Tunisia in a Month (Part 2): Carthage and Sidi Bou Said
Updated: Feb 27, 2020
After a couple of days hanging out in Tunis, you start to get a little tired of the hustle and bustle, heavy traffic and general heat and noise, so it's a good thing that the city is right by the sea and within very easy access of two places that can be visited on one (fairly long) day-trip: Carthage and Sidi Bou Said. The former, one of the best examples of Punic ruins across North Africa, spreads several kilometres over what is now a well-to-do suburb of Tunis, and is your first opportunity to acquaint yourself better with the antiquity all around you in Tunisia. More of that in a moment. The latter is a picture-perfect little resort that rolls across cliffs just to the north of Carthage, a village full of pretty white-washed houses with blue window frames and doors - the whole place is the colour of the Greek flag, and instantly brings to mind somewhere like Santorini or Crete. As it's only four or five kilometres from Carthage, the two combine well for a trip in one day, but an early start is crucial. It's best to visit the ruins of Carthage before the full heat of the sun is overhead - you'll be wondering around the ruins without much tree coverage, and it can get incredibly tiring. A good strategy is to hire a taxi for a half day (about 20 Euro) from Carthage train station (it's a 45 minute journey from Tunis) to take you around all the main sites, which are too far to walk between comfortably, then get the driver to take you to Sidi Bou Said and drop you off. Trains back to Tunis run until about 10.30pm in April-October. An early start is definitely a good idea in high summer. We visited in early September, and late morning temperatures were at around the 30 mark already. Take plenty of water whenever you go, and give yourself time for rests. A minimum of 3-4 hours is needed to take in the main sights.
Once Rome's major rival, Carthage was the city of the seafaring Phoenicians forever memorialized in the Punic Wars. The ruins are extensive but spread out, and if you've been lucky enough to visit ancient city sites such as Ephesus in Turkey or Volubilis in Morocco, which are well-preserved, Carthage can seem quite underwhelming at first. But these UNESCO World-Heritage-listed remnants are hugely important historically, and any tourist interested in North Africa's ancient past shouldn't miss a visit here. Although Roman Carthage was destroyed, many artifacts, sculptures and ruins have survived. Such remains include a theater, an amphitheater, baths, temples, a circus, a kiln, a cemetery, basilicas, an odeum (Roman roofed theater), remains of Roman houses, water cisterns, Roman aqueduct and more. Perhaps the most popular Roman site in Carthage is the Antonine baths, which is the largest Roman bath outside of Rome. You will be able to walk through the ruins of this large Roman bath including the caldarium (hot room), a tepidarium (warm room), a frigidarium (cold room), and palestras and gymnasiums (enclosed room with mosaic floors for naked wrestling and other sports). It's not worth trying to visit every site at Carthage. Better to take a 'more is less' attitude and just make the most of what you have time and energy for. We picked the following, and I will put a few thoughts with each site.
- Byrsa Hill
This hill was the central feature of the Punic settlement, and during the later Roman era, the Roman city builders sliced some six meters off the 70-meter summit in order to make a broader platform for their imperial buildings. Today, the hill is crowned by the Cathedral of Saint Louis, built in 1890 and dedicated to King Louis IX, who died here in 1270 during the siege of Tunis. From the summit, tourists can enjoy fine views across the entire Carthage area. It's a serene and relaxing place, and seeing a Christian church here seems pleasantly incongruous. Behind the Church is an interesting Necroplis, ruined and atmospheric.
- Punic Naval and Commercial Harbours
Along Rue Hannibal, down the hill from the church, lies the old Punic harbor, with two basins in which the mightiest fleet in the Mediterranean once laid at anchor. It's a sleepy, non-descript place now, but according to the ancient sources, the commercial harbour was in the shape of a rectangle measuring 456 meters by 356 meters, linked with the sea by a channel 20 meters wide. The naval harbour to the north, which was surrounded by a high wall, had a diameter of 325 meters. A channel giving it direct access to the sea was constructed only during the Third Punic War. The naval harbor alone had moorings for some 220 vessels, both along the landward side and around the island. Again, the major attraction here is peace and solitude. It makes a nice place for a stroll and a snack, under one of the shady trees.
While you're in this area of Carthage, don't miss out on the oft-overlooked Tophet - thought to be the place where the Phoenician princess Elissa landed in Tunisia, the Tophet is a religious sanctuary, where people worshipped the sun god Baal-Ammon. Excavations here have revealed that during the early days of the city, it was common practice to sacrifice first-born children here to make sure the city found favor with the gods. Although human sacrifice died out, the Tophet was used as a cult site of some sort right up to the Christian era.
At the lowest level of all, the excavators discovered a small niche, the Chapel of Cintas, which may possibly have been the burial chapel of Elissa herself. The site is a maze of burial shafts and remains of foundations, with some of the numerous stelae bearing inscriptions and symbols. On the offer of a small tip, the custodian will open a shed containing numerous stelae, most of them with inscriptions, and pottery urns said to contain the ashes of the unfortunate sacrifice victims.