Adventure in Tunisia  
 

Tunisia Odyssey: Historic North
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours

 

Excursion to Carthage

 

Light rail, mass transit, TunisIf you have a spare morning or afternoon, before, after or in between the tours, it is an interesting excursion, generally by tram and foot.  Carthage is half-hour tram ride east of Tunis.  You can't take a bike on the tram. The excursion to Carthage is not on the core route of either of Ibike Tunisia bicycle tour because generally it is not done by bicycle, and though its primarily notoriety is from the Phoenician period, most of the ruins to be seen are Roman.  We see plenty of equal or better Roman ruins elsewhere on the northern itinerary.  That said, you can bicycle there (and back) along a flat straight 15 km highway / causeway past a shallow lake and industrial area -- it is a less than memorable ride.  But should you be in Carthage with a bicycle, it provides a fast and convenient way to get between the relatively spread out sites. 

Carthage from Bysra HillCarthage’s history is steeped in legend, likely more myth than reality.  The Phoenicians, early Syrian/Lebanese merchants, began to establish trading ports on the coast of Tunisia about 1100 BC.  But it wasn't until 814 BC that descendents of these early explorers established Carthage.  It is told that Dido, the sister of the Phoenician King Pygmalion fled her brother and Tyre when she learned he had killed her husband to gain his wealth. On the pretext of moving away from the sad memory of her husband, she left Syria and traveled across the Mediterranean to North Africa. Landing at present day Carthage, she struck a bargain with the locals to have as much land as could be covered by an ox hide whereby she cut the hide into very thin strips and surrounded a large hill that was to be central Carthage.  It was to rise in prominence and power, until ultimately it eclipsed and outlasted the mother state -- Tyre gradually lost ground to the Assyrians.

Map of Carthage during Punic PeriodCarthage was a true Mediterranean power inevitably abrading the other sea powers of the time, first Greece and then the Roman Empire.  Their conflicts with the latter led to the three Punic Wars from 263-146 BC.  The first was relatively indecisive.  The Second Punic War, 202 BC, gave us that great story of the fabled Carthaginian general, Hannibal, who laid siege to Rome after crossing the Alps with war elephants.  Actually, not many of the elephants survived the trip and Rome withstood the siege.  Hannibal was forced to return to defend Carthage and was ultimately defeated at the Battle of Zama, 140km southwest of Carthage.

View from Roman villa, CarthageWhen Rome finally defeated Carthage, 146 BC, they razed it to the ground and plowed it under with salt.  While this was likely to be literally true, the efficacy of rendering land infertile with salt is speculative and was probably more symbolic than anything else.  Whatever the damage, it wasn't permanent.  Julius Caesar eventually rebuilt Carthage as a Roman City in 44 BC near the site of the original city.  Roman Carthage was a large city with a population of 300,000, covering a substantial area and it takes some walking to get from site to site. It’s primarily these ruins that are currently a tourist destination and not the Phoenician Carthage.

Tanit on Punis funeral monument, CarthageThe whole area of the ruins is a World heritage Site and one ticket buys entrance to all the separate sites. We began our tour at the Sanctuary of Tophet where some believe children were sacrificed to the gods Baal and Tanit. More than 20,000 urns filled with the ashes of children have been excavated. Except for sort of a hodge-podge of stele, some with the symbol of Tanit on them, there is not much is left to view, but the legend does taint the feel of the place.

Military port, CarthageBoat ramp, military port, CarthageCarthage lies along the Gulf of Tunisia and was focused on seagoing trade so it is not surprising that the ports of the city were impressive. The military port had moorings for 220 ships in a unique circular design.  The tilted mooring ramps all the boats to be dispatched quickly. A models of the design is recreated in a small building on the site so you can get a sense of the ruins outside.

The Paleo-Christian museum nearby was closed for some reason, but we did wander through the foundation of an ancient cathedral.  Tennis Club de Carthage, CarthageJuxtaposed with all of this history is the Tennis Club of Carthage.  With the BMWs and SUVs park out front and young clientele dressed is new sport athletic outfits we could have just time traveled to Wimbledon or Forest Hills.

Basilique de Damous el Kertia, Bysra Hill, Carthagestatue, National Museum, CarthageWe next climbed Brysa Hill (the original area covered by Dido’s ox hide strips) where a museum has been erected next to the massive, French built L’Acropolium (Cathedral of St. Louis) alongside the ruins of Punic ruins, Bysra Hill, CarthagePunic and Roman houses. The museum houses some interesting mosaics (an intro to the ones we’ll see tomorrow at the Bardo Museum) and other objects of art and daily life from the third to seventh centuries.

Roman era theater, CarthageWe spent a short time at a refurbished Roman theater which has been put back into use and still more time at an area where Roman villas once stood. This area has more structures extant so you can better visualize what it might have looked like. Some of the mosaic floors are still in place and many others have been cut and are catalogued and stacked inside one of the covered buildings. As we walked out we could see a section of mosaic peeking up through the grass denoting much more excavation that could be done in the future. The views from these villas as from Brysa Hill were stunning. On this bright sunny day the sweep of the Mediterranean on three sides with distant mountains in the haze across the bay amply demonstrated the attraction for the Phoenicians and the Romans. Even today this is a distinctly upscale suburb of Tunis. Before leaving the villas we searched out a mysterious bird call and finally flushed the distinctive hoopoe-- having forgotten that it called its own name.

Our final site was the Antonine Baths. The baths were monumental with much structure still intact. A display gave an idea of what a massive building once stood here. It was the third largest baths in the Roman Empire. The foundation we saw was massive; the building itself would have rivaled the US Capitol.

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