An Olive Tree at Thagaste and Legends of Augustine

The ancient city of Thagaste (modern Souk Ahras, Algeria) is roughly 100 km south of Hippo Regius and the Mediterranean in the highlands of Numidia. Read here on why its location matters.

We drove to Souk Ahras from Guelma to the west, about 75 km along a winding road uphill. The climb is not easy to photograph while driving, but it would have taken some real effort—and time—in antiquity no matter the mode of transportation.

The road climbs steadily to nearly 900 m before descending 100 m to Souk Ahras

The slope down to the valley below is significant

Thagaste is famous because it was the home of Augustine. He was born here. He spent his childhood and many of his teenage years here. After he converted to Christianity while in Italy, he gave up public life and retired here. He founded a monastic (or a monastic-like) community here. He had no intention of leaving until one thing or another brought him back to the Mediterranean and public life in a church at Hippo Regius. For one, the philosophical tranquility he found in Thagaste was crushed by the death of his son, Adeodatus, who lived here with him.

Those who’d like to see ruins of Augustine’s home will be disappointed. The ancient city remains buried under the modern one. Still, driving around the area is equally rewarding for those wishing to acquaint themselves with the immediate world that Augustine called home.

View of Souk Ahras from a colonial French watchtower in the center of the city

Souk Ahras, with mountains in the distance

One prominent ancient artifact in Souk Ahras is an olive tree. According to local legend, Augustine planted it himself. Whether that’s true or not is beside the point.

The olive tree said to be Augustine’s

I am told that Muslim parents used to bury the foreskins of their infant boys around the tree so that their boys would grow to be men ‘as wise as Augustine’. This says a lot about the reception of Augustine in the region.

Augustine’s memory seems to have faired well after independence from France. (Tunisia became a sovereign nation in 1956; Algeria declared its independence in 1962.) He was depicted on a dinar in a series of 1969 Tunisian commemorative coins that also included Hannibal and Jugurtha (two sworn enemies of Rome). He is the subject of a recent movie endorsed by the Algerian and Tunisian governments. A few Algerian novels reimagine his life with emphasis on his African roots. See for instance Kebir Ammi’s Sur les pas de saint Augustin and Abdelaziz Ferrah’s Moi, Saint Augustin.

Plaques next to the olive tree commemorate Augustine in four languages: Tamazight (left) and Arabic, French, and English (right)

Central to Augustine’s reception is the identification of him as a Berber. Indeed, in his subtitle Ferrah uses the Tamazight spelling, Auregh, of Augustine’s family name, Aurelius, and translates his father’s name, Patricius, into Tamazight: Aferfan. It’s surely not coincidental that Aferfan means “Patriot.”

But Augustine’s ethnicity is difficult to pinpoint. He is often said to be Berber on the grounds that the name Monnica, also Augustine’s mother’s name, appears in Libyan inscriptions (written MNN, hence why it’s spelled “Monnica,” not “Monica”). The assumption is that Augustine’s mother was therefore Berber, making Augustine at least half-Berber. But a proper name is hardly evidence of a person’s ethnic background. Augustine certainly didn’t speak Libyan, though that too doesn’t say much one way or another about his identity.

A bigger problem is that ancient speakers of Libyan aren’t for sure the ancestors of modern Imazighen (“Berbers”). It’s not unreasonable to think they were, but the connection between antiquity and modernity is still a topic of academic debate.

Augustine called himself an African, but what significance there is to that is unclear. (Compare “American,” which hardly denotes one’s ethnicity.) What is certain, however, is that Augustine was from Thagaste and chose it—and later Hippo Regius—to be his home. Questions of ethnicity aside, that seems more than sufficient to justify regional pride in Augustine.

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