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Ancient Carthage

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 36.8547 N 10.3343 E
No:436        (list of all attractions)
Category:Ancient cities and towns, Abandoned cities and towns
Values:Architecture, History, Visual
Rank:2
Address:Africa, Tunisia, northern suburbs of Tunis, rather vast area partly covered with newer buildings
Name in Arabic:قرطاج‎
UNESCO World Heritage status:"Archaeological Site of Carthage", 1979, No.37.
Founded:between 846 and 813 BC
Period of flourishing:the 6th century BC - 146 BC, the 1st - 7th century AD
Area:616 ha
Ruins of Punic city in the citadel of Byrsa, Tunisia
Ruins of Punic city in Byrsa / Eirik Newth, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

There is little left of the ancient metropolis of Mediterranean - Carthage. Here and there among the buildings in the eastern suburbs of Tunis are seen unsighty ruins of Roman stroctures and rare remnants of Carthagian culture. It is hard to believe that this was the centre of power in Mediterranean region, main rival of Rome.

History

Stele with symbol of Tanit, Tunisia
Stele with symbol of Tanit in children's cemetery / Neil Rickards, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Escape of Dido

This is how the story of Carthage started according to Greek legends:

A group of Phoenician nobleman managed to escape political turmoil in their homecountry located in the area of contemporary Lebanon. This group was led by Elissa or Dido, the first queen of Carthage.

Phoenicians stopped at Tunis Bay and built their settlement on a hill named Byrsa (citadel in Phoenician). According to legend Berber king allowed a temporary refuge as large as could be encompassed by oxhide. Phoenicians cut an oxhide in narrow strips and managed to encircle whole hill.

Rise of Carthagian empire

This event happened in the time period between 846 and 813 BC.

Colonists together with local Berbers built a new city. Phoenicians named the city Qart-ḥadašt - New City in a meaning that this is the new Tyre (capital of Phoenicia).

Soon it evolved into a rich and influential city, using its location in the centre of Mediterranean region. Thus, Aristotle considered that this is one of the best governed cities and states in the world.

Carthagians developed powerful navy - ships were built using methods of serial production and multiple sailors were well trained. Carthage had a well organized network of trade routes in Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean, as well as across the Sahara desert, it became a centre of empire, encompassing coastline and islands of Western Mediterranean.

The mysterious Tophet of Salammbó in Carthage, Tunisia
The mysterious Tophet of Salammbó in Carthage - possible site of child sacrifice / Neil Rickards, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Possible child sacrifice by Carthagians

At least one issue regarding the Carthagians is very emotive and controversial: possible child sacrifice.

Most likely Carthage - city and whole empire - was a victim of bad publicity. For long centuries the main sources of information about Carthage have been Greek and Roman historians, who were hostile towards Carthage.

According to these authors children were sacrificed by their parents to deities - Cronus and Ba'al Hammon. Children were placed alive in the hands of bronze statue and roasted to death.

There is an eerie place in Carthage - so called Tophet of Salammbó, a shrine and necropolis, where remains of children have been found in large amount. Now this menacing site is located under a Roman built vault.

Antoninus Bath in Carthage, Tunisia
Antoninus Bath in Carthage / Michael Sean Galagher, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Conquest by Rome

Carthagian Empire developed in a harsh competition with other major powers in this region - Greeks in Syracuse, Numidians and Romans.

Greeks and Numidians were defeated by Carthagians but Romans persisted. The great Carthagian military commander Hannibal almost destroyed Roman Republic in the late 3rd century BC - but gradually the power of Carthagians decreased and Roman might - increased.

Finally Carthage and its citadel Byrsa was captured by Romans in 146 BC. For six terrible days Romans went from house to house and captured all people they could get - in total some 50 000 people from Carthage were taken. City was burned down and remnants were razed down.

Romans managed to eliminate almost all traces of the Punic city and culture and today it is not easy to study Punic period.

Inside Roman water cistern in Carthage, Tunisia
Inside one of Roman water cisterns in Carthage / Neil Rickards, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Roman period

After the capture of Carthage the nearby Utica (old rival of Carthage) was made a capital of this region.

Nevertheless the harbor of Utica silted up and Romans were forced to return to Carthage. A new city was built here in the time of Julius Caesar in 49 - 44 BC.

Carthage flourished again. At the beginning of our era Carthage was one of the most important cities in Roman Empire and here lived up to 500 000 people, city was splendid and beautiful. It was one of the largest cities in the world in preindustrial age, second only to Rome.

Ancient citadel - Byrsa - became a centre of city again and forum was built here.

Carthage was one of the centres of Early Christianity as well. Here were organized important councils and many important milestones for Western Christianity were laid here, in African city! Such milestones were term "Trinity" (Tertullian) and canon of Bible - the content of Bible.

Vandals, Byzantium and Arabs

In the 5th century AD Gaiseric, king of Vandals, captured the city. Carthage became a capital of Vandal kingdom - an independent state with Arian religion - a branch of Christianity.

Vandals were defeated and city was taken by Eastern Roman Empire in 533 AD, restoring the Chalcedonian Church. Extensive fortifications around the city were built. In the late 580s here was established Exarchate of Africa - region of Eastern Roman Empire which was governed by exarch. Carthage was one of the main sources of manpower and grain to Constantinopole.

Finally the city was destroyed by Muslims in 698 AD, who defeated Romans and Berbers. Arabs destroyed city walls, harbours, water supply. City of Tunis was established nearby and since then it is the main city in this area.

Description

Ancient Punic ports in Carthage, Tunisia
Ancient Punic ports in Carthage / Citizen59, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Carthage is located between Lake Tunis and Bay of Tunis.

City in Punic times was divided into four equally sized residential areas with equal layout. In the middle stood citadel - Byrsa.

At the times when Carthage was established and flourished, the area around the city was very fertile and rich with forests - a true paradise for Phoenicians who were highly skilled agrarians. They built two harbours in the city - one for military ships and another - for maritime trade. Walled tower overlooked both harbours.

Carthage had huge necropolis, religious area, market places, council house, theater.

Punic heritage

The best preserved parts of the oldest (Punic) part of city are on the top of Byrsa hill. The remnants of these buildings from the early 2nd century BC have provided much information about the daily life in the city. Ground in some places was covered with mosaics, often with red mortar - a kind of Punic trademark. Streets in this district are some 6 m wide and are covered with clay.

The mysterious Tophet of Salammbó is another part of Punic heritage. Here have been found many steles with the symbol of Tanit - main goddess of Carthagians.

Carthage had massive, 37 km long fortification walls, which included also agricultural area - Megara. There are few if any cities in the world with similar length of fortification walls. Especially impressive were walls over the isthmus which were never penetrated. Walls were destroyed by Romans, some smaller parts of the walls have been excavated near the sea.

Roman mosaic in Carthage, Tunisia
Roman mosaic in Carthage / Justin Ennis, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Roman heritage

Roman heritage of the city has been partly preserved - here are found ruins of forum, theatre, baths, Zaghouan aqueduct with massive cisterns, diverse temples and ruins of other buildings.

Not too much remains of Roman theatre which could accomodate 5,000 spectators. Even larger was amphitheatre with a capacity of 30,000 spectators - its ruins were plundered after the Arab conquest. Better preserved are Antonine Baths - once splending building which was constructed in AD 145 - 165 in area which suffered from great fire.

Encroachment of urban sprawl puts some danger on the remaining values of ancient Carthage. History goes on and ancient Carthage is getting a new cultural layer.

Map

See Ancient Carthage on the map of Tunisia!

 

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