Dax has always been our family history buff. Years of watching the History Channel and other forms of educational TV have left him with at least a cursory understanding of most of the countries we’ve visited before even arriving. While he enjoys most history there are two subjects that have long been his favorites. The first is World War I and the second is Hannibal and the Punic Wars. When we were putting together our itinerary, he expressed interest in visiting Carthage, the once great competitor to Rome. He understood and explained to us that there was not much left of Carthage as the Romans utterly destroyed the city and salted the earth around it. However, we all thought it would be a great thing to see and let our imaginations fill in the gaps for this ancient civilization. We are pretty good at imagining ancient Chinese, Indian, Moghul, Zulu, Greek, Roman, Islamic, Trojan, and Byzantine civilizations, so we figured adding in the Carthaginians would be easy.
With our Hollywood-trained eyes we climbed the hills overlooking Carthage and pictured the ancient port. From this vantage point there was little to no evidence the poor Carthaginians ever existed. Today we could see a nice Mediterranean Muslim city, complete with small houses painted white with rich blue doors and blue wrought-iron adorning every window. From the hill there was not even a sign of the triumphant Romans. Our imaginations this day were not up to the task. This was an ancient capital that was thoroughly underwhelming. Hannibal himself spent much of his life away from Carthage; maybe it wasn’t so great even then.
We gave up finding anything Carthaginian and prepared ourselves to see some Roman ruins. We were expecting them all to be overshadowed by the memories of the ruins we saw in Turkey, but we were wrong. Anne and I have visited Roman sites in Italy, Turkey, Israel, Spain, France and Bulgaria and were shocked to find a subtle but important difference between all these sites and their Northern African counterparts. In Rome proper and other similar sites the inhabitants decorated their villas, shops, baths, etc. with colorful frescos which have faded and disappeared in most places not covered in volcanic ash. In North Africa the inhabitants left their walls unadorned and instead invested in magnificent mosaics as their flooring of choice. These wall to wall mosaics have been preserved in great numbers and are on display at the Bardo in Tunis and the Archeological Museum in El Jem. As we entered these museums we wondered why they had put all the best pieces near the entrance, but as we rounded each corner we were blown away by the ever improving mosaics covering the floors and the walls.
It was wonderful to witness these treasures in such abundance. We are accustomed to such shows of grandeur as part of a king’s or sultan’s palace but here the mosaics were spread across the entire upper and merchant class, which accounts for their plentitude. I expressed to Anne my desire to have a family mosaic as part of our house. Rather than balking at the high cost, she instead took offense to the idea of us immortalized on our floor Roman style (in the buff). So much for that idea.
The ancient wonders of Tunisia did not stop here. El Jem, a few hours south of Tunis, is a small town with a large colosseum. This colosseum is second only to the one in Rome in size and better preserved. Our family spent a good couple hours hanging out in this marvel. Dax, Anne, and I took turns wandering through the many levels while the little kids and McKane set up gladiator fights between the large black ants they found in the center. These little insects would pull at each other until one lost a leg or a head. While they sat practicing a small scale version of this venue’s violent past, Dax and I decided to contemplate what the colosseum had been used for between the fall of the Romans and the rise of the tourists. We imagined Arab camel fairs, weekend date markets, and the odd animal fight taking place with nobody sitting in the stands.
What was more amazing was the fact that this colosseum had escaped the fate of many other Roman ruins which had been dismembered for future construction projects. As we travelled to different mosques throughout Tunisia, we were impressed by the great Corinthian columns incorporated into the local architecture, especially the historic Islamic sites. One of these places in particiular stood out. We visited Kairouan to see the Great Mosque, the fourth holiest site in Islam and home to the world’s oldest minaret. This minaret did not have the common missile shape of most minarets today but was a large, squat tower built a mere hundred years after the death of Mohammed. At nearly 1500 years, it is also the oldest islamic building we have ever seen. To my surprise the tower was made out of Roman building blocks complete with Latin inscriptions and bordered by rows of Roman columns. If the Romans had left anything of Carthage, I am sure we would have found it here as well.
History has many layers, of which we can hope to understand only a small part. In Tunisia those layers bump up against each other in unexpected and engaging ways. The juxtapositions have left us more curious about history and probably influenced us in ways we don’t yet know. If you come to our house in a few years and we have a rather revealing mosaic in our entry or an ant farm that looks a whole lot like a colosseum, you can flash a knowing smile and ask us how we liked Tunisia.