On a first visit you hope that you will have a chance to make contact with the ‘real’ Algeria. But in our case, we were still in Paris when the driver of our airport taxi, on hearing where we were headed, offered us a pre-emptive welcome and began offering names of friends and family to greet on his behald in the different towns we would visit. By the time we boarded the bus to carry us from the airplane to the terminal after landing in Constantine, we had begun to feel at home. Next to us in the crowd on the bus was a glamorous young woman in a lipstick-red Jackie Onassis coat, carrying a massive white wedding dress with a skirt large enough for Scarlett O’Hara. On her way home from Paris for her wedding, she seemed to be a kind of movie-star fairy godmother standing in as a welcome party.
We spent our first day in the beautiful country around Guelma, ancient Calama. After a morning in the ruins of Thibilis, we stopped for lunch in the spa town of Hammam Meskoutine, where nearly boiling (95°C) sulphurous waters spill over a calciferous cliff, creating an other-worldly landscape of rising steam. Dedicated to Pluto in antiquity, the site still offers spa treatments. A carnival atmosphere prevails in and around the waterfall, with local families wandering in the rising steam or posing for photographs with exotic animals for hire: camels, monkeys, and peacocks. It is all about people-watching: when I stopped to take a photograph of a beautiful young woman in a pink head-scarf, she raised her camera and took a photo of me.
Hammam Meskoutine has the distinction of appearing – in its capacity as ancient Aquae Thibilitanae – in Book 22 of Augustine of Hippo’s City of God. The early fifth-century bishop Projectus, a correspondent of Augustine, healed a blind woman by contact with the relics of Saint Stephen, which were on tour in Roman Africa – being handed from bishop to bishop – having recently been discovered in the Holy Land.
The miraculous healing comes as no surprise. Hamman Meskoutine is certainly one of those places where seeing is believing. Even without the exotic animals, the mists of Aquae Thibilitanis must have created, then as now, a strange and benevolent atmosphere of untapped possibility. Even now, it is a place where one feels that the god Pluto might easily put in an appearance, perhaps accompanied by a miracle-worker brandishing the bones of a long-dead saint.