In the footsteps of Hannibal

By | Category: Travel destinations
mosaic wall in cartage

A little sponging reveals the true colour of the mosaics

To the north of Tunis in North Africa is the remains of Carthage, one of the great cities of the ancient world. Barely fifteen minutes from the airport, (called, incidentally, Tunis Carthage International Airport) it is one of Tunisia’s most visited sites.

For those who holiday in the tourist resorts of Hammamet, Sousse or Monastir it takes over an hour to reach and, from Djerba, a flight is needed but you will find that excursions are available from these places and even further away. Such is the appeal of the Carthaginian achievements and one of the great strategists and military leaders of all time – Hannibal.

But if you think that all there is to see is at the Carthage Museum and the site in which it stands, you are mistaken. It’s like going to Luxor and seeing the pyramids without bothering to see the sphinx or all the other sites that provide a clue to Egyptian civilisation.

Start at the museum by all means and look out over the bay in which modern day Tunis stands but look at the remains of the buildings that are built on the hillside and look at the headless statues which the Carthaginians regularly altered with new heads since marble sculptures were expensive. (it was easy to change a head rather than commission a new statue.)  Look down as you walk because the site has finds in the ground. Without really hunting I came upon the rim of a small vase patterned with rings on the neck. But don’t think that anything you spot might be a souvenir of your holiday. The Tunisians are severe on those who remove parts of their heritage.

this about 12 inches high and is in perfect condition

Walking towards the museum, you will pass some wall mosaics both on the left and right. Unless it has been raining, the mosaics look dull and lacking in strength. If it hasn’t been raining, then one of the museum staff may climb a ladder and gently sponge down a piece of the mosaics. The difference this makes is significant as you can see from the image here.

Inside the museum there are models that show how the area looked those two thousand, two hundred years ago. The ruins that you will find though are Roman, as they demolished much of Carthage and, later, Julius Caesar rebuilt it to take advantage of its strategic location. There are statues and artefacts from the excavations as you would expect but there are a few items it is worth making sure you see. Look for the glass vases. Some are large, some standing a foot high with attached handles and in perfect condition. Glass blowing and manufacture was this far advanced all those millennia ago. And then look at one of the oil lamps. Much smaller in size, yet there is a picture of two boats, one of a fisherman hauling in a fish and both in front of a major building supported by columns and looking like the Doge’s Palace in Venice which obviously it cannot be.

oil lamp with the fisherman and the palace behind them

Both the glass ware and the picture show the artistic abilities of a time, far in advance of what many people think.

The Carthage Museum and the remains around it are not the highlight of seeing Carthage. That, I think belongs to the Antonine Baths which are close by as the crow flies but seem further as, to get there, your bus will weave you up and down some narrow roads where, negotiating parked cars, they reveal their driving abilities.

There is less parking than at the Museum and fewer stalls selling you Carthaginian coins, desert roses, mosaics and ceramics. Entering, the path ahead doesn’t look promising as you will only see the remains of pillars, some masonry and, on the right, a cemetery. But take the first path on the right and you come to a viewing point that looks over the remains of the baths. Much more remains than at the museum and two very tall pillars overlook the site.

Go down the steps and wander through the arched rooms that surrounded the main areas. In one part the rooms are underground still. At another part a jagged wall edge is split and rests precariously pointing into the sky. At some point, it will fall but then it has been like that for decades.

overlooking the Antonine Baths complex

Lying on the ground, my eyes were drawn to some green, pillar remains which look more like petrified wood than stone. They demand that you run your hands over them to feel the patterns and shapes in the stone.

The remnants of what was once Carthage and then Roman heritage isn’t limited just to the Tunis area. Kerkouane, Utique, Dougga and, much further south – El Jem – show more of the legacy of Carthage and Rome. Within an hour’s drive of Tunis, there a dozen sites to visit. You could easily spend your entire ten-day holiday doing nothing other than explore them and that is before you look at the later Christian locations and the legacy of their impact on Tunisia.

part of a pillar; to me it looks like petrified wood

At present the Foreign Office advice is not to visit. When it is lifted, a visit to sites that recall one of the great ancient civilisations should become part of of everyone’s bucket list.

For more on Tunisia, click here.


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