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Published in Vanity Fair travel supplement, Spring 2012

CARTHAGE: gateway to Tunisia

I have spent weeks scampering through vaults, discovering forgotten mosaic floors, sketching antiquities and scribbling notes, but despite my passion for history the place that I hanker for again and again is a restaurant, the Dar Zarrouk, perched in the distinctive, elegant blue and white hilltop Tunisian village of Sidi Bou Said. It is there that I feel closest to the spirit of ancient Carthage.

Hidden behind sturdy white-washed outer walls, the Dar Zarrouk’s courtyard garden is awash with the scent of rose, geranium and jasmine. There’s a heightened sense of domestic serenity after the multilingual babble of the narrow shop-lined streets of Sidi Bou Said. You accept the gravitas of the staff of the Dar Zarrouk (and the prices) as part of the essence of a place apart. It’s a place you can settle into while toying with some tapas dipped into the local fiery harrissa sauce, a place to sip wines named after Carthaginian writers or fortresses, before progressing to the fish. In Tunisia eating fish is a form of historical communion, their forms instantly recognizable from a hundred loving depictions on the mosaic floors of the Roman dining rooms of North Africa, not to mention as a favourite motif of folk art, weavers and medieval jewellers. For fish is many things beside the best of foods - a protector against the evil eye, a good luck charm, an aphrodisiac and a phallic fertility symbol all rolled into one irreducible form.

The view from the Dar Zarrouk over the Gulf of Tunis is one which both the Carthaginian general Hannibal and St Augustine would have instantly recognized: azure and lapis bands of blue water ripple above the comparatively shallow waters of this coast, framed by the long undulating arm of the Cap Bon peninsular, which fills the entire southern horizon. The Bay is overlooked by the forested silhouette of Jebel Bou-Kornine, the sacred mountain of Carthage, its summit cleft into twin horns. Twenty ago, I climbed to the top and stumbled over a ‘high place’ for open-air sacrifices dedicated to the Carthaginian supreme deity, to Baal, ‘Our Lord’, whom the Romans knew as Saturn.

The fruit course in Tunisia always follows the seasons. I can never eat figs in the summer without mentally cursing Cato, who famously let Carthaginian figs fall from his toga whilst repeating his call for the destruction of the city in the Roman senate. Grapes have a softer resonance, of the Phoenician traders who first brought viniculture to North Africa, just as oranges would later come with the Arabs. When blood-red Pomegranates appear in autumn, I am sent straight back to the summit of Jebel Bou-Kornine. For the pomegranate, the punic apple, was sacred to Baal-Saturn and is an invariable motif on sacred carvings devoted to the deity. It was smashed on the plough, like a blood sacrifice to ensure fertility, before the blade was allowed to penetrate the land. Looking back over the waters of the Bay you can see how Jebel Bou-Kornine would also have served as a lighthouse directing Carthaginian sea-captains back to its shelter. They would then have passed through the walls of the city to enter the still visible double ports of ancient Carthage. The circular inner harbour survives – albeit as a pond, denuded of its encircling arsenal of boat-sheds, reserved for the exclusive use of the Carthaginian navy.

My wine-flavoured historical fantasy is interrupted as my local companion alerts me to the rich living world around us – the Carthage of contemporary Tunisian society - explaining how the cartoonist at that table is the descendant of a revered sheikh of the Zitouna Mosque, while that long table in an alcove is presided over by the influential nephew-in-law of a past president. The lively eyed, soft-bearded man at the table by the window is not a traveller from France, but an Algerian artist (recently awarded a prize at the V & A) who happens to be descended from the Prophet, whilst the immaculately dressed young man over there is both a hotelier and in his quiet way also a prince, for he is a grandson of the last of the Husseinite Beys. Modern Carthage has triumphed over the ancient.

In the morning light I like to make my way to the bowl of the Roman amphitheatre, hidden in a pinewood. In the glancing light a hoopoe flits on its mysterious search through the trees. It is fitted with a pious little chapel in the early 20th century to commemorate Christian martyrs executed here (such as saints Perpetua and Felicity) though just a generation before the place had been quarried for ballast (by British engineers) building a railway line for the Bey - vandalizing what the Vandals had left behind for posterity, for in the 11th century it was listed amongst the wonders of the world. There is enough left in which to feel the brooding terror of the place, where the state built an architectural monument to its monopoly of violence. Executions in the morning, before the more artful wild beast hunts and gladiatorial exhibitions were staged for the better-healed, after-lunch crowd. In this, as in so much else, Carthage is a mere aperitif for the classical ruins of the Tunisian interior, in this case the massive amphitheatre preserved at El Jem.

The contrastingly benign face of the Roman Empire is revealed by the massed, vaults of water cisterns at La Malga – a Piranesi sketch in the flesh. This vast field of arched brick and stone was the culmination of the 132-kilometre-long aqueduct that brought fresh water from the mountain spring at Zaghouan. It was commissioned, and possibly even designed, by the Emperor Hadrian, in part to celebrate a miraculous event, when the Emperor’s personal visit of inspection to Carthage coincided with a thunderstorm that brought a five-year drought to an end. The Emperor certainly left nothing to chance, even honouring the local nymph at Zaghouan with a semi-circular temple-nympheum. The most impressive stretch of the Carthage aqueduct is at the crossing of the Oued Meliane valley where it is impossible not to nod in fervent agreement with Gibbon that, “The boldness of the enterprise, the solidity of the execution and the uses to which they were subservient, rank the aqueducts among the noblest monuments to Roman genius and power.”

That other great swagger monument to the good life of the Roman imperial heyday is the Baths. The Antonine Baths at Carthage have morphed into a tourist monument. A couple of immense columns have been re-erected to give some sense of vertical scale to the surviving seaside ruins – which are in fact composed of a confusing mass of cellar-vaults. Glance by all means, but leave the crowds to their photo opportunities and instead explore the blocks of the excavated city that extend inland from the Baths, where you will find underground punic tombs and the mosaic floors of Byzantine and pagan chapels. Similarly avoid the rebuilt Roman theatre at Carthage and spend a peaceful afternoon exploring the excavated quarter of the city known as ‘the park of Roman villas.’ Climbing up a hill through ruined Roman houses to reach the enchantment of the 3rd-century House of the Aviary - a place built all for show and eating – like the Dar Zarrouk.

The Byrsa hill is one of the lodestones of Carthage, a wonderfully typical Tunisian melange of ages and styles all co-existing; such as the exquisitely restored modernist Hotel Didon hanging onto one side of this ancient acropolis, with its views, its swagger suites and buzzing cocktail bar. Above it towers the unmistakable outline of the 19th century colonial cathedral, a mad bit of Byzantine-Mauresque that would be totally at home in Brighton, complete with its tomb to St Louis and a mass of catholic heraldry. Beside it stands the cloisters of the White Fathers which has been turned into an archaeological museum where the finds from Phoenician and Roman Carthage are housed. Beside this stretches a Roman elevated terrace (once part of a lavish forum complex) with a fabulous view over what would have been the old city centre of Carthage complete with its two recognizable ports. Although the construction of the Roman terrace obliterated an ancient hilltop shrine it did succeed in successfully burying the only surviving portion of the Carthaginian city. So if you slip down the side of the Roman terrace you are in a narrow street of houses built during the lifetime of Hannibal, and the sort of place that was fought over house by house, room by room, in the final sack of the city. As described by Polybius, in an eyewitness account which cleaves the centuries to remind us of the recent horrors of the 20th century: ‘the tall narrow houses which crowded the slopes were cleared by fire, there fell with the walls many bodies of those who had hidden in the upper storeys and been burnt to death, and others who were still alive, wounded and badly burnt…[so] the dead and living were thrown together into pits.”

An even darker aspect of Carthaginian life is revealed at the Tophet, reached through a gate let into a garden wall off a quiet suburban road. The chances of this open-air sanctuary surviving the tide of history, particularly the energetic destruction, then rapid Roman rebuilding of the city, seem a million to one. Yet survive it did, to reveal hundreds upon hundreds of urns filled with the ashes of young children, sacrificial lambs and kids. They were piled up in this sacred enclosure, century after century (from the foundation date in the 8th century down to the last days of Carthage in 146BC) buried with dedicatory tomb-stones, many carved with the bare outline symbol of the great goddess Tanit Pene Baal, the female face of Our Lord, others with the empty throne of divinity or a betyl - a sacred unshaped holy stone. I have listened to Tunisians passionately arguing that these infant bones are not evidence of human sacrifice but belonged to still-borne babies and infant mortalities, but the weight of scholarly evidence suggests that this was indeed the last resting place of many of the first-born children of the aristocratic families of Carthage. They were offered like Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac and Ishmael as a test of faith in their god– so that, perhaps the Carthaginian parents felt that they were not so much offering up a blood sacrifice as passing their children into the protective bosom of the deity. The visible structures today, are Roman vaults and foundations from the 2nd century AD. A mud-brick altar was found at the very bottom layer of the archaeological dig, tentatively posited as the tomb of Queen Dido. It used to be fashionable to pour scorn on the old legends of the Phoenician princess burning herself on the altar as the first dedicatory offering to the protecting Goddess.

Not so many Tunisians would doubt the story today. Inspired by this ancient self-sacrifice I travelled south to an obscure town in the steppe-lands – to Sidi Bou Zid. I must now have visited the Tophet over a dozen times, looking for I know not what, but it suddenly seemed important to bear historical witness not just to Dido but to a street trader called Muhammed Bouaziz, who doused himself with petrol and set himself alive on the morning of 17th December 2010, in search of justice. An act of self-sacrifice, it launched the “Jasmine Revolution” and the Arab spring.

I felt a little self-conscious, but his memory had already been proudly absorbed into the town’s history, and a young trader happily pointed out the site of Muhammed’s regular stand – right outside the mosque, as well as the place where he burnt himself and told us that his own barrow was exactly the same model as Muhammad’s, before offering me a sample date, first of the season.

Once again two days in Carthage has already proved to be the perfect gateway into Tunisia, ancient and modern. Now the empty road beckoned. I wanted to show my companion a week of enchantment and so stretched out a map, proudly flicked through the guidebook I had co-written many years ago and started making detailed plans with our driver Muhammad. First we would visit the triple Capitoline temple at Sbeitla, then head down to the walled steppe-land capital of Kairouan, where I wanted to have a go at sketching the sea of classical capitals that upholds the ancient mosque as well as make a pilgrimage to the courtyard shrine of the Prophet’s Barber. Then Dougga beckoned, one of my favourite ruined cities in all the world, draped in a valley between two limestone hills and surrounded by ancient olive trees. The astonishingly well-preserved temples, the theatre, brothel, the summer and winter baths are all built from pale local stone, and the ruins boast one of the few extant pieces of Carthaginian architecture in the world – the tomb of Arteban. From there we would head further inland to explore the underground Roman villas at Bulla Regia (some of which have recently been adopted by the World Monument Fund) and the imperial quarries at Chemtou (where the Germans have created an excellent new site museum). On our way back to explore the medieval city of Tunis, we would swing by the ruins of Thuburbo Majus, and try and catch the Emperor Hadrian’s Roman aqueduct in the evening light. The last day would be dedicated to the extraordinary collection of mosaics on display at the Bardo museum.

And the last night’s Dinner? My companion had imagined we would once again be rebuilding Carthage over many bottles of wine at a table in the Dar Zarrouk. But Tunis has its own stories, which are best summoned up at a table within the courtyards behind by the great yellow door of the Dar el Jeld.

See also Carthage: Way to Go

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