When I visited North Africa in 1972, I stayed with a great couple, Dorothy and Ed Rucker, in Tripoli, Libya. Ed was working for a large oil company and Dorothy was a homemaker, attempting to live like an American far away from anything familiar. Their house was wired for 110v electricity so that they could use all the appliances they brought with them from the US, even though the rest of the country was on 220v power lines.
Stepping into their home, in a prosperous, suburb was like stepping on to American soil. For a first time traveller, who had been away from Canada for over a year, teaching in Nigeria and then travelling through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia to get to Libya, this was like taking a break from foreignness, and revelling in the familiar.
Bronwyn and I stayed with the Ruckers for a week before setting off to Malta for two weeks, and then we returned to visit them again. Dorothy kindly offered to take us on a day trip to the ruins of Carthage, but I'm sorry to say I wasn't interested in ancient Roman history at the time, and told her I preferred to spend the time exploring the souq in Tripoli. I loved, and still prefer to see people, textiles, crafts, and lively markets rather than museums and empty ruins.
However, now that I have plenty of personal history under by belt, I find that I have more of an interest in all things historical than I ever did before. The only drawback of developing this interest now is that I don’t have the memory I once had, but at least it’s easier to remember things when I have my photos and journal to refer back to when I can’t remember what it was I saw and did.
As I began to develop an interest in history, the fact that I had not made the effort to go to Carthage, the site of one of the greatest civilizations in North Africa, bothered me a little. Now here we were in Tunisia, after seeing ruins all around the Mediterranean, and Anil was not feeling at all inclined to visit Carthage. I told him that I would go on my own if necessary, just so that I could put that little guilty feeling to rest for once and for all. In the end, after several days rest in Tunis after our whirlwind tour of the country, he was willing to come along provided we didn’t have to visit all of the sites.
He had read up on Carthage in our guidebook and learned that there are dozens of minor sites, in addition to the major ones, and they are spread over an area that isn’t too easy to see on foot. The book even suggested that visitors travel from one end of Carthage to the other using the TGM train that bisects the suburb where the ruins are located. We spent a very long day touring three major sites at Carthage, walking between the Antonine Baths where we started and Byrsa Hill, where the Carthage museum stands.
I’m very glad that we saw what we did, but if I was a tourist who wasn’t carrying a sense of obligation to see Carthage, and had the time and opportunity to make the trip out to Dougga to see the ruins there, I would opt for Dougga in a minute. Though Carthage was the site of the most famous Phoenician metropolis in North Africa, it was completely destroyed by the Romans. There is so little left that was Phoenician, that seeing a major Roman site that is well preserved and more magnificent wins hands down in the ‘unforgettable’ category.
A Short History Of Carthage
I’ll tell you just a little about the founding of Carthage because I find it such a coincidence that the Phoenicians who came here were originally from Tyre, their city in what is now Lebanon. We flew directly to Tunisia from Lebanon without stopping in Egypt as we had originally thought we would. Perhaps the spirit of the ancient Phoenicians was guiding our decision, who knows?
Legend has it that Princess Elissa’s husband was murdered by his brother who coveted his wealth (and probably his sister-in-law too). She fled with 80 noblemen, picked up 80 fine wives for them in Cyprus, and set sail for the coast of North Africa. Along the way, she became Queen Elissa, and was nicknamed ‘Dido’ which means ‘wanderer’ in Phoenician. In 814 BC she struck a deal with the local peoples; they would let her have the amount of land that could be covered with an ox hide.
Clever Dido had an ox hide cut in strips and she used these to encircle a large hill near the coast. It is this hill that stands at the centre of Carthage; to this day it is known as Brysa, which comes from the Greek name for ox hide. The hill was flanked on three sides by the sea and a vast salt marsh on the fourth side.
The Phoenicians had been looking for a secure post in North Africa to support their trade with the silver mines in southern Spain. It eventually came to dominate the shipping and trade along the Mediterranean. As the Assyrians put pressure on Tyre in the 7th and 8th centuries BC, the Phoenicians came to view Carthage as the center of their universe. The fertile valley of the Medjerda River provided an agricultural surplus that was exported for additional wealth. Their merchant ships were protected by a powerful navy.
It was natural that such success would attract the attention of other powers in the region. Carthage fought several wars with the Greeks and the Romans. And so, began the first of three Punic wars that occupied the attention of Carthage and Rome for the next 100 years. In 149 BC, the Romans launched the Third Punic War with the intent of settling things once and for all. When Carthage fell after three years of siege, the Romans showed no mercy. The city was completely and utterly destroyed and the survivors sold into slavery. Salt was ritually sown onto the land to curse it as barren forever.
Romans were occupied elsewhere and left the newly conquered land to the Berber tribes for the next 100 years. When the powerful kingdom in the region backed the wrong side in the struggle for control between Julius Caesar and Pompey, Rome decided to firmly re-establish its control. Settlement began in earnest along the coast.
Rome looked for a name to describe their new territory. West of Carthage, in the low-lying hills near Mateur, lived a tribe of people who called themselves Afri. They were a Berber tribe and the Romans wanted them as allies to fend off the Numidian kingdom further west. The new province of Africa Terra (land of the Afri) eventually stretched along the continent’s north coast.
By the end of the 1st century AD, this fertile valley near the African coast was supplying 60% of the Roman Empire’s grain. Merchants growing wealthy from trade built the monumental buildings in Roman Carthage and Dougga. During this period, the region also supplied the wild animals used in colosseum shows, as well as slaves, gold, ivory, olive oil, and ostrich plumes. The great Roman tourist attractions in Tunisia were all built during this period.
By the beginning of the 5th century AD, the Roman Empire was in decline and subsequent invasions by the Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, and Ottoman Turks saw the region change hands over the centuries. In 1881, the French sent 80,000 troops into Tunisia to quell the border raids by Tunisian tribesmen on French-occupied Algeria. They never left until independence on March 20, 1956.
Yikes, that was meant to be ‘short’, but it’s hard to distill the history of such an important place during a crucial period. Unfortunately, there is really very little of Phoenician or Roman Carthage left, and all this warring and destruction over the centuries explains why. What really surprised us was how the suburb has become an exclusive neighbourhood and we had to look for the signposts to point us to the few remaining vestiges of the once great city.
After studying the information in our guidebook, we selected three main areas to focus on, the ruins of the Antonine Baths, the museum located on Byrsa Hill, and the
Sanctuary Of Tophet. We chose to walk between these far-flung sites and by the time we reached Tophet in mid-afternoon, we were pretty tired. We had definitely saved the most compelling for the last.
In 1921, French archeologists unearthed a site containing a sacrificial altar and 20,000 urns containing the ashes of newborns and children up to the age of four. There were also hundreds of stelae engraved with geometric shapes and symbols and these are arranged in rows under the shade of large, spreading trees. It is thought that the Carthaginian infants were sacrificed to satisfy the gods Baal, Hammon, and Tanit. The Romans had every reason to denigrate the reputation of the Phoenicians, so there is reason to believe that this site is not what it first appears to be.
For that reason, I did not let the sight of so many stelae bother me, though it is quite possible that child sacrifice took place here almost 3000 years ago. It’s not like the Romans were the gentlest of people, they were the ones who fed live men to the wild beasts for entertainment. If the Carthaginians felt that human sacrifice was necessary to appease their gods, at least they weren’t giving up their babies for entertainment. There is yet another theory, that many of the ashes and bones were of stillborn children and small animals. I will choose to remember it in this way.
We were beginning to show signs of ‘ruin’ fatigue, but there was one last important place to visit in Tunis. We had saved the Bardo Museum till the end, in order for its treasures to shine a final light on the places we had visited as we toured Tunisia. We look forward to visiting the museum, in an exquisite palace of a former Husseinite prince. If we tire of the mosaics and statuary, at least the palace itself will be worth the trip to the neighbouring suburb.