Tunisia has some great tourist attractions, fabulous Mediterranean beaches, Star Wars filming locations, well-preserved Roman ruins and a tolerant, Islamic culture where alcohol is freely sold and bikini clad westerners romp on the sand beside fully covered Muslim ladies. But for me, Tunisia has a single attraction: Carthage, the ancient city empire which challenged Rome for global supremacy before being virtually wiped out following its defeat at the third Punic war.
Legend has it that the city of Carthage was founded by Queen Alyssa or Elissa, a Phoenician princess escaping from inter-family warfare and assassinations in her home town of Tyre, in modern day Lebanon, in 814 BC. She brought with her the alphabet, the Phoenician mastery of shipbuilding and sailing and skill at trading. Carthage grew into a significant settlement, taking advantage of its bountiful farms and location in the Mediterranean, some 325 kilometers south of Sicily and conveniently located between Tyre and the Phoenician settlements in Iberia (Spain). After Alexander the Great sacked Tyre in 322BC, Carthage assumed leadership of the Phoenician empire.
Inevitably, Carthage and the new power on the block, Rome, began clashing over trading rights in the Mediterranean, with the prize being supremacy over the world’s most lucrative trading route. The resulting 3 Punic Wars lasted about 120 years, before Rome finally emerged victorious in 146BC. The war’s most famous image is that of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, not the psychopath from Silence of the Lambs, crossing the Alps on elephants, surprising the Romans, defeating them in key battles but ultimately unable to conquer Rome.
Rome prevailed, thanks to its superior army, and, in a fit of pique, totally burned Carthage to the ground, salted the earth to ensure no crops could grow there again and destroyed every book in Carthage’s great library, obliterating Carthage’s literary and scientific culture and leaving it, as so often happens, to the victors to write Carthage’s history.
Ironically, Carthage would rise again not as a Phoenician power, but as the pre-eminent Roman city in Africa. The surrounding soil was too rich to lie dormant or let a little salt ruin it, so Carthage became one of two Roman bread baskets; the other is the Nile delta. A large, typical Roman city rose from the ashes, with the requisite baths still visible.
The remains of the temple of Jupiter also can be visited:
Rome didn’t last forever, The Goths sacked Rome in 410AD and their fellow barbarians, the Vandals, captured Carthage in 439AD and made it their capital. By this time, the Vandals had converted to Christianity and Carthage became a center of Christian thought; holding numerous councils and even hosting St. Augustine whose mother lived there. Battles with Byzantium were inevitable and the Vandals eventually succumbed, but in the 7th century, the Arabs came, ousted the lot and destroyed the Roman city. Since then, the areas has remained more or less under Arab control and Tunis has become the capital city, with Carthage just one of many suburbs.
The sites of ancient Carthage are best toured using a guide who can explain the different sites and who built them, which is what I did. On a sunny Sunday morning, my guide (from Trip Advisor) and his taxi driver drove the 15 minutes from central Tunis to Carthage. We stopped at the temple complex above, the aqueduct which carried water to the city, the old Punic military port cleverly hidden from prying Roman eyes by the commercial port and the Roman baths.
The only significant Punic remnants not burned by the Romans are the cemetery and sacrificial altar, where every first born Carthaginian son was sacrificed and buried. This is what the Romans wanted people to remember about Carthage:
There’s supposed to be an excellent museum devoted to Phoenician Carthage, but it closed abruptly a few months prior to my visit. A sign at the entrance said it was closed due to renovations, but my guide said rumours were there had been significant thefts from the collection prompting the closure. Whatever the truth, I couldn’t go in.
One part of Phoenician Carthage still exists, the Punic District at the archeological site. Not a royal palace or a temple, it’s just a bunch of pillars and the foundations of some houses.
Fortunately for me, Tunisia’s excellent Bardo Museum was open. Famous for some of the most spectacular mosaics anywhere in the world, it did not disappoint. Mosaics on the floors, the walls, everywhere, fairly well laid out and beautifully presented. In fact, the entire museum was labelled in English, French and Arabic and proceeded in a chronological order, except for the starting point, which was so obscured I went about the entire place backwards.
It was slightly unnerving walking around. On March 18, 2015, 3 terrorists stormed the place, took hostages and killed 22 people, mostly European tourists. I saw no reference to the massacre at the Bardo, but I couldn’t help thinking how vulnerable I would be if there was a repeat attack. There had been another terrorist attack in Tunisia, in June 2015, when a lone gunman opened fire at tourists staying in a nearby beach resort, killing 38 tourists. Since then, there have not been any attacks on tourists, but the damage was done and the tourism industry in the country suffered hugely. It is still not back to pre-2015 levels, but the recovery is happening.
Other Tunis sights:
I did make it to another famous Tunis sight, its Medina or marketplace, where I walked around for half an hour before deciding I had had enough of stalls hawking tourist souvenirs and invitations to “come in, just look.” I walked to the famous mosque and the modern shopping district, but I think I was suffering from a bad case of “been there, done that” and was less than overwhelmed. Thus, I treated myself to the opulence of the Four Seasons hotel, right on the Mediterranean, with prices drastically reduced for the off-season, where I luxuriated in its gigantic spa, indoor swimming pool and hotel room nearly as large as my condo. It left a positive, final impression of my time in Tunisia.
Senegal. For those following my journey, you’ll know Tunisia is out of order. I visited Tunisia in January, then returned to Toronto/Ottawa for a month before returning to Africa and Ghana. From Ghana, I flew to Senegal, where I am now.