Tunisia is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage sites – seven of them cultural and one natural. The ancient city of Carthage was one of the great cities of antiquity and is just 15km from the capital. The heritage site also encompasses the blue and white village of Sidi Bou Said.
Back in 2010, I visited Tunisia whilst sailing around Africa on a replica ancient Phoenician ship. Naturally, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit one of the most famous Phoenician settlements!
CARTHAGE: THE PHOENICIAN ORIGINS
The Phoenicians were ancient civilisation in the Eastern Mediterranean, an alliance of city-states strewn along the coastline of modern-day Lebanon and Syria c.1500-300BC.
They expanded their influence primarily through trade rather than warfare and established a network of colonies along the southern coast of the Mediterranean. Carthage, originally Kart-hadasht, was the biggest of these settlements.
The city was founded in 814 BC as a colony of the Phoenician city-state Tyre. Legend (and the Aeneid) has it the city was founded by Queen Dido.
Unlike most of the colonies, it had a large enough population to develop its own empire, and Carthage gained its independence in 650 BC as the Persian and Macedonian Empires rose to prominence in the east. With riches brought by Tyrians fleeing west and exploitation of the local population for slave-trade, Carthage quickly became a large commercial hub in control of the central Mediterranean.
The success of the new Carthaginian Empire led to conflict with the Greeks and then the Romans.
THE PUNIC WARS
When Carthage invaded Sicily, Rome responded with force and it escalated into a series of bloody wars known as the Punic Wars. Carthage lost all three. In the first, it was forced to concede Sicily and other territories.
The second Punic War gave us Hannibal – not the cannibalistic serial killer but one of the greatest military figures in history, who famously marched war elephants (North African elephants, now extinct) over the Alps to invade Italy.
The last of Punic Wars, 149-146BC, saw Carthage razed to the ground and annexed into the Roman Republic.
The site wasn’t empty for long; thanks to its strategic significance Julius Caesar founded a new Carthage which went on to become a key city in the Roman and Byzantine Empires. It was destroyed in 698AD by the Arabs.
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
As ruins go, Ancient Carthage may not rank as the most impressive. Although the site is sprawling and extensive and boasts a wonderful seaside setting, most of what remains are foundations. If you’re short on time then Baths of Antoninus Pius – the largest bath complex outside Rome – along with Byrsa Hill are the most interesting part of the park to walk around.
Byrsa Hill is the best place to start a visit – it was the heart of the ancient city (both incarnations) and the remains of the citadel overlooking the harbour provide a great view of the site and out to sea. You’ll also find the National Museum of Carthage and the ice-cream-like 19th-century Cathedral of St Louis, built over a Phoenician temple and now a cultural centre.
The National Museum of Carthage has some striking artefacts and statues from the Punic and Roman periods as well as a display on the final siege of Punic Carthage. The gardens are arguably the best bit though.
There are a number of smaller museums within the UNESCO site, such as the Roman and Early Christian Museum and the Oceanographic Museum at the port. Carthage once had the most powerful navy in the Mediterranean and a spectacular artificial circular port with docks for 220 ships. 220 ships! Unfortunately, all that remains now of the Great Harbour of Carthage is the central island, but there are some reconstructions and drawings which are mind-blowing if you’re a boat nerd like me.
HOW TO GET TO THE RUINS
From the Ville Nouvelle in Tunis, you can catch the TGM light rail 15km north to Carthage-Dermech or Carthage-Hannibal. It’s then a short walk up to the top of Byrsa Hill.
Carthage is a modern suburb with a studenty vibe and plenty of eateries, and it’s easily combined with a visit to the nearby village Sidi Bou Said using the same rail line.
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