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Postcard from The Carthage Coast on TravelSnapz
A Door in Sidi Bou Said, a picturesque village at the North West of the Carthage coast.
Imagine . . .
This area is now prime real estate for the Tunisians, as it was for the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs, and the French.
There is little remaining of the ancient past glories, but enough to let you appreciate the extent of the old settlements and the resources employed by the earlier inhabitants.
What is left of the Roman stewardship gives you an idea of the lavish lifestyle and the completeness of the facilities they had in their city known as Imperial Carthage.
This was the city from which they administered their provinces of Northern Africa.
Archaeologists have uncovered remains of extensive baths and gymnasiums, hilltop villas, port facilities, theatres, arenas and sporting facilities that depict a thriving Southern Mediterranean centre of trade, culture and learning.
Their pavements were decorated with beautiful mosaics, fine sculptures lined their streets and great columns held their domes high.
Roman Carthage was eventually torn down, as they had done to the Phoenicians; but conquering nations have always rebuilt on this coastline. Now the presidential palace of President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali spreads over the hill overlooking the old Roman baths that face towards the Gulf of Tunis.
Tree-lined streets skirt around what is left of the ancient civilisations, fine homes can be seen behind walled entrances; and there is a quietness and tranquillity in the Carthage of today that contrasts with our imaginations of the bustling Phoenician and Roman eras.
If you come to see extensive ancient ruins you will be disappointed. If you come to find out why this area has attracted so many great nations of the past and what it means to present day Tunisia, then you will be rewarded with an insight to ancient glories and a view of an emerging nation.
Perhaps the most poignant of the archaeological sites in the area is the Punic children's graveyard of Tophet. The Carthaginians sacrificed their first-born children in times of war or pestilence to appease their gods Tanit and Baal. Scores of stelae stand over the buried urns containing the charred remains, amulets and beads of these babies.
This practice eventually gave added impetus to the war between the Phoenicians and the Romans, but we have the Phoenician Princess Elyssa-Dido to thank for establishing the first great civilisation on the Carthage coast.
Princess Elyssa-Dido came as a refugee from Tyre to this area in 800 BC and negotiated with the local chieftain for a piece of land. The chieftain agreed to as much as could be covered by an ox-hide, but undeterred by such condescension, the Princess had a large hide cut into the thinnest of strips and strung around the hill of Byrsa (a Greek word for hide). This is the legend that records the establishment of the great Carthaginian nation.
Modern day negotiations for real estate in the area are now between those of influence and money. This is evident in the little medieval township of Sidi Bou Said that sits on the promontory that marks the northern reach of the Carthage coast.
Lime white houses with their moucharaby balconies and studded blue doors - only a few deviate from the accepted colour scheme - flank lovely cobble-stoned streets. You can sit at one of the small restaurants that perch on the headland overlooking the Gulf of Tunis and be captivated by the colours of the Mediterranean and the flowing bougainvilleas.
The coast circles back from this headland towards Tunis, around the hill of Byrsa and the Presidential Palace, to the modern port facilities of La Goulette where ferries and cargo ships berth.
The notable archaeological areas of the Roman baths and villas, the museum and Punic remains, and the Tophet site are spread among the modern suburbs of Carthage and Salambo. Walking between the sites gives that extra insight into contemporary Tunisia and its heritage.
The Roman baths complex at Carthage was the largest outside Rome and included hot and cold bathing areas and extensive gymnasiums. It fronted the shoreline and a wide corniche, perfect for a relaxing stroll. A small model on the site will give you an idea of the facilities; all that remains now are the storerooms and some columns.
You can sit here in the sun and look towards the Presidential Place, mostly hidden by tall trees and a protective wall, and think about the old nations and the future of the new.
There is a museum complex situated on the top of Byrsa Hill, up past the Roman amphitheatre and the villas. Here there are remains of the 2nd Century BC Punic residential quarter, and the more recently constructed massive basilica of the Cathedral of St Cyprien, now semi-derelict and unused.
The museum complex displays pottery, jewellery, statues, mosaics, stellae and tools of past eras. A visit later to the Bardo Museum in Tunis to see the best of the finds would be worthwhile.
Back down the hill towards Tunis is the ancient Punic maritime facility, but apart from the two coves of the military and civil harbours, nothing much of this remains.
It is just a short walk now to Tophet, the Carthaginian burial site. Stelae, some bearing the symbol of the goddess Tanit, record the deaths of the children who were sacrificed in times of national crisis. Both human and animal sacrifices were practiced in Carthage from the city's founding in 814 BC right up until the eventual fall to the Romans in 146 BC.
There are other more complete ancient sites in Tunisia. However, the Carthage coast is an important and unique archaeological area. Great civilisations have used it as their base and influenced the world from here.
It is appropriate that it now intermingles with the new Tunisia, an Islamic nation that is promoting reason and tolerance in the turmoil of today's world.