A Brief History of Guelma

The land upon which the Algerian city of Guelma now stands was once a Roman city in Numidia known as Calama. It is thought to have been established in 198 CE by the Phoenicians, at which time it was known as Malaca, and when the area was conquered by the Romans, they renamed the settlement Calama. As part of the Roman Empire, Calama became an important urban center, later being given the lofty status of ‘colonia’. Under the leadership of Septimius Severus, Calama developed into one of the most prosperous cities in the Roman Empire, boasting thermal baths and a magnificent theater, the remnants of which remain landmarks in Guelma today.

Calama continued to prosper during the rise of Christianity, with Saint Possidius (a close friend of Saint Augustine of Hippo) as the bishop of the city in the 5th century. An invasion by the Vandals laid waste to the area, which was later settled by the Byzantines who built walls around the city to deter further invasion attempts. With the Islamic conquest of Algeria in the 7th century and the subsequent Ottoman rule between 1517 and 1830, the area was all but abandoned. When the French invaded Algeria in 1830, Guelma was reinstated as a settlement and given the status of ‘city’, with a communal constitution being formalized in 1836.

The Byzantine city walls were restored and a sizable city soon developed, spreading to outside the city walls. The Roman Theater was restored in 1905. At this time there were many settlers from Europe living in the city and there was both a synagogue and Christian church for the community. Citizens of Guelma and nearby Sétif were seriously affected by the riots of 8 May 1945 that came to be known as the Sétif Massacre. When Algeria gained its independence, European settlers and indigenous Jews left the city en masse and the church and synagogue were converted into mosques for the predominantly Muslim population.

Today visitors to the city of Guelma can view the ancient Roman theater and baths, visit the hot springs at Hammam Debagh and Hammam Ouled Ali outside the city, and enjoy the scenic surroundings, including the snow-capped Mount Maouna.