Property 37 – The Archaeological Site of Carthage, Tunisia
For what was once the capital of a mighty empire which rivalled Rome, there really isn’t much left of Carthage. It’s not the fault of Carthage because being on the losing side of three wars with Rome generally doesn’t do much for land values. Even then it’s surprising.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Carthage sits on the northern edge of what is now Tunisia, and was the capital of the Carthaginian empire, an offshoot of the Phoenician culture from the eastern Mediterranean. According to legend it was founded by Queen Dido in 814 BC and came to be the leading city of the non-Greek and non-Roman Mediterranean basin. With time came growing influence and inevitable conflict with Rome on the other side of the sea. For a while it looked like either of them could come out the winner, but three wars saw Carthage humiliated and eventually destroyed. The city was demolished by order of the Romans, and rebuilt as a Roman colony.
Much of what we know about Carthage is derived from Roman sources, and the Romans had little interest in preserving the memory of their enemies. Some secondary sources claim that Rome “sowed salt” into the fields of Carthage so that they would be barren forever, however two of my university history professors spent a lot of time searching for the original source to no avail. Certainly the Romans spent a lot of time and effort trying to erase the history of pre-Roman Carthage, including destroying most texts. After the fall of Rome and the immediately post-Roman rulers (the Vandals!) the city was abandoned. Nearby Tunis became the main settlement of the Islamic rulers.
Physically Carthage is located on a hill, like many classical cities, with easy access to the sea. As with many ancient cities it exists as layer upon layer of older settlements, with the Punic (Carthaginian) layers towards the bottom. Much of what is visible today dates from Roman or post-Roman times and to be honest, isn’t much different from many of the other Roman ruins in the Mediterranean basin. I knew this was likely before I visited, so perhaps it was unjustified on my part, but I was hoping that the site would be different in character from so many others.
I spent a couple of hours wandering around the site with my travelling companions, and largely avoided sunstroke. There is a small museum which has a few relics which have been excavated from the Punic ruins, but they tend towards the small and dull. My friends were very charitable, knowing my interest in ancient civilisations, but I think they were glad to leave. The site has nice views and a sunny Mediterranean feel, but honestly, the Romans did the job too well.
If you find yourself in Tunisia, by all means visit Carthage. It’s easy to get to and mildly diverting. But don’t go into it with the expectations of splendour that I had – you’re likely to be disappointed.