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Visiting the Roman walls of Tongeren, Belgium: monumentality recalling Atuatuca Tungrorum

Updated on November 15, 2012
Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
Tongeren, Limburg province, Roman city walls
Tongeren, Limburg province, Roman city walls | Source
Denarius depicting Trajan
Denarius depicting Trajan | Source
Silver coin of Hadrian
Silver coin of Hadrian | Source
Map location of Tongeren, Limburg, Belgium
Map location of Tongeren, Limburg, Belgium | Source

A silently solid, architectural argument for nearly two millennia

The Romans called it (or a possible location nearby) Atuatuca Tungrorum ; local, Dutch-speaking citizens call it Tongeren (1). Remarkably, one kilometre and a half of the massive, Roman walls which encircled this, Belgium's oldest, city have survived in the Downtown area of Tongeren. Emperors Trajan (53-117, reigned 98-117) and Hadrian (76-138, reigned 117-138) are said to have been responsible for the building of the walls.

In Roman times, what is now Tongeren was an administrative centre; only 19 kilometres away was Traiectum ad Mosam , the crossing over the Meuse River, which in its Dutch form today is 'Maastricht', the city situated in the Limburg province of The Netherlands.

Originally, the Roman walls were 4.5 kilometres long, with round towers at intervals, which means that one third of these have survived. Their height was up to 6 metres. A moat surrounded the walls in Roman times. Pedestrian, guided tours of the City are available, which include visiting the Roman walls.

Over the centuries, Tongeren was attacked a number of times, although the destruction of some of the walls did not always occur as a result of enemy action, but, rather, successive local authorities would simply 'cannibalize' the stone from the Roman walls in order to use it for other purposes (a rather familiar story in the history of architecture and old buildings and structures!).

For me, at least, the quiet city of Tongeren is one of those places which strongly give the impression that, in some ways, little has changed for hundreds of years. A local leitmotif must surely be continuity: the city celebrated its 2000th anniversary a number of years ago. One can see that, while Belgium's history as an independent kingdom dates back to 1830, cities such as its oldest — Tongeren — very visibly demonstrate just how deeply the country is steeped in inhabited history.

Tongeren is located in the Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams gewest ) of Belgium, in Limburg province (the same name as a province in The Netherlands).

November 15, 2012


(1) Older literature in English sometimes refer to Tongeren as 'Tongres', which is the French spelling of the city's name; the city, however, is wholly Dutch-speaking from an official perspective and the French spelling tends now to be discontinued in other languages. In Roman times, the term Municipium Tungrorum was also used.

Also worth seeing

In Tongeren itself, a museum exists at the Moeren Gate (Dutch: Moerenpoort ), a Medieval development in the Roman walls; the award-winning Gallo-Roman Museum is situated at Kielenstraat, 15 ; a statue of Ambiorix, a local Belgic tribal leader in Roman times, is located close to a 13th & 14th century Basilica; part of the 14th century Béguinage (Dutch: Begijnhof ) has survived; the City Hall (Dutch: Stadhuis ) has a striking frontage.

Sint-Truiden (distance: 22 kilometres) has an impressive, old Town Hall with a tall belfry and some noted church architecture.


How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York (JFK) to Brussels Airport, where car hire is available (distance from Brussels Airport to Tongeren : 86 kilometres). The Belgian railroad company NMBS/SNCB maintains a service from Brussels to Tongeren. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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