In Tunisia, the Aura of Carthage and Hannibal still Live on
By: Habeeb Salloum
Standing atop Mount Byrsa, the Acropolis of both Punic and Roman Carthage, I surveyed the panorama of the modern spread-out urban center covering the historic ruins which, without doubt, form an important part of the heritage of humankind. After having a short time before explored the few Punic, also known as Phoenician or Carthaginian, and Roman remains, so far uncovered, it was easy to fantasize about the Punic/Roman wars and their most renowned hero, Hannibal – one of the greatest army commanders and strategists in the ancient world and Carthage’s most illustrious son. Among its once splendid villas and richly adorned temples, he must have strolled, planning his battles with mighty Rome.
Leading his 59,000 men and 40 elephants over the Alps in an epic march, he kept Rome for years under the threat of his troops. Even though he won many battles, he was never able to occupy the city. Eventually, he had to return to defend Carthage. At the Battle of Zama near Carthage, his army was defeated in 202 B.C. and he fled to Asia Minor where, rather than be captured by the Romans, he committed suicide.
Today, Hannibal and his city, of which only traces remain, are remembered by modern day Tunisians with pride. Ancient Carthage in its days of glory considered to be the richest city in the world is today called by the Tunisians a ‘storehouse of history’. Throughout the country, hotels and businesses carry the name of its courageous Carthaginian leader and his city. Modern Tunisia owes a great deal to Hannibal in the building of its national character. His city may no longer exist, but its memory remains.
Carthage, derived from the Phoenician, Kart Hadascht (new village) was established in 814 B.C. by the Phoenician princess, Elissa-Dido. She had fled Tyre in present-day Lebanon to escape the wrath of her brother Pygmalion. In the ensuing centuries her descendants created a navy which ruled the seas, guarding Carthage and its empire until, in 146 B.C., the city was destroyed by the Romans and their Berber allies. They razed it to the ground and scattered salt on the ruins to ensure that it would never rise again. Roman historians gleefully described how thoroughly they demolished the city. During the razing, its libraries were burned, hence, all we know of Carthage was written by her conquerors.
Yet, only a century later, the Romans built atop the Phoenician ruins, New Carthage and made it the capital of their African province. It quickly grew and played an important role in trade along the Mediterranean and became a cultured and cosmopolitan urban center with a large university and the second largest city in the empire. Subsequently, Christians – Saint Augustine was born here – Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, and Turks took over the city as it gradually declined. According to Edward Gibbon, at the beginning of the 16th century, Carthage had only a mosque, a college without students, some thirty shops and five hundred ignorant peasants.
By the 19th century, little of the city still stood. It almost became a ghost town after its stones had been pillaged as building materials for other towns. When the French occupied Tunisia in 1881, they built a massive cathedral on the summit of Mount Byrsa – known to its new conquerors as the hill of Saint Louis. It was named after the Crusader King Louis IX who was killed trying to conquer Tunisia and was believed to have been buried there.
After the French occupation, his supposed bones were taken back to France. Atop his burial spot, the Catholic Carmelite Order decided to carry on his Crusade to Christianize North Africa. They built the cathedral as a base for this modern Crusade. Yet, it all came to naught.
The French left in the 1950s and today the cathedral is an empty historic structure, edged by remnants of a Punic neighborhood. Beside it stands a museum where archaeological finds from Carthage’s past are exhibited, relating to three major periods in Carthage’s history – Phoenicio-Punic, Romano-African and Arab-Islamic. The wide range of objects from ceramics, mosaics, inscriptions and pottery to sarcophagi, sculptures, and stelae reflect the particular nature of each age.
The museum only houses a minuscule part of the remnants of ancient Carthage. A modern sparkling-white town dotted with pine trees and mimosa cover most of the ruins of the Punic and Roman city. Only here and there have parts of the historic metropolis been uncovered.
Of these, the most famous are the remains of the Antonine [Antoine] Thermal Baths, covering 3 1/2 ha (8.6 ac). The third largest and the most imposing in the Roman Empire, they were completed in 162 A.D. after 12 years of work by thousands of slave laborers. A large drawing on a plaque of the baths in their days of glory and a re-erected granite column 15 m (49 ft) high, topped by a white capital give visitors an idea of the luxury and the immense size of the baths. Even the little that remains is quite impressive.
The 2nd-century Roman theatre was one of the largest in the empire, but through the centuries it was almost totally razed to the ground. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was partially reconstructed. Today, it retains little from its past, yet, as it did in Roman times, it still draws visitors, providing an attractive setting in July and August for the International Festival of Music, Singing, and Dancing.
On the Odeon plateau, facing Byrsa’s twin hill, there is an entire quarter of Roman villas, a number partially excavated – the most notable being called ‘Villa de la Volière’. It is positioned around a courtyard colonnade and from its terrace, there is a marvelous view of the sea.
As to Punic Carthage, the Magon Quarter near the Antonine Thermal Baths was originally Phoenician but rebuilt by the Romans. The Punic Quarter, edging the cathedral is largely preserved because the Romans used the site as a dumping ground during their building of New Carthage. Dating from the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., excavation has revealed a collection of carefully built and laid-out houses on a regular grid system. These were endowed in their time with all the conveniences and comforts of that age which included plastered walls, sewers, tiled floors and water tanks. In the following centuries, the Romans inherited these Punic building features and they came down to us as a legacy of Rome.
Opposite the Roman theatre stands the Tophet – a Punic cemetery, appearing like a shrub-filled elegant garden. In it, a Punic crematorium and many small stone coffins with carvings of children on their face have been unearthed. Guides point to these as an indication of child sacrifice. Yet, it has never been proven that the Carthaginians practiced this form of offering to the gods. Only the Romans, Carthage’s mortal enemies, have accused them of this cruel practice.
As I wandered through Carthage’s scattered ruins, I thought of how our world would be today if Hannibal had occupied Rome. No doubt, instead of the Roman gods, the Phoenician god Baal-Hammon and the goddess Tanit would have been the supreme beings of the pre-Christian Mediterranean lands. Who knows what would have come after. Yet, was Carthage truly destroyed? Even though the Romans erased the Punic city from the face of the earth, its renown is imprinted on the soul of modern-day Tunisia.