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Road to Ruins

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By Phil Hampton

Published Apr 1, 2007 8:00 AM


Cruise ships and crushing poverty. Ancient ruins and modern menace. Past and present collide on an extraordinary UCLA Alumni Association journey to North Africa.

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In Temezret, Tunisia, a minaret overlooks steps in the ancient hillside village


Two millennia ago, the Roman army marched into the highlands of what is now northeast Algeria and built a garrison they called Cuicul to advance their empire’s colonization of North Africa. The soldiers attracted native Berbers who traded woolen and leather goods with the garrison. Gentle slopes also bore a thriving wheat and olive trade. Cuicul prospered and grew.

Yet when we traveled to Cuicul in a police motorcade 2,000 years later, hardship was the biggest signpost. As our three coaches rumbled nonstop four hours from the port city of Bejaia, along the Mediterranean coastline, up a steep gorge, through an eight-mile tunnel, across vast plains and through tiny villages in the Atlas Mountains, we saw fields that lay fallow from drought and the overgrazing of sheep. Young men loitered, jobless, in large numbers outside tiny roadside shops.

And there was danger here. Internecine bloodshed claimed up to 200,000 lives across Algeria in the 1990s, when Islamic extremists massacred entire villages and the military-controlled government abducted thousands of suspects. Large-scale violence has ebbed, but remote areas around Cuicul remain a stronghold of Al Qaeda-linked militant fundamentalists, and attacks are common.

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Following its civil war in the 1990s, Algeria has struggled with unemployment, corruption, unequal distribution of wealth and other problems that have led to unrest. In this 2001 news photo, protesters clash with Algerian security forces in the mountainous Kabylie region east of Algiers.

Three white police minivans flashed their lights and blared their sirens as we rolled past shepherds in sparse pastures, peasants in mule-drawn carts and women in concealing Muslim niqab veils. Before we left the city, a protective retinue with rifles and walkie-talkies blocked intersections and waved us through. The motorcade drew quizzical, if not concerned, looks, occasional gestures of welcome and far fewer distasteful alternatives.

If travel is as much about the journey as the destination, then the road to ancient Roman ruins like Cuicul, now known as Djemila, is a fitting beginning for this story of a remarkable UCLA Alumni Association-sponsored trip to Algeria and Tunisia.

Don’t Rock the Kasbah

Like many in North Africa’s dizzying series of invaders — from the Phoenicians in 1000 B.C. through the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, French and others — we arrived by ship. Our floating safe house was Corinthian II, a 297-foot "mega yacht" with room for 114 guests, including 17 from UCLA Alumni Travel. Departing from Palermo, Sicily, on November 9, the comfortably appointed vessel, blessed with an attentive staff and fine food, steamed us to eight ports in Tunisia and Algeria.

And, as with many other Association adventures, our trip into history was illuminated by academic star power. Bestselling author and UCLA Professor of Geography Jared Diamond, who studies the evolution of civilizations, and Carleton College Professor of Classics Nancy Wilkie, past president of the Archaeological Institute of America, were also with us in North Africa.

In one of his three lectures aboard Corinthian II, Diamond discussed Algeria’s longstanding over-reliance on vast oil and gas reserves, which has driven up wages, prevented investment elsewhere and made the country more susceptible to corruption and civil strife. "It’s the curse of natural resources," he told the group.

This type of travel demands a certain surrender — to the security arrangements of host nations, to the schedule set by the tour director, to the insight of guides whose voices were amplified in the earpieces we wore, and to the realities of guided, group travel, which allows limited opportunity for lingering and unscheduled roaming. (Many of us sought out unscripted moments with guides, museum docents and shop clerks — unsurprising for a learned group dominated by veteran travelers. "We don’t do once-over-lightlies," said Ted Stern '55, a retired real estate investment executive from Montecito, traveling with his wife, Kay Stern '61, a retired public relations executive.)

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