A Roman Holiday in Tunisia

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE FEBRUARY 2011 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET MAGAZINE

LONG ago, a mighty city stood on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Carthage was known throughout the world as ‘the shining city’ – a near mythical metropolis where magnificent temples perched on the clifftops and soaring towers pierced the sky. Legend says the town was beloved of the pagan goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter, who planned for Carthage to become the capital of all the world.

Fast forward 2,000 years, and Juno and her chariot are nowhere in sight. Instead, a rotund security guard idles in the shade of a eucalyptus tree, looking out to the azure waters of the Mediterranean in the distance. Around him lie what remains of ancient Carthage, vines creeping over crumbling stonework and small lizards scampering among the rubble in the midday sun.

Carthage turned out to be the James Dean of the ancient world, living fast and dying young. It picked a fight with a new, emerging power – the Roman Republic – and nearly clinched a victory that would have changed the course of history. Led by fearless general Hannibal, Carthage’s army of war elephants famously charged over the Alps and down towards Rome, only for the Romans to retaliate, burning Carthage to the ground in 146 BC.

The warring powers of Rome and Carthage may be long gone, but the prize they fought over is as lustrous as ever: a hinterland of shady olive groves, fertile highlands and a coast of palm-fringed coves. This was the province known to the victorious Romans as ‘Africa’ (and to us as Tunisia), a fabled land of plentiful food, fine wine and good hunting.

For the Romans, it became the Côte d’Azur of the Empire, where wealthy citizens and retired legionnaires could escape the backstabbing emperors of the motherland and live it up under the African sun. Reminders of the ancient world still form the backdrop to daily life here. Shepherds drive their flocks past ruined temples, fishing boats still set sail from ancient harbours and traffic rumbles indifferently over Roman bridges.

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Even Carthage appears to look just as the Romans left it after its destruction over 2,000 years ago. Where temples and palaces once stood, shattered marble columns now line the shore and where noblemen once looked out proudly over their city, the dismembered heads of statues now look glumly at the sky.

The Romans meant to all but obliterate Carthage from memory, enslaving her citizens and building their own town on top of the wreckage. With barely any records left of the original city, it takes some imagination to picture Carthage in its heyday in the 4th century BC – with sailors and merchants walking the narrow streets, and a cacophony of blacksmiths and stonemasons echoing out from the citadel. A solitary fisherman sits by the dockyards where warships once laid anchor; a fleet that ruled the western Mediterranean. The rich scent of pine fills the air and the distant hum of motorboats is just audible above the crashing waves.

‘We’ve never forgiven the Romans for what they did here,’ says local resident Mehdi Ghodbane, sat on the stump of a column and swinging his legs nonchalantly. ‘The tragedy hasn’t been forgotten.’

Perhaps as a belated two-finger gesture to the Roman Empire, a Tunisian suburb has sprung up in the empty expanses between the ruins. Modern villas sit alongside their ancient counterparts, where residents are used to finding relics left by the previous owners. Lawnmowers inadvertently crash into age-old stones, while digging up the back garden risks disturbing a pagan idol from its 2,000-year old slumber beneath the earth.

FROM its hilltop setting, Carthage looks down disapprovingly at its noisy neighbour over the water, the capital, Tunis. A youngster by comparison, the medina at its centre dates back a mere 1,300 years, and is a maze of noisy markets, whitewashed houses and cobbled narrow streets that seem to ramble into infinity. Amid the commotion of the market, smaller details can go unnoticed: a glimpse of a palace courtyard behind a door, or a wandering mint-tea seller plucking discarded cups from the shadows before returning to a kettle bubbling somewhere deep inside the medina. Old men gossip in side street cafés between puffs on sheesha pipes, while hanging lanterns sway and chime in the sea breeze.

Concealed behind a barber’s shop is the El-Kachachine Hammam, one of the oldest bathhouses in the medina. An ancestor of the Roman thermae, the hammam is a hand-me-down of history, a Roman tradition kept alive by Byzantines and Ottomans, now a part of Tunisian culture.

Stepping inside a hammam for the first time can almost feel like you’re intruding. Regulars peer over their newspapers, while other men clad in white towels and wooden sandals shuffle about under vaulted ceilings, stopping only to be pummelled by a grimacing masseur. Entering the scorching hot steam room, visibility is close to zero. Stray bellies and limbs loom in the steam, while their anonymous owners discuss football scores across the mists. As inhibitions disappear and conversations start up, it’s clear the hammam combines the atmosphere of a health spa and a local pub.

For the Romans too, the bathhouse was as much about socialising as it was about bathing. Jugglers, musicians, wrestlers and actors would entertain the crowds, while senators would often drop by unannounced to canvass support. But by the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, bathhouses had become notorious as a breeding ground for political corruption, teeming with prostitutes, pickpockets and thieves. They were later abandoned in the Western world, denounced as ungodly dens of vice and the scene of drug-fuelled mayhem and drunken orgies.

The bathkeeper stands by the doorway, looking authoritatively over the bathers. From his expression, it’s clear no such nonsense will be tolerated on his watch.

A 13th-century palace on the outskirts of Tunis houses the Bardo Museum and arguably the world’s best collection of Roman mosaics. It offers a gruesome insight into Roman tastes for interior design, with scenes of warriors being decapitated, gladiators wrestling wild animals and gods swaggering across the heavens decorating the walls. One mosaic depicts giant fish leaping out of the sea, with sailors from the port of Hippo Diarrhytus struggling to haul in weighty nets.

Today the town is known as Bizerte, but the surrounding seas are still famed for their bounty. There are even whispers that some inhabitants here descend from Romans: pale-skinned families with strange surnames. ‘I don’t think I’m a Roman,’ laughs fisherman Mohammed Sana’a, carrying his nets along Bizerte harbour in the early morning darkness. With a leathery complexion and grey beard, he looks more like Ernest Hemingway than Julius Caesar.

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Mohammed on his boat

Life here has changed little for fishermen over the centuries. A fleet of blue fishing boats bob gently in the old harbour, later to return with fresh tuna, mackerel, squid and sole for the grills of quayside cafés. Served with a little parsley and lemon, their catch will be devoured by locals. But for now at least, everything is still. The boats creak by their moorings as I follow Mohammed through the half-light, passing townhouses lining the waterfront.

Guarding the harbour entrance stands the kasbah – the old fortified quarter of Bizerte  – with its battlements concealed in the gloom above the streetlamps. Mohammed squints into the hull of his wooden fishing boat where, curled up on a Persian rug, a tabby cat lies fast asleep. The boat’s engine splutters to life below, and the cat leaps off the boat and onto the quay. Mohammed tells me other feline stowaways haven’t been so lucky and have woken with a yelp to find themselves bound for the high seas.

A faint lilac glow lights the eastern sky and the boat steers onto the cobalt sea beyond the harbour. On the open water, the Mediterranean almost seems to have its own topography, a mini-mountain range of surf-crested peaks with valleys opening up between the swell. It’s a fitting setting for the ancient myths believed to have played out on the Tunisian coastline: Neptune, the sea god, battling Aeolus, keeper of the winds, and Ulysses sailing home to his family in Ithaca.

The thin sound of the morning call to prayer drifts across the water from the kasbah and Mohammed checks his fishing nets for holes gnashed by hungry dolphins. A letter from the 1st century AD by Roman writer Pliny the Younger recounts how a young boy from Hippo Diarrhytus once struck up a friendship with a dolphin. The dolphin met the boy at the beach and would take him on long rides across the sea. People came from far and wide to witness this, until the town’s citizens, having grown sick of the crowds, chose to discreetly murder the dolphin. Mohammed, on the other hand, is content without companionship on the high seas.

‘My boat is my family,’ he says, the saltwater sparkling in his beard. ‘But we’re getting older. I’m 50, even my boat is 40!’

He cackles manically, before throttling the engine and launching the vessel over the crest of an approaching wave.

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Dougga

Heading inland from Bizerte, the roads run past coastal lagoons and into the heart of Roman Africa. They pass Dougga, a ruined Roman settlement perched high in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The town looks out over the Tunisian interior – with its ramshackle farmhouses where rusting tractors sink into the long grass, and olive groves stretching as far as the eye can see. Groups of farm workers shake the branches of these squat, scraggly trees before gathering fallen olives from the sea of wildflowers below. Hunters and their dogs also pick their way across the landscape, thwarted by the rabbits who take refuge among dense rows of cactuses. Further south, olive groves give way to scrubland, and the greenery turns to red clay.

Somewhere ahead in the hazy heat stood the southern frontier of the Empire and the outposts that, to the Romans, marked the edge of civilisation.

AT a glance, El-Jem seems like any other market town in rural Tunisia. Donkeys plod along the streets and the smell of freshly baked bread wafts through the air. Only up close might you spot an impostor lurking beyond the laundry lines: a vast Roman amphitheatre, edging above the rooftops.

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Although it might look like a giant piece of Roman lost property dropped in the middle of this sleepy town, the location of the amphitheatre was no accident. Standing on a major trade route at the far frontiers of the Roman Empire, it was built to impress travellers, rivalling the scale of the Colosseum itself. The citizens of the town, however, let it go to their heads. In 238 AD, they dared to proclaim their governor, Gordian, to be Emperor of Rome and were duly punished. Legend says the town was nearly razed to the ground, and Gordian fell on his sword from shame within the walls of his great amphitheatre.

Perhaps Gordian would have died happy if he’d known much of the amphitheatre would survive today. Birds swoop down from nests in the colonnades and dust clouds hang over the arena floor. Spectators came here from far and wide to witness blood, guts and glory with gladiators fighting to the death and chariots racing. Dozing where all this carnage once took place sits Hedi, the caretaker, slouched on a metal chair.

‘No games today,’ he jokes before resuming his afternoon nap.

He’s soon woken by two boys scrapping in the arena – jabbing each other with imaginary swords – until one surrenders and runs to his parents. The victor stands alone, bowing triumphantly before the absent crowds.

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The last of the day’s visitors leave the amphitheatre and the residents of El-Jem come out for an evening stroll. Wisps of sheesha smoke drift in the shadows, and the aroma of skewered lamb kebabs fills the air. The amphitheatre glows a rich amber in the twilight and it seems as if the Roman crowds have left only moments ago. Watching old men play cards in the cafés, I’m reminded of ancient graffiti at the Roman town of Timgad in neighbouring Algeria: ‘To hunt, to bathe, to play games, to laugh – that is to live!’ Two thousand years on, it’s still easy to sympathise with the Romans who came, saw and conquered – and who never wanted to go home.

PHOTOGRAPHY: PHILIP LEE HARVEY