Lost and Found: Carthage and Roman Tunisia

by Jules on May 4, 2010

The Antonine Baths at Carthage

The ancient city of Carthage was once one of the driving forces in the Mediterranean. It controlled important trade routes from Africa, not least the ones that brought up the elephants and allowed Hannibal to do his stuff in the Alps.  True, they were beaten by the Romans in the Punic wars, but Rome always knew when it was onto a good thing and from the destruction they went on to build a City only second to Rome itself in size, wealth and power.

So what happened to it? The Roman Empire fell and slowly the outlying provinces lost their way and fell into ruin through decay or conquest. New cultures and civilizations appeared, each keen to leave their own material record. What better to start with that the beautiful masonry blocks to be found in the ruins by the shore. Columns and masonry from Carthage can be found over much of North West Africa, as well as in the buildings of Moorish Spain. What is left are small insights into the might that was once here. The huge subterranean arches of the Antonine Baths, the imprint of the once great theatre, scattered walls and tombs. Together they weave together to give glimpse of this once great, lost city of Queen Dido.

Nearby, in the beautiful Bardo Museum, is the concrete proof of this. This Moorish Palace, build by exiles forced out of Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, is now home to the greatest collection of mosaics anywhere in the world. Some date from the Punic period, the majority come from Tunisia during its Roman Pomp. As well as from Carthage, there are rooms dedicated to the cities of the south, of Dougga and Bulla Regis, whose ruins are still to be seen as now located in backwaters and desert. Streets still run through lines of ruined houses and shops, ending at the forums and city gates. They look as it everybody just left, the last one turning off the lights and have been left to gently crumble for two thousand years.

Perhaps most spectacular is the amphitheatre at El Jem. This small modern town has at its heart an ancient arena that is all but complete, rising to its full height and dwarfing most of the modern buildings. You may have seen it already, as many gladiator films and scenes are filmed here before being taken off to have a crowd generated and inserted. The eerie acoustics give you a heavy feeling of claustrophobia which must have stifled the senses of the combatants as a wall of sound hit them as they entered.

Carthage may now only truly be found on the pages of Virgil, but Tunisia can still offer some of the best ancient sites around.

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