Sbeitla Tourist Attractions
Situation and characteristicsThe little market town of Sbeitla lies in the zone of transition between the Dorsale and the central Tunisian steppe country.
It is surrounded by irrigated agricultural land, and has a fruit- and olive-growing research station and a collection point for the esparto grass grown in the steppe country. The nearby site of Roman Sufetula ranks with Dougga, Bulla Regia and Maktar as one of the finest ancient sites in Tunisia.HistoryLittle is known about the early history of Sufetula. Only a small part of the site has been excavated, and the archeologists' work is hampered by the presence of Byzantine buildings overlying the earlier remains.The town, situated near a river at the intersection of ancient roads, seems to have been founded by the Romans at the end of the first century A.D. Originally a municipium, it was later raised to the status of a colonia. Christianity came to the town in the third century, and a number of churches dating from this period have been found. The town survived the Vandal invasion unscathed, and it became a Byzantine stronghold against the Arab advance. Sufetula featured briefly on the world stage in 647, when the Byzantine governor, Exarch Gregorius, had himself proclaimed Emperor here in opposition to Constantine II. In the same year, however, he was killed in the first battle with the advancing Arabs.The Arabs plundered the town but left it largely undamaged. It finally fell into Arab hands after the conquest of Carthage in 698, and its new rulers founded a new town, present-day Sbeitla, to the south of Sufetula, which was now abandoned. Thereafter its fine buildings gradually fell into ruin or were used as a quarry of building stone.The existence of the site became known in Europe only in the 18th century, and the first excavations began in 1907. Only about a third of the town - which is estimated to have had a population of around 10,000 - has so far been excavated.AccessSbeitla lies near the junction of GP 3 (Kairouan-Kasserine) with GP 13 (Sfax-Kasserine), 40km/25mi northeast of Kasserine, 117km/73mi southwest of Kairouan and 165km/103mi northwest of Sfax. There are bus services from the town center to Maktar, Kairouan, Tunis, Kasserine, Gafsa and Tozeur.
The enclosed excavation site lies on the western outskirts of Sbeitla, to the south of the Hotel Sufetula. The entrance is on the Kasserine road (GP 13); opposite it is a small museum. The ancient city lies on a gently sloping plateau bounded on the east by the Oued Sbeitla. The regular grid of its streets, centered on the decumanus maximus, running east-west, and the cardo maximus (north-south), is clearly visible. At the intersection of the two principal streets is the Forum.
Sufetula - Arch of Antoninus Pius
The Arch of Antoninus Pius is the only structure in Sufetula whose date can be certainly established (A.D. 139) It was evidently left unfinished, for the shafts of the four Corinthian columns on the facade have not been smoothed off.The Forum, now enclosed by a 4m/13ft high Byzantine wall, was surrounded on three sides by slightly raised porticoes, behind which were shops and offices.On the northwest side of the Forum are three temples dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. These three deities were normally worshipped in a single Capitoline temple with three cellas, as at Dougga, and it is unusual to find them with three separate temples, as here (and also in the Roman town of Belo in southern Spain). Each temple is entered by a short flight of steps. In front of the central temple of Jupiter is the rostrum (the orators' tribune). At the southeast corner of the Forum can be seen the remains of a fourth century fountain.
Sufetula - Arch of Diocletian
The south gate of Sufetula was the Arch of Diocletian (third century A.D.) This magnificently preserved triumphal arch can be seen a long way off when approaching the site.Turning left from the entrance to the site, we pass a number of small Byzantine forts (seventh century) and the foundations of a seventh century church dedicated to SS. Gervasius, Protasius and Tryphon. Opposite this are the remains of ancient baths. Bearing right from here, we pass the remains of an oil-press and come to the Great Baths or Winter Baths. Adjoining are the ruined columns of a fountain. Lower down, on the banks of the river, is a small theater.From the Great Baths the decumanus, lined with shops, runs past the fifth century Church of Servus, built in the peristyle of a temple, to end at a three-bayed arch, the entrance to the Forum.
Sufetula - Church of Vitalis
Beyond the Chapel of Jucundus in Sufetula are the remains of the Church of Vitalis, built on the site of a large villa towards the end of the fifth century, when the Christian community had become too large for the church of Bellator. Sited in conformity with the Roman street grid, it had five aisles, separated by double columns, and measured 50m/164ft by 25m/82ft. The baptistery is particularly well preserved, with four columns which supported a canopy over the font. A fragment of a mosaic from an earlier building (probably third century) was found on the site. Immediately behind the church are remains of baths of the Christian period.
Sufetula - Early Christian Sufetula (Church of Bellator)
Turning right (northeast) from the Forum in Sufetula, we follow a street which passes the foundations of a three-aisled church to the central feature of Early Christian Sufetula, the Church of Bellator. This was the city's first episcopal church, probably built in the fourth century on the site of an ancient temple but set at an angle to the Roman street grid. Originally a three-aisled basilica, it was later enlarged. In the apse (also a later addition) were found remains of an earlier mosaic.
40km/25mi north of Sbeitla on the road to Le Kef (MC 71) is the village of Sbiba, with the remains of the Roman town of Sufes, including a nymphaeum, a basilica and the walls of a Byzantine fortress. Here again the remains are so scanty as to be of interest only to dedicated enthusiasts.
Sufetula - Chapel of Jucundus
On the left of the Church of Bellator in Sufetula is the Chapel of Jucundus, commemorating Bishop Jucundus, who represented Sufetula at the Council of Carthage and is thought to have been martyred during the period of Vandal rule.
Sufetula - Forum
The Forum in Sufetula is outstandingly well preserved, the finest of its kind in the whole of North Africa. Measuring 34.75m/114ft by 37.20m/122ft and paved with stone slabs, it is entered through the Arch of Antoninus Pius.
Sufetula - Museum
The little museum in Sufetula (opened 1988) displays in its three rooms a variety of finds from the site, including mosaics, pottery, coins and funerary stelae.
Sufetula - Other Sights
From the Church of Vitalis in Sufetula the Roman street continues northwest, roughly parallel to the modern road to Kasserine which can be seen on the left. In 350m/380yds it comes to the remains of other Roman buildings, which are likely to appeal only to those with a serious interest in archeology. On the left are the remains of a fountain similar to those beside the Church of Servus and at the south end of the Forum. From here a track on the right runs northeast to a three-arched second century bridge, frequently restored, carrying an aqueduct over the Oued Sbeitla.The town of Sfax, 166km/103mi away on the coast, gets its water from the source of the Oued Sbeitla.The road continues to the remains of a small temple of unknown dedication and a town gate of the Severan period. Beyond this, on the left, are the remains of a fifth century house and/or church. 50m/55yds farther on a depression in the ground marks the site of the amphitheater, which has not yet been excavated. Returning towards the entrance, we pass the foundations of the large Villa des Saisons, named after a mosaic of the Seasons which is now in the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Little excavation has been done southwest of the Kasserine road. So far only the remains of two mausoleums and a fourth century church dedicated to SS. Silvanus and Fortunatus have been found: evidently this area was used by both Romans and Christians for the burial of their dead. Farther north is a mound which is believed to mark the site of a Punic tophet.
Map of Sbeitla Attractions