Carthage

I have visited three of what I consider the ‘great cities’ of the Roman world. Clearly, the top two on that list are Rome and ‘the New Rome’ of Istanbul. But the third is Carthage. And Carthage is not a place to even consider attempting with less than a day to play with. I added the Bardo museum in. Tunis to my schedule and because of that I missed two of Carthage’s sights, even though we stayed until sunset.

Carthage was founded, according to legend, by Queen Dido and Phoenician colonists in the earlt 1st millennium BC. It was most certainly a Phoenician colony, heavily populaced by local Berber peoples. Within a few centuries, it had become the centre of the most powerful sea empire in the Mediterranean. For over a century, from 264 to 136 BC Carthage and Rome fought a war for control and dominance, ending with the fall of Hannibal and the destruction of the city in 146.

Rome has a history of razing the site of its worst enemies. The people of Corinth knew this in spades, when their city vanished from the face of the earth when Rome beat them, and a new Roman city sprang up higher up the hill. Carthage suffered destruction, and it took some time for it to begin to resemble a city again, but Rome hated waste, and so from the ruins of the great Punic city sprang its Roman successor, founded by Julius Caesar during the civil wars.

Carthage survived throughout the Roman era and passed through an era of Vandal control into the hands of the Byzantine emperors. Its prominence only began to decline around 700 AD following the Arab conquest, when it was largely replaced by the new city and port of Tunis.

There are a few relics of ancient Punic Carthage still visible. The Byrsa ruins below the cathedral, the ports – a marvel that could easily have rivalled the seven wonders of the ancient world – and the Tophet (one of the sights I sadly missed.)

Roman Carthage has bequeathed us some astounding treasures. A fascinating amphitheatre, a largely-restored theatre and the sparse foundations of an odeon still exist. The end of the same aqueduct that begins at Zaghouan and passes Oudna terminates near a well preserved huge, multi-chambered cisterns of La Malga. Like most sites in Carthage, tourists usually turn up in coaches, park up by the side of the road above the cisterns and look at the roof for a while before moving on. A little investigation turns up all sorts. Workers on the site might show you round the generally closed areas of the site, including the interior of the cistern. They might try to sell you Roman coins too! The archaeological park that contains the Antonine baths is phenomenal, and the baths themselves are some impressive remains. The Magon quarter is interesting (closed by the time I got there.) The museum by the cathedral contains some excellent items. The Roman and early Christian museum I missed too.

Then there’s the late Roman and Byzantine ruins, including some wonderul basilicas scattered about, mostly in the north area, and the Baths of Gargilius, famed for their connection with St Augustine and the early Christian church.

It is quite simply folly to attempt a thorough visit of Carthage without a plan. Acquire a map of the ancient sites and plan a route. I would recommend taking the local metro from Tunis out to Sidi Bou Said and working back towards the Tunis end, probably visiting the Basilica of Saint Cyprien first and then arcing out towards the cisterns and amphithetare before working back towards the theatre and the Antonine baths. Definitely the best way to visit will be from Tunis by the metro and a lot of walking. Car will almost certainly involve driving either through Tunis or around the edge, and neither can be highly recommended. On another logistical note, unless you eat well before you go, your only real chance to eat will be at the start in Sidi Bou Said. The ruins of Carthage occupy an almost entirely residential area. If this doesn’t suit, take a packed lunch. Whatever happens take plenty of water.

And if you get around the sites and the sun is still up, try and visit the Bardo in Tunis on the way home.

Tunisia is, at the time of writing in 2016, not the most stable country to visit, but I am hoping that soon the mindless lunatics who have brought destruction and violence to a country that I found to be full of friendly, welcoming people will be driven out and tourism will return. When it does, and you feel safe to do so, go to Tunisia. Go to Carthage. Your reward will be memories to keep for a lifetime.

Remains: 5/5    Atmosphere: 5/5   Access: 4/5    Overall: 5/5

Oudna (Uthina)

Tunisia abounds with Roman sites. Some are obscure and small (Pupput) – some are immense and famouse (Dougga). And then there are a few that are simply astounding places that are virtually unknown to tourists. Such is Dougga. We spent several hours there and the only other living things we saw were a small team of archeologists and a recalcitrant donkey.

In Tunisia, Roman sites whose Latin names start with ‘Th’ (and particularly ‘Thu’) are names that have come down from earlier Numidian settlements, and so their origin is obvious. See Thugga, Thuburbo Maius, Thubursicum etc. Thus Oudna might be seen as a later settlement. There is evidence that Oudna was originally a fountation of settled veterans the 3rd legion, given a stone that references them visible at the Oudna farmhouse and the Augustan name ‘Colonia Pietas Iulia Tertiadecimanorum Uthina‘. The city grew in prominence until the third century when it was attacked and never fully recovered. In the Byzantine era, the capitol was formed into a powerful fortress.

Oudna’s most notable attraction is its amphitheatre, which is being reconstructed with relative sympathy compared with, say Istanbul’s walls. The amphitheatre is a stunning sight and makes the visit worthwhile just on its own. Add to that several townhouses with mosaics and baths, a theatre currently little more than a depression in the ground, a ruined cistern or two, the capitol and forum buildings, two public baths and various odd ruins jutting from the undergrowth, and Oudna is a joy to explore. The forum/capitol area is an impressive survival. The ‘Great baths’ were closed for excavation while I was there, but their scale is impressive, especially given that what is left is the fragments after a stray bomb strike in world war 2.

Not far from the site itself is the line of one of the most intact and impressive aqueducts I have seen. This channel, which ran from Zaghouan in the south to Carthage in the north, over 80 kilometers, is at its most impressive around Oudna.

The loneliness of the site adds to its draw. Never devote less than half a day to it. You cold wander the place for hours, finding fascinating nooks and crannies. And the rural setting is beautiful, with the Djebel Zaghouan rising blue-gray in the distance above the fields. Oudna is a highlight of Tunisia for me. It’s only negative is ease of visiting. Taxi, Louage or hire car is the only feasible possibility.

Remains: 5/5    Atmosphere: 5/5   Access: 2/5    Overall: 5/5

 

Hammamet (Pupput)

Pupput (Colonia Aurelia Commoda Pia Felix Augusta Pupput) is a small Roman site northwest of Hammamet in northern Tunisia, in the suburb of Hammamet Sud.

Pupput became a municipium in 168 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a colonia under Commodus, and gradually increased in importance thereafter, acquiring grand public buildings including a theatre and an amphitheatre. However, none of these grand buildings still exist above ground.

The extant remains were discovered by accident during hotel construction and include several houses with good mosaics intacts and in their original position, as well as a bath house. Around the walls of the site are displayed mosaics found in the excavation of the Pupput necropolis, which is said to be Africa’s largest but is no longer visible. While not one of Tunisia’s great Roman sites, it makes for a pleasant half hour, wandering among the mosaics, and is relatively easily accessible being in one of the major resorts, rather than in the hinterlands and lacking public transport.

The site is somewhat overshadowed by modern hotels, tucked away in a piece of wasteland which is less than picturesque. It can be hard to find, but it is sandwiched between the Samira Club hotel and the Caribbean World Beach hotel one street back from the beach.

Remains: 2/5    Atmosphere: 2/5   Access: 4/5    Overall: 3/5