The Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania: Deadly Wasps Once Prevented its Destruction
In almost any culture, an ancient royal couple would have been expected to have provided themselves with a superior, monumental, or otherwise unique final resting place. Such was the case with Juba and Cleopatra Selene II. Their choice? A large stone structure combining local Algerian, Hellenistic, and Pharaonic elements. Unfortunately, the impressive ruins may not be around much longer…
The Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania is an ancient monument located in Tipaza, a province on the coast of Algeria. This monument is sometimes referred to as the Mausoleum of Juba and Cleopatra Selene II, and is the final resting place of the royal couple. Since 1982, the royal mausoleum, along with the surrounding ruins, which consist not only of other indigenous monuments, but also Phoenician, Roman, paleo-Christian, and Byzantine ones, have been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List under the title of Tipasa. Despite the protection this status is supposed to grant, it faces various threats, including poor maintenance, continuous vandalism, and encroaching urbanism.
A Tomb of Many Names, Built by Order of a King
The Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania is on the road between Cherchell and the Algerian capital, Algiers, and is commonly said to date to 3 BC. Although this monument is known today to be the mausoleum of Juba II and his wife, Cleopatra Selene II, it is known by other names as well. In French, for example, the mausoleum is referred to as the Tombeau de la Chrétienne (which translates as “the Tomb of the Christian Woman”) due to the false door with a cross-like shape division on it. In Arabic, on the other hand, the tomb is known as Kubr-er-Rumia or Kbor er Roumia , which means “the Tomb of the Roman Woman”.
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The false door with a cross-shape on the Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The mausoleum was commissioned by Juba II, who was the last king of Numidia and the first Roman client king of Mauretania. The first wife of Juba II was Cleopatra Selene II, the daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII of Egypt. Following the annexation of Egypt by Augustus in 30 BC, Cleopatra Selene II, who was about 10 years old at the time, was taken to Rome and raised by Augustus’ elder sister (who was also Mark Antony’s former wife), Octavia Minor. When Cleopatra Selene II reached adulthood, her marriage to Juba II was arranged by Augustus.
Coin of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania. Juba II of Numidia on the obverse, Cleopatra Selene II on the reverse. ( Public Domain )
In 3 BC, the Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania was built by Juba II. It has been speculated that this tomb was not only meant for the king and queen, but also for their descendants as well, thus serving as the Mauretanian royal family’s mausoleum. This is based on the writings of an ancient Roman geographer, Pomponius Mela, who may have made a reference to this structure in his writings. In terms of architecture, the mausoleum is a combination of indigenous, Hellenistic, and Pharaonic elements.
This monument, which was constructed of stone, is circular in form, with a square base topped by a cone / pyramid. At the center of the tomb are two vaulted chambers reached by a spiral staircase. These chambers are divided by a short passage and are separated from the gallery by moveable stone doors.
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The mausoleum. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
Pillaging at the Mausoleum
The mausoleum was pillaged in ancient times. For instance, the base of the structure was once adorned with 60 Ionic columns. Today, the capitals are no longer there, presumably stolen in the past. Additionally, it has been speculated that the burial chambers have also been looted by treasure hunters. On top of that, attempts have even been made in the past to have the monument destroyed completely. For example, in 1555, an order was issued by Salah Rais, the Pasha of Algiers, to have the monument demolished. The mausoleum was saved when wasps swarmed out of it, stinging some of the workmen to death and resulting in the abandonment of the undertaking. In 1866, the mausoleum was explored by order of the French Emperor, Napoleon III. After this, the monument was protected and preserved. Incidentally, when the French first occupied Algeria, the French Navy used the site for target practice.