Carthage in Tunisia - Haunting Heritage
16-03-2019    63 times
Carthage in Tunisia

It is said that the ancient city of Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians of Tyre on the north coast of Africa, now a suburb of Tunis, in Tunisia. The city was built on a triangular peninsula, guarded by low hills and backed by the Lake of Tunis, with its safe anchorage. Its nearness to the Strait of Sicily made it a place of strategic importance in the east-west Mediterranean trade. During those early days, though the Punic (Carthaginian) wealth was legendary, their interests were concentrated toward trade and commerce rather than arts and culture. However, during the Roman period the Punic beds, cushions and mattresses were regarded as luxuries and their furniture were copied.

Columns of Antoninus Pius
Columns of Antoninus Pius

From the middle of the 3rd century to the middle of the 2nd century, Carthage was engaged in a series of wars with Rome, known in history as the Punic Wars. The third Punic War (149-146 BC) ended in the complete defeat of Carthage by the Romans and the expansion of the Roman control in the Mediterranean world. In fact, after the end of the War, the Romans razed the city of Carthage in 146 BC. Their soldiers plundered the city, raped the women indiscriminately, captured and enslaved the helpless commoners, before setting the city ablaze and burned it to ashes.

Antoninus Bath
Antoninus Bath
Baths of Antoninus Pius
Baths of Antoninus Pius

The second Roman-Carthage was established on the ruins of the ancient city and gradually it began to flourish as one of the largest, as well as one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire. Initially, in 122 BC, the Roman Senate entrusted the responsibility to make the foundation of a colony on the site of Carthage to Gaius Gracchus and Marcus Fulvius Flaccus, but the effort was mostly unsuccessful. Later, Julius Caesar also sent a number of landless citizens there, to give it the shape of a colony. Finally, in 29 BC, Augustus Caesar enhanced its importance, as he made it the administrative centre of the Roman province of Africa. Henceforth, it became known as ‘Colonia Julia Carthago’ and soon grew prosperous enough to compete with Alexandra. It is said that, Carthage was a favourite city of the emperors, though none of them ever resided there. It continued under Roman influence through the Byzantine Empire, erstwhile the Eastern Roman Empire, till 439 BC, when the Vandal ruler Gaiseric entered the city almost unopposed and plundered it. But, the last Vandal king Gelimer was comprehensively defeated by a Byzantine army under the leadership of Belisarius and made it free again in 533 BC. However, the condition did not last long, as the Arab Muslims defeated the Byzantine forces in 698 BC, at the battle of Carthage and ousted the Byzantines from Africa. As if that was not all, they destroyed the city of Carthage completely. It was replaced by Tunis, a new city as the major regional centre, which included the ancient site of ruined Carthage in a modern suburb.

Punic ruins in Byrsa

Carthage is the place of assimilation of numerous cultures like Punic, Roman, Paleochristian (early Christians), Vandals and Arab Muslims, that succeeded one after another. Naturally, the archaeological site of Carthage, included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979, comprises the remnants of the Punic, Roman, Vandal, Paleochristian (early Christian) and Arab structures. It includes, among others, the Antoninus baths, the acropolis of Byrsa, the Amphitheatre, the Necropolises, the Punic Tophet, the Basilicas, La Malaga cisterns and many others, apart from the residential area.

The remains of a Roman villa

The Baths of Antoninus Pius is one of the most important remains of Roman Carthage. Considered as the largest baths in the Roman world outside Rome, the baths were built between 146 and 162 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Antoninus Pius. The Punic Tophet was a religious sanctuary where the ancient people of Carthage used to worship the sun god Baal-Ammon, and followed the horrible ritual of sacrificing the first born child to him to make sure of the god’s favour to the city. The Roman amphitheatre, built in the 2nd century, was a colossal five-storey structure with seating arrangement for around 50,000 spectators. Unfortunately, apart from its massive foundation and a few underground rooms, the whole structure has been totally ruined. A water reservoir built by the Romans, known as La Malaga cisterns, was used to bring water from the Zaghouan hills with the help of a 132 km long aqueduct.

Lady of Carthage - Roman mosaic

Statue of the Punic Goddess Tanit, from the Necropolis

The Archaeological Park reflects the long history of Carthage. Apart from the Punic graves, it also proudly contains the five-aisled Basilica of Douimès, dating around the 6th century AD and an underground burial chapel of the 7th century, known as the Chapelle Sainte-Monique.

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Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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