The ancient Phoenician city of Carthage is arguably the first thing on most people’s list of things to do in Tunisia, North Africa. Although today’s Carthage is the retreat of Tunis’ wealthy elite it was once the seat of power for the mighty Phoenician empire and later became one of Rome’s most important outposts. The ruins of both empires lay scattered across modern-day Carthage allowing visitors to this UNESCO World Heritage Site to spend the day playing the role of Indiana Jones (or maybe, more appropriately, Maximus Decimus Meridius).
The History of Carthage
I’m by no means a historian, but to get a better sense of the site and what it represented over the course of its long and prosperous history, I opted to do a little research before leaving home. And so, in the spirit of potentially boring you to tears, here is the Take Photos Leave Footprints two paragraph synopsis of the history of Carthage (to be fair, it’s a lot of history to condense into two paragraphs, so bear with me here):
Carthage was founded as a Phoenician (ancient Semitic-speaking Mediterranean civilization that originated in Lebanon) settlement along the coastline of modern-day Tunis in the 1st millennium BC. After the collapse of Tyre (Phoenicia’s main city-state in Lebanon) Carthage became the most important of the Phoenician colonies and found itself expanding into a pretty powerful empire – one which seemed to be at constant war with Sicily, the Greeks and the Romans. The latter turned out to be the demise of Carthage. Following the First Punic War from 264-241 BC, in which Carthage (led by the relatively well known Hannibal) lost Sicily to the Romans, the Third Punic War (149-146 BC) led to Carthage being razed to the ground by the same wily Romans (who faked rounds of peace talks but ultimately told the Phoenicians it was either surrender and have your capital destroyed or go to war with Rome).
But don’t be fooled into thinking that razing the city to the ground and expelling all of its people was the end of Carthage! Although the Romans had vowed never to rebuild Carthage they did just that. In fact, by the 1st century AD it had grown to be the second largest city in the western half of the Roman Empire, with a peak population of 500,000. But ultimately, by 698, Carthage’s time as a major center had ended after changing hands a few times and losing to the Arab conquerors of the 7th Century. Tunis instead quickly became the region’s major center.
So, there you have it; the shortest summary of Carthaginian history you’ll probably ever see. What that history means is that a modern day visit to Carthage will have you wandering the ruinous remains of a unique blend of (predominantly) Roman and (to a lesser extent…given all of the razing and ransacking I mentioned) Phoenician remains.
Carthage is easily accessible by public transport from Tunisia’s capital city, Tunis. Boarding at the Tunis Marine Station the Tunis-Goulette-Marsa light rail system (TGM) links the city with all of the sites you’d want to see in Carthage. I’ve included a link to the TGM map in the additional resources section below. What you’ll immediately notice when looking at that map is that there are 5 stations (yes, five) with “Carthage” in the name. That’s because both modern day Carthage and ancient Carthage were spread out. My advice is to start at the Carthage Hanibal TGM station. From here you can reach most of the major sites on foot. By contrast, I started at Carthage Amilcar and had to walk a fair old distance before reaching the first site (including walking along the heavily fortified boundary of the President’s Palace – and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to be there given the prevalence of armed military).
Once at Carthage Hanibal most of the sites are accessible on foot. However, signposting to each of them is not fantastic and can lead to some confusion. So, if you’re intent on visiting under your own steam i.e. without a guide and driver, then I’d advise you to buy a good guidebook and Carthage site map before you arrive. This will also help you learn more about each site because, to be honest, there was minimal information provided otherwise. Alternatively, if you’re not restricted by budget, then I’d advise hiring a local guide or getting a taxi between the main sites (as it can get pretty sweaty in the heat of summer). Both guides and taxis seemed to be easily available from some of the major sites (particularly the Carthage Museum / National Archaeological Museum and the Cathedral of St Louis). If you’d rather plan in advance then plenty of tour companies operate from Tunis. You can start looking for possible Carthage tours on the Viator website.
Although you can buy individual tickets for each Carthage site the easiest solution is buy a multi-site ticket (which you can buy at pretty much any of the major sites) which should help you save both time and money.
Main Carthage Sights
Amphitheater: Note exactly the Coliseum of Rome, the Roman Amphitheater in Carthage is in a mostly ruinous state. What remains of the formerly 50,000 capacity arena are some of the underground rooms (no doubt where gladiators waited to enter) and the circular foundations. Even so, it’s worthwhile visiting to get a glimpse of the magnitude of the arena as an indicator of the importance of Carthage within the Roman Empire.
Roman Villas and Theater: Although initially excited by the prospect of the Roman Theater I was largely disappointed when we arrived to be greeted by a modern stage and scaffolding together with a mass of recently constructed ticket booths; it wasn’t exactly the archaeological site I was hoping for. Just around the corner, the Roman villas on the other hand are a much more authentic experience; that’s’ despite one of the wealthy, 3rd Century, Roman homes having been restored. Make sure to head on up to the terrace at the site which overlooks the Gulf of Tunis and provides great views over Carthage.
Byrsa Hill (Carthage Museum / National Archaeological Museum and the Cathedral of St Louis): The Museum, which sits perched on top of Brysa Hill, is probably the best starting point for your trip. It provides a better sense of the layout of Carthage and a better understanding of the history (with a little more detail than my two paragraphs). Please note that at the time of writing the museum is currently undergoing a major restoration (it was twenty years since the last one so it’s probably about time). Make sure you check it’s back open before visiting. In the meantime, the museum gardens, which house a number of archaeological Punic remains, and the Cathedral of St Louis (built in 1890) remain open. The gardens also provide great views across the Gulf of Tunis.
Tophet de Salambo: Time for the blog to get a little macabre. The Tophet was historically part burial ground and part place of sacrifice; mostly of young children in accordance with Phoenician and Carthaginian religion and ritual. The Tophet is home to s shrine and an altar where the sacrifices were made by fire. This site certainly isn’t for the squeamish.
Baths of Antoninus (or Antonine Baths) and Archeological Park: Built during the reign of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius the Baths of Antoninus are the largest Roman baths in Africa and one of the three largest in the entire Roman Empire. They are also one of the most extensive excavations in Carthage and sit within the larger Archeological Park; which includes the ruins of the Basilica of Douimes, a Roman Villa, Punic graves, Roman Cisterns and a burial chapel. From the area to the north of the baths you can also get a decent view of the heavily guarded Presidential Palace.
Magon Quarter: I wouldn’t get too excited about this particular area of ruins. The Magon quarter is one of the smaller excavation sites that, to be completely honest, is really only worth visiting because it’s one road over from the Baths of Antoninus. All that’s left is a small Punic residential area with a section of the ancient city wall dating back to 5BC.
Other Sights: As Carthage was the epicenter of Christianity in Africa one interesting additional site is the Carthage Paleo-Christian Museum which sits atop the former Carthaginian basilica. The best TGM stop for the museum is Carthage-Dermech. From the Carthage-Bysra stop you could also take time to have a quick look at the Punic Harbour.
Hope that helps, but if you think I’ve missed anything then make sure to speak out in the comments section below!
TGM Light Rail Network Map: http://www.gammarthweb.com/maps/tgmmap.pdf
Carthage Paleo-Christian Museum Website: http://www.patrimoinedetunisie.com.tn/eng/musees/paleo.php
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