Author Topic: Stones, Stories, and Wasted Salt: A Visit to Carthage  (Read 1574 times)

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Stones, Stories, and Wasted Salt: A Visit to Carthage
« on: April 11, 2020, 11:59:52 PM »
Stones, Stories, and Wasted Salt: A Visit to Carthage


The view out from the Byrsa hill, the old acropolis of Roman and Punic Carthage

Carthage. Carthago, as the Romans called it (to its Punic founders it was Qart Hadasht, or New City) – heart of one of the two powers that contested the dominion of the ancient Mediterranean, against the city of Rome, and which has hung over the consciousness of the world ever since. For the Romans, Carthage became their archetypal enemy, mythologised into their very origin story in the Aeneid, and many a writer since has attempted to see that conflict written into their own times. The Romans, being the victors, of course get to tell the story, and others have embellished it for them since: Rome brave, land-bound, public spirited, victorious, where Carthage was a naval power, mercantile, cunning, defeated. The nineteenth century historians, on the basis of no antecedent whatsoever, claimed that when Rome sacked Carthage in 146 B.C. they sowed the ground with salt, so that nothing could grow there ever again – a total, final ending to the great narrative clash of Empires.

Another word that was in my head on the plane journey there was Jubal. Actually a Hebrew name, perhaps rooted in a verb to do with carrying or the word for a stream, that is in English superficially similar to the –bal ending names of the Carthaginians (hence Hannibal, “Baal is Gracious”, or Hasdrubal, “Help of Baal”). This superficial link ended up with it appearing on a list of Carthaginian names which a twelve year old in Britain in the year 2006 was reading through with interest, trying to come up with an internet username. Jubal Barca – initials to “Carthaginian” names, written in by a boy who had a fascination with what the losing side looked like, what history might have been, a fascination that would end up becoming a degree and then a career. The username stuck and I’m still using it today: Carthage and misconceptions about Carthage have been written across more than half my life. I had finally been given the chance to give way to the draw that Carthage has always had for me. But what would I find when I got there, between the stones and the stories?


A view over modern Carthage, taken on my first morning there.
It took two flights to get there, from Vienna via Istanbul, watching the clouds clump like flocks of a cyclops’ sheep and wondering about the lives of the people below. It was just a week or two before travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic would start to emerge, and as we paraded out of the plane a masked government official had us parade past a newly unveiled thermal imaging camera, with a cluster of journalists on standby recording the event. It was health security theatre more than anything – with a disease with a long incubation time, the likelihood of picking it up by catching someone with an actual fever coming in was probably low – but in weeks to come it would feel like a premonition, a raincloud in advance of a storm.

When I exited the terminal, I was immediately set upon by two enthusiastic – overly so – men who “offered” to carry my baggage to a taxi for me, little short of grabbing it. My laptop bag was balanced on top of my case, and promptly fell off and got wrapped in the wheels as the man tried to move far too fast with it. They of course then asked for payment for their service, aware I suspect that I would at minimum have ten dinar notes. I acquiesced and tried not to roll my eyes; they’d carried my bags all of ten metres, and dropped one in the process. I paid anyway.

Finally in the taxi, the driver was calm and friendly, and we passed blocks of flats, scrappy open land, and even a herd of sheep on our way. Although we took a wrong turning (apparently there was some error in the provided address), a quick pull-in by some columns and this was quickly rectified. Another tip paid later, I thus arrived at the “Coeur de Carthage” studio, which I can recommend especially if you want to do what I did and cover the ground on foot. It is a small apartment room adjoining the house of a medical scientist, nicely furnished and with breakfast included.

After a brief rest, I set off out into the evening. Modern Carthage is a leafy, suburban area, notable for hosting a significant number of foreign embassies (presumably on account of it being rather nicer for the occupants than having their residences in Tunis proper). I saw my first birds of the trip fairly quickly – a greenfinch and a collared dove – and then looped round some of the nearby streets. A couple of taxi drivers tried to signal to me or offer me lifts, and I began my education in the fact that a foot traveller in Carthage needs more than anything else the ability to politely and repeatedly refuse taxi drivers, who roam the streets in their cars offering tours and travel to anyone who looks like they might be buying. I passed under the solemn gaze of an especially leonine cat as I looped round and walked down past Carthage Hannibal station, part of the TGM light rail line that runs from Tunis through the coastal surburban towns to the north – the station was closed for repair work when I was there, and the crossing was a case of looking left and right to check no trains were coming, and then walking across the tracks with crossed fingers.


The circular lake of the ancient military port.
From there my path took me past the Serbian embassy and down to the sea, where a flock of sparrows – the sparrows in Tunisia are an interbred mix of the Spanish and House sparrows, and look like the half-and-half mix one might expect, with chocolate brown crowns to the head but an otherwise mostly house-sparrow sort of look to them. Little laughing doves with their rose-and-grey feathers, which I’d first encountered in Tbilisi the year before, I soon found were likewise a common sight. The sea stretched out from all of them, with Cap Bon on the other side of the Bay of Tunis looming in the distance.

I turned south, heading inland a bit and then parallel with the shoreline, keeping an eye out for eating places - and wound my way through streets that mostly contained fairly large, isolated houses with white walls and flat rooves, catching sight of some less familiar avian wildlife, a small black-capped bird with a distinctive red eye-ring and a sharp insect-eating beak – a Sardinian Warbler, which I was to see numerous times on the trip. With the sky beginning to darken, I passed a cluster of restaurants and turned back towards the sea. More cats eyed me warily as I passed, though few of them felt the need to deign to move. The cats of Carthage seemed for the most part more relaxed and less skinny than those I’ve seen in many Mediterranean towns – it was hard to tell how many were feral, but it seemed like there wasn’t much of an overpopulation of them, and they were able to manifest a certain calm pride in their surroundings.

I arrived with the last of the evening light at a smallish loop-shaped inlet from the sea, with a round island with ruins in the middle of it. Now only a single cormorant paddled on the water, and a few small boats were pulled up on the beach, but in my mind’s eye I was reconstructing what this would once have been: the military port of Carthage, from which its triremes sailed to dominate the Western Mediterranean, from which even in the throes of its defeat in the Third Punic War it could strike out and embarrass the Roman navy – itself likely built into a functioning war force mainly to counter the Carthaginians’ dominion over the seas.

For food I looped round past the gate to the Salammbo Tophet (on which more later) to the main road, walked back to the cluster of restaurants I had found earlier, and ate at Yam’s, a pizza place. The no-smoking area proved unfortunately advisory which was definitely a downside of the experience, but the smoothie was very good and the pizza, with smoked salmon and lemon slices baked onto it, was excellent and can be recommended.





Looking past part of a Roman statue and across to Cape Bon.
The next morning I phoned for breakfast, failed to realise that the brown stuff in the cup was going to be coffee, and had rather a resulting shock, but decided that when in… well, Carthage… and drank it anyway. The range of toast, pastry, and fruit was good – the strawberry yoghurt proved too artifically sweet for me. I set out in reasonable time, and looped up the Byrsa hill, past a large hotel, through raucous bird chatter, seeing a pigeon, sparrows, and a couple of chaffinches, and looked out over the leafy city from under the shade of a line of trees. It later turned out that this was a rather long way round if going on foot – there are straighter uphill routes to get to the entrance, which is on the landward side – but it was a pleasant enough walk.

The hilltop was not quite what I expected. For one thing, its dominant building, and the first one I entered, is not the museum at all, but the Acropolium, a nineteenth century French colonial church. The church’s dome is a dominant feature of the Carthage skyline, and its insides are beautiful, with light blue colours and striking paintings giving it an eye-catching but airy feel, with a level of simplicity that feels more comfortable to my eye than the somewhat oppressive over-gildedness that some larger Catholic churches seem to have. No longer an active church, the building is owned by the government and used as a concert and event venue. It’s apparently situated above a Punic temple to the healing deity Eshmun, visible in its basement, though I didn’t see or find any way down to that.

That day the Acropolium was full of life - in a certain streak of biblical irony, it contained a craft market. I headed in, and ended up being accosted by another taxi driver (if you are noticing this being a theme, dear reader, bear in mind this is under a day into my trip). I managed to persuade him that my legs were perfectly functional, but ended up purchasing a guidebook, by Abdelmajid Ennabli: it proved of limited utility given its only very brief descriptions of the actual sites, but does have a few interesting notes on the archaeology and struggle to save Carthage from rapid twentieth century development, not all of it successful. The church itself wandered round briefly,took a couple of photos, and got some helpful advice. Purchasing a ticket (the tickets are day-long and allow access to as many sites as you can get round in the time), I discovered that the main museum was closed, so I headed directly out to the Roman forum on the Byrsa – the heart of old Carthage.


The Byrsa hill - a waste of Roman salt?
The Byrsa hill, on that morning, was the stuff of poetry. I even wrote some. Dripping in honeyed sunshine, the columns of the once mighty Roman forum stood palely overlooking the wide panoramic sweep of Tunis. Bits of cracked statue lined the way, and more ruins (including an out of place looking statue of) sat under the trees nearby as if to enjoy the shade. Beneath them on the slope, tighter-packed clusters of walls showed the outlines of Carthaginian street plans, looking cosy, jumbled and red-brown where their Roman successors atop the hill are formal and pale. A nondescript little bird that was probably a female black redstart danced up and down from one of the thick, heavy-looking wall sections.

There are olive and fruit trees at the top of the hill as well as evergreens, and in the shade small finches were noticeable, especially little yellow serins. A chaffinch I saw caused me meanwhile to not only do a double-take but to actually note the bird as unidentified until I was able to get advice on it. North Africa has a number of colour-variant subspecies of birds familiar to Europeans: the chaffinches have greenish-yellow in the wing and grey-blue heads rather than the more familiar orangey colour scheme of their European cousins, while the blue-tits have an extremely dark navy blue on the head rather than the pale blue of their northern counterparts. I saw my first bulbuls here too, an entirely new bird for me. The name is a misnomer, derived from a Middle-eastern term for a nightingale: they are brown birds with dark heads, often heard making distinctive bubbling noises, and visibly sociable: my suspicion from some of the video I took is that they groom each other and eat parasites from one another’s feathers in the process, but I’m not enough of a behavioural ecologist to be really sure.

The ways around the Byrsa site were confusing – I found one place where an iron bar seemed to block the path, but another path could lead one to the other side of the same barrier. I eventually headed down to see the Carthaginian streets more closely, and looked up to the forum. Through the old walls swept a cascade of yellow flowers of different kinds. The apocryphal story of Carthage’s destruction, salt-sown so that nothing could ever grow there again, sprang ironically to mind as I looked up the overgrown slopes. Carthage was full of people and fruit and flowers beyond measure – a beautiful romantic ruin that one could almost believe, somewhere far beneath it, had a thin, long since insignificant, layer of wasted salt.


A Tunisian blue-tit - note the almost navy dark blue crest.
The reality of course was declared by the Roman columns atop the hill: Carthage was probably never fully destroyed and was rebuilt as a Roman city, one of the key bread basket ports of the Roman Mediterranean. It later spent a century as the capital of Vandal Africa and then a while as a Byzantine exarchate before the Islamic invasions resulted in the walls being torn down for fear of Byzantine revolt or recapture: thereafter the city, whilst not abandoned, declined in favour of Tunis. It began to be resettled intensively in the late nineteenth century when Tunisia as a French protectorate was the focus of a mixture of antiquarian interest and missionary, with the Acropolium built in 1884 as part of a project by French cardinal, missionary and anti-slavery activist  Charles Lavigerie to restore the ancient metropolitan see of Carthage (which was granted by the papacy, though in 1964 the Tunisian state seized all but 5 of the country’s seventy or so churches, and the Catholic Church renamed the see to that of Tunis and made it purely titular in nature). Its growth as a centre for tourism, Tunisian history, and modern diplomacy suggests that its story may well be far from over yet.

Down inland from the Byrsa hill is a large area of beautiful but unfortunately rubbish-filled trees: this proved to be a common problem anywhere except the most tourist-heavy parts of Carthage. I walked around it before wandering in for a bit: the path through it was closed at the Byrsa end, so I walked around it (it was open at the other end: the design seems to have been to have walking access from the Byrsa to the Amphitheatre, but the lack of good road crossings and upkeep seem to have reduced that aim to a couple of rubbish-strewn paths). As I walked along the pavement, though, it was clear that the litter was far from stopping wildlife in the area: I caught sight of a hoopoe, striking and instantly recognisable with its orange and white feathers and its crest swept back behind its head. I was only able to get a very rough picture before it flew off into the trees, but it was nonetheless one of my key memories of the day. Some things are always special to see, for however short a time.


The Amphitheatre.
The Amphitheatre at Carthage was standing for centuries after the city’s decline, even into the middle ages, until it was eventually pulled down for building stone for use elsewhere. The arena itself remains, though, complete with long since fully exposed underground rooms and tunnels, some of which you can still wander through. It’s an impressively large ruin, surrounded by trees now instead of spectators. Imagining it as a place of spectacle isn’t hard – it still has a quintessentially Roman magnificence to it all these centuries later. Imagining it as a place of bloodshed is a little more jarring, somehow, with the sun and the scraps of litter and the overhanging trees all denying that anything fast could ever have happened here. The extent to which some of Carthage’s antiquities are only partially kept in full tourist order makes them feel like they sink outside time altogether somehow. It’s far from the truth: between preservation, tourism, local use, and the thronging world outside, time stops not even for the stones.

I headed back up and over the Byrsa hill again and down into town for lunch. I passed the Palaeochristian museum, which occupies a large central area of town but unfortunately appeared to be closed, and stopped at a sandwich shop to get some lunch. It turned out to be called “quick”, though the sign was only in Arabic and it lacks an online presence which makes it hard for me to pass on the recommendation. They did pretty reasonable made-to-order baguettes at inexpensive prices, nonetheless, and I was introduced to harissa, a standard hot sauce that is a national condiment in Tunisia. Wisely, I opted for only a very limited amount of the stuff, resulting in something that my fragile British palate and spice sensitivity could just about handle – for those who enjoy spicy food, this is something to seek out when in Tunisia.

My next stop was one of the more quietening ones on the trip, the so-called Salammbo Tophet, filled with the gravestones of extremely young Punic children, most of them babies. Here was the place to confront one of the most controversial questions of Punic Carthage – the possibility that these infants had been sacrificed. The name of the place itself doubly evokes the theory; the term Tophet has been adopted to refer to this and similar Punic sites, from a biblical reference to a place where children were burned, and Salammbo, now used to refer to a TGM station and area of southern Carthage, is the leading lady in Gustave Flaubert’s novel of the same name, which in its heady scenes of Carthaginians feeding their young to a giant flaming statue etched the Roman-era image onto modern minds. Modern popular presentations of Carthage lean heavily on the story: the opening cinematic for the Carthaginians in Rome: Total War, one of the games I most grew up with it, has the Carthaginian voice giving superstitious (albeit realistic) fears of a future without his city, amid heavily layered mentions of crying children. The discovery of the Tophet was seen by many as the archaeological confirmation of child sacrifice taking place: this was Flaubert’s biblical horror written large in little gravestones.


The Salammbo Tophet. What sort of graves were these?
The evidence for child sacrifice in Carthage is more complicated, and heavily contested, than the popular presentations allow. Some Roman and Greek writers certainly mentioned it, with a horror ironic considering their own practices of killing unwanted children by exposure. This was the primary basis for Flaubert’s creation, although the Romano-Greek corpus lacks consistency in details like how sacrifices took place. The cremated infant bones found, along with animal remains, in Tophets and similar sanctuaries are unmistakeably such – but two schools of thought have emerged as to how to interpret them, with ferocious academic debate going on across a number of papers in recent years. One suggests that newborns and other infant deaths before general acceptance into the community may all have been burned and buried at the tophets, not yet being part of the community proper, pointing to the lack of newborns in main cemetery locations and the consistency of the finds with usual levels of early infant mortality. The opposing argument accepts the sacrifice hypothesis, pointing to the Tophets containing presumably sacrificial animal remains and the grave inscriptions which may be read as dedications. Lacking as we do the vast majority of the Punic textual corpus, we will very likely never know for certain whether the Salammbo Tophet signifies a place of ritual death or a place of communal sadness at children who died too young, a grim hallmark of Carthaginian culture or a blood libel that the victors of history damned the losers with, cutting out their ability to answer back.

Either way, the Tophet is a place that intrinsically feels solemn. A small bird danced out of view of my camera on a wall, while collared doves and a cat with one lopsided eye shut watched over the place: one part of the site is in a shadowed arched chamber, while in another the base of a tree has grown over one of the grave markers, ballooning down to slowly envelop it. It is not a place that feels painful to be in, as some tragic historical sites can, but it has a quiet, ghostly feel to it. The solemnity is a far cry from the pomp and power of Roman ruins like the amphitheatre: strange, perhaps, how we are unsettled by the thought of cultures, whose religious beliefs may have driven them to human sacrifice, but not by one that we know full well arranged large-scale fights to the death for entertaining a bored public. But perhaps it is inevitable. Modern Western European cultures in a thousand conscious and unconscious ways draw their narratives and sense of self from Rome and Greece, and its sense of the other from Carthage and Persia. The writing of our popular histories does not just determine which dark parts of the past we know about, and which we do not, but which we are horrified by and which we are desensitised to.


The centre of the Admiralty island.
There is a small public garden a few minutes’ walk from the Tophet, which is pleasant enough though not especially notable, and needs upkeep, the seats in some cases reduced to iron frames without remaining wooden boards. Foregoing the nearby art café, I headed round, passing a number of large villa-like houses and some astonishingly prettily flowered hedges, to the round inlet I had seen the day before. I passed the Tunisian Oceanographic Museum, which I didn't have time to look into, and then stepped out onto the island of the admiralty, the centrepiece of the ancient Punic military port.

I had my ticket checked by a man who had to break off from a ferocious argument with a fellow Tunisian to do so, with them both suddenly calming down with a mutter of the word “tourist”, the arguer waiting patiently while my ticket was checked before launching back into full-throated verbal cannon-fire moments later. There are few trees on the island, and the circular ruins are well exposed, with the large runs of an ancient trireme dock still very visible. Looking out to see from one end I saw a black-headed gull – one of relatively few seaward birds for the trip – but other than that occasional smaller birds were relatively few and confined themselves to the dense areas of hedge and shrub that cover some parts of the area. The view up towards the Acropolium and the Byrsa is striking, with the water providing a beautiful foreground on a nice day.

The Admiralty Island almost more than the Byrsa feels like a heart-point of Punic Carthage. The Carthaginian Empire was built and maintained on its reputed naval prowess: while the Byrsa may have been the nerve-centre of Carthaginian authority and the site of its last stand, it was the Admiralty Island from where Carthaginian power radiated out to Sicily, Spain, Sardinia, the Balearics, and beyond. I stood for a moment in the middle of the central ring of ruins and imagined the fingers of this civilisation reaching out from shore to shore to shore around the sea. Even in long defeat, the echoes remain, in the ruins and in our culture: an image of elephants crossing the Alps; the names of a member of the A-Team, a central African revolutionary, and a geometry problem; and, curiously enough, possibly the word mayonnaise, the sauce being named for the port of Mahón in the Balearics which in turn derives its name from Mago Barca, brother of Hannibal. The Romans had no interest in destroying the memory of Carthage – what use a victory if nobody knows who you beat, after all – but one has a sense too that they would never quite have been able to, and that in some small, barely whispered way, the ships of the Admiralty island sail still.


The market in the Acropolium: biblical irony perhaps?
I passed a dog-walker who greeted me and had a brief chat in English – the area felt largely trilingual with English, French and Arabic all noticeable around Carthage. My last stop in the lower part of town was the Mago Quarter, the entrance to which I had passed on the first day when I went down to the see. This is an excavated area of Romano-Punic housing: for all that the nineteenth century historians had been keen on images of Carthage’s total destruction, much Roman housing seems to have retained the tight-packed Carthaginian plan, much less open and more focused on private space than the Roman emphasis on wide streets and the public sphere. Part of an ancient outer wall/gate section is also visible here, impressive in its scale as so much of old Carthage is.

After a short stop at the studio to breathe and put my camera on to charge (I had taken literally hundreds of photographs by this point in the day and my camera battery wasn’t quite up to the job), I had a quick run up to the Acropolium again and bought presents and souvenirs. The range of stalls was impressive, and interesting to compare to other Mediterranean countries I had been to. Noisettes, honeys and molasses were fairly common, as were pesto-type sauces, cheeses, dried tomatoes and spices. A number of clothing stalls were there too, with impressively ornate cloaks and waistcoats available as well as silk drapes and scarves. Perhaps the most obvious non-present item, of course, was wine, a standard in the northern Mediterranean. While Tunisia does not ban alcohol entirely and apparently does still retain something of a wine industry, alcohol certainly felt like far less of a feature of shops and menus than in most countries I’ve been to previously. Mint tea is apparently closer to being a national drink.

I attempted a quick run up to the theatre before it closed, but was met by a couple of Tunisians who, seemingly amused, pointed ostentatiously at imaginary watches before shooing me back again. The walk was not wasted though, since I got my nicest views of a male black redstart there, before setting off down into Carthage once more for the day. That evening, as a result of my purchases, I needed to get more cash out in order to eat – this unfortunately proved a struggle. It’s worth noting if you want to visit Tunisia that whilst some cash points will happily accept European bank cards, this seems to be extremely variable (in one case, I had the same cash point accept my card at one point and not another). In the event I ended up doing a forty minute walk until about the fourth cash point I tried finally gave me some money and I was able to stumble back and get a tuna panini and fig jam crepe from an art café in the middle of town.





Part of the vast Antonine Baths complex.
On my final day, my plan was to do the northward parts of the ruins, having mostly done the southward section on the previous day. Aware of potential brown liquid confusion I made myself a mint green tea, found to my pleasant surprise that today's yoghurt was of a nicer variety that had at some point made acquaintance with actual strawberries, and headed down, crossing some roads and passing a policeman fast asleep in his car, to the archaeological park containing the Antonine Baths. It’s worth noting that Carthage is for the most part poorly designed for walking: there aren’t enough crossings, the rail bridges often don’t have pavement under them. It’s still perfectly do-able if one is careful and doesn’t need step-free access, but the accessibility of most sites isn’t quite what it could be.

Finding it oddly hard to navigate an entrance system to the Antonine Baths park that was empty despite being designed for seriously large scale crowds, interestingly bigger than that at the Byrsa hill, I emerged into the wooded inland area of the park. I was fairly tired from the previous day’s exertions and suspect I took less in on the second, especially when it came to wildlife – I missed a small bird in the high reeds on the way in and several small dark shapes flashed through the trees in front of my at various points – though it was here that I got my best views of bulbuls at any point in the trip.

Emerging from the woods, I found the baths themselves, which can best and most obviously be described as enormous. One of the largest bath complexes in the Roman world, they were almost unique in not having much of an underfloor layer – instead, most of the bathing areas were on the first floor of the building, their proximity to the sea making the construction of heating hypocausts in the usual way difficult. Servants’ areas and hypocausts could then be located on the ground floor, which is where modern tourists can wander still (and do, with a large cluster of East Asian tourists flocking through the place while I was there). Today, a maze of ruins remains, occasionally with grass growing on the stonework but with a concrete floor. One of the elegantly decorated column-tops, standing alone and presumably re-erected far above the rest of the complex, had a flock of spotless starlings, endemic to southern Spain and North Africa and reasonably common in trees and on higher ruins. It took me a while to be sure I’d seen them, since they are similarly sized and coloured to blackbirds, best told apart by seeing them in the sunlight where their characteristic iridescent feather gloss is visible, as well as having noticeably longer and pointier beaks and lacking any yellow around the eye. The baths of Carthage are known as the Antonine baths, erected in the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius, fed originally by mountain water from an aqueduct built by Hadrian. By the Imperial era, then, Carthage was not merely still occupied but a centre of Imperial largesse. The Romans may have defeated the Carthaginian state, but the city wormed its way into their favour nonetheless.


A pair of bulbuls engaged in some sort of grooming activity.
Heading up out of the bath ruins and back into the wooded areas, there was much more to see still. A large number of Punic graves are extant on the site – one area which I think was mainly graves was being actively protected by guards, who shooed me off, the lack of signage meaning I doubt I was the only one confused. After a frustrating wait for another tourist to stop climbing on a particular grave so I could photograph it, I went and found my only reptile sighting (oddly, considering that many of the ruins should have been lizard central) for the whole trip: a small gecko or similar, ducking in and out of an ancient Punic burial chamber and vanishing when I got too close.

The archaeological park’s more inland ruins include more Punic work, such as an area of kilns, and range forward to the early Christian period, including a basilica and the so-called chapel of Asterius. The chapel is far from obvious, and is underground, accessible by descending a set of steps. It has particularly nice floor mosaics, though, and is worth going to for that reason. I noticed that other tourists petered out the further one got from the main baths complex, so the inland areas were easier to spend time looking at and photographing without disturbance. Various other building ruins with circular openings sit like hobbit-holes around the end wall of the park, presumably continuing on under the road and beyond the reach of excavators to the inland side.

Heading north from the archaeological park and brushing off another taxi driver as I went, my next stop was at an area of Roman villas, which included some stunning mosaics. A lot of mosaic panels were being stored in an overhung area of the ruins, which seemed to be semi-closed to the public, but one villa with semi-restored sections has a number on display. Hedgehogs, peacocks, hunting scenes, and a range of other birds are all noticeable: this is also an excellent place to get views down over Carthage, being some way uphill from most of the city.


The theatre, looking down toward the stage.
The park with the villas also includes the Roman Odeon, which is not made at all obvious: one has to more or less leave the path and go right up and over the brow of the hill, and then suddenly, amid thorny scrub with bulbuls bubbling occasionally in the bushes, the huge expanse of the Odeon’s foundations was visible, at impressive scale. I circumnavigated it and then headed down again: on the way out of the villas site, I attempted to buy a postcard from a small stall (there are many such selling cheap tourist items outside most of the larger sites) and somehow walked away with a ten-postcard folding booklet and a very small tagine. I’m still not quite sure how it happened.

The theatre was, this time, accessible: it is still complete, built into the hillside sweeping down from the Odeon. Here, the Roman seating has been repurposed for modern concert use and a contemporary stage infrastructure sits at the centre of it, such that there is comparatively little to see historically, but briefly popping by to take in the scale is worthwhile and I saw a shrike looking down from a distant floodlight as well as Sardinian warblers bouncing along the fence.

I stopped for a drink of water at a small cluster of columns, alone except for the chatter of mostly invisible birds in the shrub and the apparently statutorily necessary cluster of 2-5 local men smoking, gesticulating, speaking animatedly on mobile phones, or all of the above, which was a feature noticeable around just about every archaeological site in the area. The columns are full height and quite spectacular, and I suspect the scrub nearby would have been quite good for wildlife had I spent more time there.

To keep to my itinerary though, I headed north, finding that the pavement eventually petered out along the road to Sidi Bou Said. I passed the huge modern mosque which, for all its sheer scale, feels somewhat downhill and out of the way compared to the rambling heights of the Acropolium which dominate the city – the past and present of Carthage in a bit of quiet competition for space and supremacy perhaps. Here, the buildings end and a mix of scrub and farmland dominates the space between Carthage and its northern neighbour, at least if you take the slightly more inland route that I favoured.


One of the many asphodel flowers that dominated the basilica of Damous el Karita.
Along the way, I reached the columns that had been the reason for choosing this way – the ruins of the Christian basilica of Damous el Karita. Unlike the grand Roman ruins in Carthage proper, these bore not even the possibility of a ticket checker: some distance from the end of the pavement, they stood overgrown at the road-side, open to any wanderer, but I was the only one there. The ruins were thick with tall white asphodel flowers, and I picked my way through the old columns. The site of the basilica itself is reasonably clear and would make an excellent picnic spot, pleasantly comparatively free of rubbish in most place perhaps due to their siting a bit further from the centre.

The ruins are impressive in scale, and may well be one of the most important and sizeable pieces of late antique and early medieval Christian architecture in North Africa, despite their relatively low billing in guides to Carthage’s antiquities. The extent goes well beyond the main basilica and into the surrounding scrub. Notably, if one takes the a little trodden path south from the end of the Basilica, back in the direction of Carthage, there is a deep sunken rotunda, very impressively constructed, with two right-angled sets of stairs leading into and out of it. This was probably some sort of walk-in baptistry, and is well worth looking for if you go to the site. The surrounding scrub has a lot of potential for birds, and I got excellent views of a great grey shrike here, a small carnivorous “butcher bird” notable for keeping larders of insects skewered on thorn bushes. Beside the Byrsa hill I think it was probably the nicest place I found in my trip, surrounded by big white flowers and the calm overgrown ruins, and I would happily have spent longer there, but to complete my itinerary meant moving on: I wanted to see Sidi Bou Said, reportedly one of the prettiest towns in Tunisia, before I had to go and catch a train into Tunis.

Continuing along the road, past a rather sour-faced farmer staring at me from his tractor, and along the Boulevard d’Environment which ironically smelled of car smog and sewage, I gingerly went under a pavement-less railway bridge and reached the road up to Sidi Bou Said. To the north of Carthage, Sidi Bou Said has its own long history. It grew out of a previous village, growing in size around the grave of the thirteenth century Sufi Muslim saint Abu Said ibn Khalef ibn Yahia Al-Tamimi Al-Baji, the first part of whose name gives the town its name – it was reportedly previously called Jabal el-Menar, approximately “The Fire Mountain” from the lighthouse beacon once lit atop its main hill. In the early twentieth century the French baron, painter and musicologist Rodolphe d'Erlanger was instrumental in turning the town into an idealised Mediterranean settlement with characteristic, picturesque blue and white houses, making it an increasingly up-market home for artists and artisans that inspired a range of writers and painters. The modern town still retains the blue and white style, like Carthage a key tourism destination and home to many better off Tunisians.


Sidi Bou Said's classic white and blue buildings.
The main road that cuts through the town can make the approach on foot seem a little underwhelming, but if one takes the smaller foot roads uphill from it there are nicer streets with pretty tourist shops and orange trees, and the wooded slopes between the town centre and the sea I am sure are nice on the right sort of day, though I did not have the time to explore them. I had a friendly enough chat with a shopkeeper – the town is well prepared for the tourist market – and then looped around a few more of the buildings. It was perhaps a stretch further than I had quite had the energy for, and I lacked the time to look into any of the town’s museums or wander the streets more. Too tired to endure the demanding calls of different restaurant owners once back in the town centre, I ducked into a supermarket instead and bought a punnet of strawberries and some of what the shelf claimed should have been olive bread, but which contained no olives whatsoever – I was glad enough to have food that I didn’t care overmuch.

Starting on my way back, I stopped to eat my food at the last notable ancient ruin on my list, the basilica of St Cyprian. There’s not much to be seen, but the site does give an impressive clifftop view out to sea, and was mainly being frequented by groups of younger locals, seemingly a popular meetup and selfie-taking spot. There were few if any birds around, and tall trees on either side of the ruin shaded the area over: I sat on the stump of a column and ate my lunch, looking out to where some half-built hotel stood, perhaps an active construction site but equally plausibly an abandoned one: whilst Carthage and Sidi Bou Said remain prosperous, there is a sense that parts are in a state of tourist boom deflation, never having quite returned to the tourist trade they had before the Tunisian Revolution of 2010-11.

I headed back the way I had come until I reached the studio, and checked out, heading. With some of Carthage’s stations closed I ended up walking some way before I found a working station, and nearly left my phone at the ticket desk. I’d advise first class tickets for the TGM line. My second class ticket was very cheap, which was good, but also involved a level of packing and heat I’ve only previously encountered on tube trains, for a rather long journey, in a much ricketier carriage. A group of student-age Tunisians standing near me ended up having to form something of a protective ring around one of their own who, exhausted by the packed heat, had to sit on the floor. Carthage receded into the distance somewhere behind.





A packed Tunis street - a different world.
When I staggered out into Tunis itself, I was in a different world of tall buildings, traffic jams, and people as far as the eye could see. Market stalls full of flowers lined the road near the station, and I headed past them, crossing busy roads with absolutely no pedestrian affordances – crossing roads in some places in Tunisia seems to be an art more than a science, a process that relies on one becoming one with the flow of the traffic and more than a little reminiscent of the scene in The End of the World where the ninth doctor, eyes, closed, calmly walks through a fast-rotating fan blade and somehow emerges unscathed. Dust-covered and tired, I passed the major roads thus and then carefully navigated my way through the streets, rain starting to spit down at me, until I reached the Diplomat Hotel, where I couldn’t help feel that the staff might not have been expecting the raggedly stubbly poncho-wearing creature that stumbled through their door. I realised a few hours later that I had probably been expected to tip the porter, but due to a mix of exhaustion having more or less never stayed in hotels with porters it slipped my mind.

Once I had bathed and found my colleagues for food, the rest of the trip was mostly smooth: the seminar on Digital Humanities teaching I had come for was interesting, the company was good, the dinner excellent (and very sizeable), while the hour-late taxi back to the airport was hair-raising but got me there in just enough time all the same. I had a rather shaking experience at the airport itself when some security men between passport control and security pulled me to one side and started repeatedly asking me how many dollars I had on me – once I’d told them a few times that I had about five euros in small change, they let me keep going, but it was a rather confusing interaction and, whilst I’d like to think otherwise, I haven’t currently got a better explanation than that they were trying to obtain some additional money on the side somehow, so this may be something other lone travellers should watch out for.

And then we were heading up and back along the cloud-roads, and Carthage sank back beneath the clouds and into back into history memory – new memories mixing with the old, new histories mixing with half-remembered pasts. Carthage and the way its stories and buildings have come down to us are complex, difficult, full of past bloodshed and politics, fleets and Empires and unfulfilled ambitions. They are, in short, every bit as real as the columns I walked between and the bulbuls and serins and shrikes that watched over them, and they deserve consideration as such. That will not stop us mythologizing them, of course, as humans always do: but perhaps our understanding of realities will let us tell different stories tomorrow from the ones we tell today, ones that let us come to closer terms with those who lay beyond the narrow confines of the grand narratives we build about where our world has come from. May imaginings of Roman salt be thus, forever, wasted.

« Last Edit: April 16, 2020, 04:11:48 PM by Jubal »
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

Jubal

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Re: Stones, Stories, and Wasted Salt: A Visit to Carthage
« Reply #1 on: April 12, 2020, 12:04:22 AM »
Additional Pictures
Click the spoiler tag links to open up particular sections.

Sites Day 1
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Sites Day 2
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Wildlife
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« Last Edit: April 16, 2020, 02:20:50 PM by Jubal »
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

Glaurung

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Re: Stones, Stories, and Wasted Salt: A Visit to Carthage
« Reply #2 on: April 12, 2020, 08:01:42 AM »
Many thanks for posting - a fascinating place, where you seem to have fitted in a lot in a short time.

In terms of the title and theme, I'm reminded of two senses of waste: both the common one of "use ineffectually", and the less frequent one of "waste away", "diminish by constant loss". Two thousand years can wash away a lot of salt, literal or metaphorical.

Jubal

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Re: Stones, Stories, and Wasted Salt: A Visit to Carthage
« Reply #3 on: April 12, 2020, 12:09:43 PM »
Thank you! And yes, it was very packed in - I think I've spent a non-trivial percentage of the time I spent actually walking on writing this piece! I'm glad I managed to get round so much stuff though, it was really interesting.

Added some additional pictures of the wildlife as that was the thing I felt was most under-illustrated. I may add a few more pictures of site ruins if anyone wants/requests that too: I've got a lot of photos of most of the places I went
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

Glaurung

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Re: Stones, Stories, and Wasted Salt: A Visit to Carthage
« Reply #4 on: April 12, 2020, 02:55:20 PM »
I may add a few more pictures of site ruins if anyone wants/requests that too:
Yes please! Both ruins, and perhaps wider views - you mentioned the view from the admiralty island to the Byrsa hill, for example.

Jubal

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Re: Stones, Stories, and Wasted Salt: A Visit to Carthage
« Reply #5 on: April 16, 2020, 02:22:38 PM »
OK, a lot more pictures of sites added, arranged site by site, ordered in the order I visited them in the text. Hope those help give a sense of place, scale, etc :)
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

Glaurung

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Re: Stones, Stories, and Wasted Salt: A Visit to Carthage
« Reply #6 on: April 16, 2020, 03:17:01 PM »
OK, a lot more pictures of sites added, arranged site by site, ordered in the order I visited them in the text. Hope those help give a sense of place, scale, etc :)
Yes, they do - thanks very much. The sites seem almost dauntingly extensive, though I guess no worse than Rome or Istanbul. I'd definitely want more than two days to explore, though!

Jubal

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Re: Stones, Stories, and Wasted Salt: A Visit to Carthage
« Reply #7 on: April 16, 2020, 04:16:51 PM »
Yes, I'd have liked more than two myself and definitely felt like I was On A Schedule. I get the impression that most tourists actually skip a lot of the sites - I suspect many just do the Byrsa and the Antonine Baths, and the more "in depth" ones probably still skip the two Christian basilicas. Also I've still not seen the main Carthage archaeological museum, which was closed, the main museum in Tunis which I didn't have time for, and the Palaeochristian stuff which seemed to be closed when I went past. So I could easily spend another week there, even without really venturing in to look round Tunis which has a great deal of its own history.

Meanwhile, I've written up my poem from the Byrsa. which I think concludes my outputs from this trip (between poetry, prose, and my talk write-up I think that's about ten thousand words spilt as a result of about four days of travel!).
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...