Exploring the Ruins of Ancient Carthage: A Visitor's Guide
Today Carthage is a wealthy suburb of Tunis; its villas surrounded by gardens full of red hibiscus blossom and purple bougainvillea. The scanty remains of once mighty Carthage lie scattered across the neighbourhood. But despite their ruinous state the remnants are still worth a sightseeing trip for their beautiful setting backed by the sea.
According to legend Carthage was founded by the King of Tyre's daughter Elissa, after the king and his band of followers fled the Levant following a dispute over succession to the throne. In 814 BC a Numidian prince granted Elissa, her father and followers land from which the town of Qart Hadasht (known to the Romans as Carthago) sprung up.
In antiquity the Sebkha Ariana (salt lake) was still linked with the sea, so that Carthage lay at the end of an easily defensible peninsula, linked with the mainland only at its east end. It was enclosed by a wall over 40 km long, 10 m thick and up to 13 m high, reinforced by towers, ditches and earthworks, which protected the city and the surrounding agricultural area from enemy attack. A force of 20,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 300 elephants defended the city.
Under the Magonid (Hannibal) dynasty, Carthage became the leading commercial power in the western Mediterranean; its seamen sailed round the whole of Africa and discovered the coasts of Britain. But its success led to conflict with the other Mediterranean power, Rome. The resulting three Punic Wars ended in the complete destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. The city was plundered, burned down, razed to the ground and ploughed over; and the whole area was sprinkled with salt so that even the soil should be made infertile.
The area was later resettled by the Romans and named Colonia Julia Carthago. Soon afterwards it became the seat of the provincial government. Thereafter it grew and flourished, and by the early 2nd century AD, it was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, with a population of around 300,000. Magnificent public buildings were erected during this period, second only to those in Rome itself. As in Punic times, the central feature of the city was the hill of Byrsa, with the Capitol and the forum, and the Romans largely preserved the general layout of the Punic town.
By the beginning of the 4th century, Carthage had become the leading city in Christian Africa and the see of a bishop. Under Byzantine rule it retained its predominance in North Africa until the Arabs arrived and once again utterly destroyed the city in AD 692. Thereafter Carthage fell into an oblivion, which ended only under the French protectorate and when the Catholic Mission, honouring the city's early Christian tradition, established its African headquarters in Carthage.
Thought to be the place where the Phoenician princess Elissa landed in Tunisia, the Tophet is a religious sanctuary where people worshipped the sun god Baal-Ammon. Excavations here have revealed that during the early days of the city, it was common practise to sacrifice first born children here to make sure the city found favour with the gods. Although human sacrifice died out, the Tophet was used as a cult site of some sort right up to the Christian era.
At the lowest level of all the excavators discovered a small niche, the Chapel of Cintas, which may possibly have been the burial chapel of Elissa herself. The site is a maze of burial shafts and remains of foundations, with some of the numerous stelae bearing inscriptions and symbols. On the offer of a small tip, the custodian will open a shed containing numerous stelae, most of them with inscriptions, and pottery urns said to contain the ashes of the unfortunate sacrifice victims.
Baths of Antoninus Pius
The most important remains of Roman Carthage are the Baths of Antoninus Pius and the adjoining Archaeological Park, which lie between Avenue Habib Bourguiba and the sea. The baths were the largest in the Roman world outside Rome, occupying an area of 1.8 ha. Built between AD 146 and 162, in the reign of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, they were extensively restored in AD 389 but subsequently collapsed, presumably as a result of a structural defect, and thereafter were used for centuries as a quarry of building stone. As a result, all that remains is the walls of the basement story.
Behind the baths is the Archaeological Park, where the rectangular grid of streets clearly shows the layout of Roman Carthage's residential quarter. The park reflects the long history of Carthage, with Punic graves of the 6th and 5th centuries BC, the five-aisled Basilica of Douimès dating from the 6th century AD, and an underground burial chapel (the Chapelle Sainte-Monique) of the 7th century. All over the site are the remains of Roman cisterns, and under a tree are numbers of limestone "cannonballs", projectiles from Carthaginian arsenals. North-east of the Archaeological Park, on a site formerly occupied by a 19th century Bey's Palace, stands the well guarded Presidential Palace.
National Archaeological Museum
Within the park is the National Archaeological Museum (Musée National de Carthage), which has a very interesting collection of material. Exhibits offer information about the course of the excavations, a model of Punic Carthage, Punic and Early Christian antiquities, jewellery and ornaments, everyday objects, clay masks, little heads in coloured glass paste with large staring eyes, funerary stelae, sarcophagi, mosaics and models of the Tophet and the Capitol built by the Romans on the ruins of Punic Carthage. The museum gardens are an attraction also worth visiting. Amid the greenery are a variety of ancient remains and a 3 m high marble statue commemorating Louis IX (though in fact the statue is a likeness of the Emperor Charles V).
The Quarter Magon excavation site is in a small park near the Archaeological Park, and is useful to visit to feel an impression of the development of the town in Punic times. Immediately behind the sea wall (5th century BC), which just before the Third Punic War was 13 m high, was the craftsmen's quarter, beyond this were larger houses, and beyond these again luxurious villas with richly patterned terrazzo floors. There is a small museum with models of the Punic town walls, houses and streets, pavement mosaics of the Punic period and a model of the ancient quarries at El Haouaria.
In the 5th century BC, the Carthaginians built workshops here, which later gave place to houses. After the destruction of Carthage the hill remained unoccupied and it was only in the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus that the summit of the hill was levelled off. It destroyed the Punic remains, which included a temple of Eshmun (Asklepios), and led to the construction of a huge forum and Capitol. This was the starting-point of the two main axes of Roman Carthage, the decumanus running from east to west and the cardo from north to south. During excavations under the church and the monastery, various Roman remains were found, which are now displayed in the Bardo Museum.
This hill was the central feature of the Punic settlement, and the later Romans sliced some 6 m off the 70 m summit in order to make a broader platform for their imperial buildings. Today the hill is crowned by the Cathedral of Saint Louis, built in 1890 and dedicated to King Louis IX, who died here in 1270 during the siege of Tunis. From the summit, tourists can enjoy fine views across the entire Carthage area.
Theatre and Roman Villas
The 2nd century Roman theatre is found on Avenue Reine Didon, built into a hillside facing the sea. There is seating for 5,000 spectators. The stage, slightly raised, is backed by a scenae frons (stage wall). Immediately adjoining the theatre is the Park of the Roman Villas. Once a Punic cemetery (in which a number of shaft graves are still to be seen), the site was later occupied by the peristyle villas of wealthy Romans. One 3rd century house, the Villa des Volières, has been restored. From the terrace, on which there are a number of fragments of sculpture, there is a fine view over Carthage, the Presidential Palace below, the Gulf of Tunis and Cap Bon beyond.
Just 1 km northwest of Byrsa Hill is the 2nd century Roman amphitheatre, a five-story structure with seating for some 50,000 spectators and an arena that could be flooded for naumachias (mock naval battles). Apart from its massive foundations and a few underground rooms, however, the whole structure has been destroyed. During the persecution of Christians in AD 202, St Perpetua, her slave-girl Felicitas and others were martyred here by being trampled to death by a wild cow. A marble column erected by the Pères Blancs commemorates them. St Cyprian was beheaded here in AD 258, the first African bishop to be martyred, and St Augustine lectured in the arena.
On the opposite side of the street from the amphitheatre, a footpath leads to the La Malga cisterns, built by the Romans to store water brought from the Zaghouan hills in an aqueduct 132 km long. Only 15 of the original 24 cisterns are now left.
Along Rue Hannibal lies the old Punic harbour, with two basins in which the mightiest fleet in the Mediterranean once laid at anchor. It's a sleepy, nondescript place now, but according to the ancient sources the commercial harbour was in the shape of a rectangle measuring 456 m by 356 m, linked with the sea by a channel 20 m wide. The naval harbour to the north, which was surrounded by a high wall, had a diameter of 325 m. A channel giving it direct access to the sea was constructed only during the Third Punic War. The naval harbour alone had moorings for some 220 vessels, both along the landward side and round the island.