Ruins of Carthage

Carthage, Tunisia
Jan 6, 2019

Although founded by Phoenicians, stories of its founding trickle down to us, not from the Phoenicians but from Greek and Roman writers. Like all self-respecting Greek sagas, the story has lashings of avarice, the requisite murder and intrigues guaranteed to satisfy the most bloodthirsty soul.

The story unfolds with King Pygmalion, motivated by greed, murdering his brother-in-law, Priest Sichaeus. Although Pygmalion tries to keep his grisly deed a secret, the communications of ghosts supersede current 4G networks and his sister Princess Elissa, Sichaeus’s wife, is made aware of the dastardly deed. No fainting female, she puts on her thinking cap and under the guise of looking for a fresh start to relieve her broken heart, convinces Pygmalion to part with necessary ships. Only too happy to remove the last obstacle in his path, he agrees and off sails Princess Elissa for parts unknown. Mending a broken heart apparently necessitates a large entourage and unknown to Pygmalion, she takes with her, the coveted gold. She must have suffered from itchy feet as well since she stops at various other places and earns the nickname Dido, meaning “wanderer”. Eventually in 814 BC, on reaching the coast of present-day Tunisia, she sets out to obtain land on which to build her city. Her native wiliness comes to the fore when a deal is struck with locals. Allowed to have as much land that an ox-hide can cover, she cuts the hide in ultra-thin strips and circles the hill that commands a view of the coast. To this day the hill is called Byrsa, so named after the Greek bursa meaning skin or hide. For more than half a millennia Carthage flourished but by 202 BC, the glories of Hannibal had declined and the romans conquered Carthage, laying to waste to it.

The Punic quarters had been filled in at the time and so escaped destruction. They lie on the Byrsa hill still, in a neat rectangular grid with straight narrow streets. They are modest in size compared to the towering columns and ruined temples of the Romans that were built later.

Another evidence of Punic occupancy is the Tophet de Salambo – a sanctuary for cinerary urns of children. The fading light of day falls on jumbles of broken stelae piled at random. Some have the symbol of the goddess Tanit, to whom the sacrifice was made. There are other symbols as well – some look like a diamond, some are vertical lines, some bear the likeness of a woman while others are in the shape of a vessel. The more informative stelae with inscriptions commemorating the sacrifice lie scattered in various museums.

It is chilling to imagine that its largest, the area was six thousand square meters and had nine levels of burials; it was used continually from 800 BC through 146 BC. The gruesome nature of the site guaranteed that it be hotly contested since the first excavations in 1920s. The most recent conclusions from a couple of years ago however, firmly establish that it is indeed a Tophet. Archeological, epigraphic and literary evidence firmly establish the practice of child sacrifice, albeit performed in times of extreme stress and only by the elite classes.

Since being pillaged and burnt, for more than a century Carthage lay forgotten. It was revived around 44 BC by Augustus and it was then that its glories rivalled those of Rome and Alexandria. A vast city then, it spread down the hill up to the coast. The Romans did nothing in small measure and this was no exception. The amphitheater could hold fifty thousand and hosts concerts to this day. A metropolis of three hundred thousand demanded that this city have a circus, extravagant Antonine thermal baths and the necessary cisterns.

The rich nobles lay claim to grand Roman villas by the sea. Seaview properties were just as hot on the real estate market then as they are now and the view from the terrace of a lavish villa is unsurpassed.

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