Augustine’s Elbow

Overlooking the archaeological park of Hippo Regius is the modern Basilica of St. Augustine, begun in 1881, completed in 1900, and recently renovated by the Algerian government. The stones used to construct the church were imported from France, and so was a bone said to be part of Augustine’s arm. It is sometimes advertised as his elbow. The church was closed, so I didn’t see it. Info on the bone and some pictures are available here.

Who knows what Augustine would have thought about having a bone of his on display. In the Confessions, he says his mother told him as she died, “bury my body anywhere” (9.11.27). Her point was to remember a person but worship God, not a person’s body.

But elbows aside, the exterior of the basilica is beautiful and blends European and Algerian styles.

Basilica of St. Augustine

I have uploaded a few more pictures here.

Here is a view of the church from the archaeological park.

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Partway up the hill to the church is the ancient theater of Hippo Regius.

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The French cleared the ancient ruins on the hill to build the church, as they did when building barracks, prisons, and so forth elsewhere in Algeria during the colonial period. Many ancient sites were lost this way.

The church attracts tourists, both foreign and local. Algerians are proud to call Augustine a compatriot.

5 thoughts on “Augustine’s Elbow

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    1. No, it’s fenced off. You can only see it from a little road outside the archaeological park itself, so it makes sense to keep access to it restricted. Not much of it survives, especially in comparison to other Roman theaters in the area. So there’s little to explore beyond what one can see from the road.

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  1. I’m curious what the Algerian attitude is, whether official or popular, regarding the preservation of Christian archaeological sites. The situation in Palestine (toward Jewish and Christian sites) is a bit of a mixed bag, and is complicated in Israel as well (toward Christian and Muslim ones). Same with Hindu and Sikh sites in Pakistan. But I would have thought that some hostility toward a religious out-group is almost par for the course.

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    1. I’ve seen ignorance about/indifference to the ancient Roman and Christian history on the one hand and pride in it on the other, but not really hostility. It surely helps that the French left a long time ago now, and Christians make up less than 0.002% of the population (at least according to a 2010 Pew Research Report), so they don’t even really qualify as an out-group anymore.

      There’s certainly tension about what historical period/culture should be favored (Berber, Punic, Roman, Ottoman, etc.), and the European/American preference for Rome/early Christianity doesn’t help that. However, if I remember correctly all the sites were excavated long ago during the colonial period, so they’re already there. For a variety of reasons, not much new archaeological work has been done in a while, and I’m not sure what the thought would be if a new Christian site were discovered tomorrow. But a number of the sites already excavated are kept up very well.

      I’ll say more about the pride part in a subsequent post on Souk Ahras and the olive tree there that, according to local legend, Augustine himself planted. But again, it’s either that or indifference, not hostility, at least so far as I’ve seen.

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