservation of the numerous remains which existed even as late as the French conquest. Most of the portable objects of interest have been removed to museums elsewhere, and nearly all the monuments have been destroyed for the sake of their stones. The large amphitheatre outside the gate to the east still retains its outline, but the bottom is encumbered with twelve or fifteen feet of debris, and is at present a ploughed field. (..) The theatre or hippodrome, near the barracks, is now a mere depression in the ground, though in 1840 it was in a nearly perfect state of preservation, and was surrounded by a portico supported by columns of granite and marble, to which access was obtained by a magnificent flight of steps. (..) Numerous columns of black diorite, lie scattered about the place, as well as magnificent fragments of what must once have been a white marble temple of singular beauty.
John Murray - Handbook for Travellers in Algeria and Tunis - 1878
On the principal square of Shershell, planted with vigorous carob-trees, stands a column, surrounded by fragments that are wonderfully rich in capitals and friezes. (..) It must be said that Shershell is one of the cities of Algeria in which antiquities have been the least respected. Our domination has been much more fatal to the Roman monuments than that of the Turks. When I visited the Thermae we could scarcely set foot there, the mosaic pavements were so covered with rubbish. It is probable that they will soon be demolished, if there be need of stones to build a house or to repair a road.
Gaston Boissier - Roman Africa, archaeological walks in Algeria and Tunis - 1898 - Translation by Arabella Ward
The aqueduct in a 1765 ink drawing by Robert Bruce and Luigi Balugani
The Water of the River Hashem (according to the present Name,) was conduced hither through a large and sumptuous Aqueduct, little inferiour to that of Carthage in the Height and Strength of It's Arches; several of the Fragments, scattered amongst the neighbouring Mountains and Valleys to the S. E. continue to be so many incontestable Proofs of the Grandeur and Beauty of the Work. Shaw
On the left of the road is passed part of the aqueduct which led the waters of the Oued el-Hachem and the copious springs of Djebel Chennoua into Julia Caesarea. It consisted of two converging branches following the contour of the hills as open channels, or traversing projecting spurs by means of galleries. In only two places was it necessary to carry the water over valleys by means of arches. The first was at this spot, the second a few kilometres farther on, at the junction of the two branches where the united waters were carried over the Chied Billah on a single series of arches, of which five remain. (..) At the former place the water was carried over a deep and narrow valley on a triple series of arches, most of which are still entire, with the exception of a gap in the centre. Murray
Museum of Cherchell: (left) inscription celebrating an officer of Legio Parthica II Severiana who lived at the time of Emperor Alexander Severus; (right) architectural details
In the museum a great variety of fragments are collected, many of which probably belonged to the same building, together with broken statues, tumuli and other inscriptions, capitals and bases of columns, amphorae, etc. (..) From an antiquarian point of view, there is no place in the province of Algiers so interesting as Cherchell and its neighbourhood; and however reckless has been the destruction of the precious architectural treasures which it contained, abundance still remains to testify to the splendour of the capital of Mauretania Caesariensis. Murray
Museum of Cherchell: reliefs
The museum at Shershell contains works of a very varied character, which show us that Juba prided himself on not having an exclusive taste. (..) The love that Juba felt for Greek arts and letters, and which was the result of his education, was augmented still more by his marriage. Augustus had united him to the daughter of Antony and Cleopatra, she whom her mother called The Moon (Cleopatra Selene). (..) Doubtless to her influence are due some of the beautiful works that, happily, have been discovered in the city in which Juba II had his residence. Boissier
Museum of Cherchell: small statues: (left) Hunting Diana; (centre) old Bacchus or Silvanus; (right) fragment of a basalt statue of Pharaoh Thuthmose I (ca 1500 BC)
That which makes Shershell especially original is the great number and the beauty of the statues that have been found there. Some have been deemed worthy of a place in the Louvre; others ornament the Museum of Algiers.Boissier
There is (..), most interesting of all, the lower half of a seated Egyptian divinity, in black basalt, with a hieroglyphic inscription. This was found in the bed of the harbour, and may have been sent as a present to the fair Cleopatra Selene from her native land. Murray
Museum of Cherchell: colossal heads, perhaps from the Capitolium of the ancient town, in the style which prevailed at Pergamum in the IInd century BC
If it is true that the marble from which the statues of Shershell are cut comes from the quarries of Africa, it must be admitted that they were modelled in Caesarea itself, by sculptors brought from Greece by the King at great expense. He had therefore near him, besides scholars to aid him in writing his books, architects to build palaces, temples, thermae, and theatres, and sculptors to decorate them. Is it not strange that in an incredibly short time the court of a petty Berber king should have seemed to continue that of the successors of Alexander, and that at the foot of the Atlas mountains, an African city should have assumed the airs of Pergamum, Antioch, or Alexandria? Boissier
Museum of Cherchell: (left/centre) Apollo; (right) a similar statue which was found in 1891 in the River Tiber, now at Museo Nazionale Romano
The statue was found in 1910 and it decorated a large hall of a private house. Had it been found during the first years of the French rule it would have been sent to Paris or at least to Algiers, because it is a very fine marble copy after the original (lost) bronze statue by Phidias (Vth century BC). It shows the skills of the workshops which in Rome, Greece or Asia Minor "manufactured" copies of statues which were in high demand for the decoration of houses, baths, fountains, etc. The statues at Cherchell and Rome show a rather boyish frontal musculature; we know that they portray Apollo owing to some iconographic references to him (snake and laurel tree), but because of the god's absent gaze they bring to mind Dionysus as well (see the statues at Sagalassos and Ephesus).
Museum of Cherchell: (left/centre) Hercules; (right) most likely a copy of a caryatid
The cult of Hercules in the countries of the western part of the Mediterranean Sea was based on accounts of the hero's tenth and eleventh labours in which he stole the cattle of Geryon and the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides, the nymphs of evening and therefore of the West. In order to perform these labours he travelled either to the Atlas mountains of Africa or to southern Iberia. The Romans had Hercules passing from their city on his way back home. Massinissa and the Numidian kings claimed he returned to Greece across their country and he became their protecting deity. The worship of Hercules grew over time as he expressed a forceful type of male hero, very different from Apollo or Dionysus; this occurred also in the easternmost provinces of the Roman Empire.
Hear, pow'rful, Hercules untam'd and strong, to whom vast hands, and mighty works belong,
Almighty Titan, prudent and benign, of various forms, eternal and divine,
'Tis thine strong archer, all things to devour, supreme, all-helping, all-producing pow'r;
(..) To thee mankind as their deliv'rer pray, whose arm can chase the savage tribes away:
Unweary'd, earth's best blossom, offspring fair, to whom calm peace, and peaceful works are dear.
Self-born, with primogenial fires you shine, and various names and strength of heart are thine.
Thy mighty head supports the morning light, and bears untam'd, the silent gloomy night;
(..) With arms unshaken, infinite, divine, come, blessed pow'r, and to our rites incline;
The mitigations of disease convey, and drive disasterous maladies away.
Come, shake the branch with thy almighty arm, dismiss thy darts and noxious fate disarm.
Museum of Cherchell: floor mosaic depicting the Triumph of Dionysus which was found in 1934
The good people of the provinces were easily satisfied. Thus the art which seemed to be best suited to them is the mosaic. It was perfectly adapted to the climate; it accommodated itself strictly to a certain mediocrity of execution; it could be very pleasing even when limited to reproducing simple ornaments which required of the artist less talent and care than the human figure. The mosaic, therefore, could be made for any price, which fact permitted its being used in the decorating of private houses, even the humblest. Thus the mosaic penetrated everywhere throughout Africa. Boissier
Museum of Cherchell: (left) The Nine Muses (found in 1920); (right) The Three Graces (found in 1882)
The Nine Muses inside medallions were often used for the decoration of large halls; because of their number the medallions could be more evenly spread than those of the Four Seasons (see a similar mosaic at Thysdrus and another one at Vichten in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg - it opens in another window).
The mosaic of the Three Graces is rather similar to a painting depicting three statues. The way the Graces were portrayed was identical throughout the Roman Empire: they stood with most of their weight on one foot, the central Grace was seen from behind and the other two had a symmetrical pose. It was an ideal subject for the decoration of baths as at Narlikuyu in Turkey. The Three Graces were often portrayed in statues, but these were much more expensive than mosaics (see those at the Museum of Antalya).
Museum of Cherchell: (left) fragment of a mosaic portraying the centaur Chiron teaching Achilles to play the lyre; (right) fragment of a mosaic depicting a worker in a vineyard
Mosaic makers were regarded as craftsmen at the same level as mastermasons or plumbers. Over time however those involved in the making of the emblema (literally, what is placed within), a painting-like section of a floor mosaic, were identified as pictor imaginarius (painter of images) and were entitled to higher rewards than the other workers involved in making the mosaic. The skill level they show in some mosaics at Cherchell suggests that most likely they were trained as painters and perhaps they were involved also in the fresco decoration of the walls. In Italy towards the end of the XIIIth century when frescoes began to replace mosaics in the decoration of churches, painters like Pietro Cavallini used both techniques.
Museum of Cherchell: mosaic depicting Ulysses and the Sirens on a fountain which was found in 1940
The subject of this mosaic was depicted also in a finer work at Thugga. The landlord who commissioned it might have read Cicero: So great is our innate love of learning and of knowledge, that no one can doubt that man's nature is strongly attracted to these things even without the lure of any profit. (..) Take persons who delight in the liberal arts and studies; do we not see them careless of health or business, patiently enduring any inconvenience when under the spell of learning and of science, and repaid for endless toil and trouble by the pleasure they derive from acquiring knowledge? For my part I believe Homer had something of this sort in view in his imaginary account of the songs of the Sirens. Apparently it was not the sweetness of their voices or the novelty and diversity of their songs, but their professions of knowledge that used to attract the passing voyageurs; it was the passion for learning that kept men rooted to the Sirens' rocky shores. (..) Homer was aware that his story would not sound plausible if the magic that held his hero enmeshed was merely an idle song! It is knowledge that the Sirens offer, and it was no marvel if a lover of wisdom held this dearer than his home.
Cicero - De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum - Book V: 18 - translation by H. Harris Rackham
Museum of Cherchell: (left) Mosaic of the Farming Activities (early IIIrd century); (right) detail perhaps showing a foreman or the landlord
Farming was the key economic resource of Roman Algeria and many rich landowners decorated their homes with references to it by commissioning mosaics portraying the Four Seasons. In a house at Cherchell this was done by a realistic depiction of actual farming activities. Scholars found useful illustrations of the equipment and techniques used by Roman farmers in these mosaics.
Museum of Cherchell: details of the Mosaic of the Farming Activities, another one can be seen in the introductory page
The framing of the four scenes departs from traditional patterns; they are not separated in a rigid way and actually the line between the two upper scenes brings to mind the reliefs of Colonna Traiana. This mosaic stands out from the many others found in Algeria and for this reason it was chosen for the icon of this section.
The image used as background for this page shows a detail of a geometric mosaic.