Overlooking the charming and inviting city of Annaba, located in eastern Algeria an hour from Marseilles or Italy by air, is the majestic Saint Augustine Basilica imposing in its strength and beauty. Over a millennium ago Saint Augustine delivered sermons in which he described a building made of stone and wood, skillfully assembled, into which one could set foot with „no fear of its crumbling to the ground.“ Construction of the actual basilica started on October 30, 1831 and was consecrated on March 20, 1900 with the assistance of the Italian city of Pavia.
It is now a large complex including the basilica itself, a library, a monastery and a reception house. It represents a harmonious combination of Moorish, Byzantine and Roman design. Participants to the first International Symposium of Algiers and Annaba organized by the Supreme Islamic Council, had the opportunity to visit this site at the conclusion of the conference that dealt with the life and work of this philosopher, son of Thagaste (Souk Ahras). They discovered the splendor of the basilica, overlooking a sumptuous site, in the midst of Roman ruins from the former Hippone.
One of the towering figures of medieval philosophy whose authority and thought came to exert a pervasive and enduring influence well into the modern period (e.g. Descartes and specially Malebranche), and even up to the present day, Saint Augustine was born in Aurelus Augustinus on November 13, 354 CE in Thagaste, in the eastern Algerian city of Souk Ahras and 650 km from the capital city of Algiers. More commonly known as “Saint Augustine of Hippo”, often simply as “Augustine”, he was the son of Patricius, a Roman citizen and Pagan, and Monique, a convert to Christianity, and was educated in Thagaste and Madauros, both in what is now Algeria and Carthage.
The genial author of “The Confessions” and “City of God” was the founder of African monasticism and is one of the most famous sons of Algeria.
Augustine convert to Christianity in 386 and was baptized by Bishop Ambrose of Milan on Easter Sunday 387. Having spent 7 years in Rome (his only time outside North Africa), he returned to his place of birth, Taghaste, and would spent the rest of his years immersed in the affairs and controversies of the Church into which he had been recently baptized. In 391, Augustine was ordained priest of Hippo Regius (now the Algerian city of Annaba) and in 395 he was made Bishop. He died in August 430 in Hippo, thirty-five years later, as the Vandals were besieging the gates of the city.
On April 1-6, 2001, an international conference was held in Algiers and Annaba on “The Africaness and universality of Augustine”, under the sponsorship of the Algerian Higher Islamic Council, the Augustine university of Rome and the university of Fribourg, Switzerland. Speaking at the conference, the archbishop of Algiers, Mgr Henri Tessier established a parallel between Augustine’s body of work, namely his city of God, and the contribution of the famous Muslim scholar Mawardi, particularly his treaty on the imamate, to say that both the Christian thinker and the Muslim jurist wanted to let the work of god shape the minds of men and not substitute a religious law for the free temporal power of men, thus debunking the claims of those who misinterpreted Augustine’s view on faith to justify the holy wars of history.
For Augustine, faith is the result of divine grace and can never be imposed other than accepted as a truth and freely confronted to that held by others. Numerous scholars underlined that the alliance of faith, intelligence and freedom proclaimed by the roman African philosopher would later be adopted by Thomas d’Aquin in the Christian tradition but also by Islamic philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Ghazali, whose works reflected their beliefs as strong bulwarks against any fundamentalist or extremist views.