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Roaming Ruins: Exploring Tunisia

Art Tours leader Neil Faulkner finds the hidden highlights of the classical world in lesser-explored Tunisia.

Tunisia is a land of shifting landscapes and surprising diversity for its size. At just 165,000kms, it is North Africa’s tiniest nation, but travelling across it can make you feel like you have traversed an entire continent. From the golden beaches fringing the Mediterranean through lush rolling pastures, olive groves give way to a desert borderland of gently flopping date palms, before melting into the vast silky Sahara. And it’s this fusion of cultivated land and untamed desert that has shaped the country’s entire history, remaining etched across its landscape to this day in the form of ancient ruins, most prominently those of the Romans, who built their monuments to last.

It is the reason Carthage became the greatest of the ancient Phoenician trading cities. Its merchant princes grew rich supplying the western Mediterranean with exotica arriving from central Africa. Gold, ivory, ebony, ostrich feathers, slaves, and much else would arrive in camel caravans, guided in their thousand-mile trek through the wilderness by leatherfaced tribesmen who knew the desert and its oases and hazards from childhood.

You can still see the wreckage of Carthage in the rich suburbs of modern-day Tunis, where visible archaeological layers bear testimony to the final days of chaos and carnage in 146BC as the soldiers of the Roman Republic broke into the city after a three-year siege and destroyed it utterly. Once conquest was achieved, Carthage rose again as the jewel in the crown of Rome’s North African empire. Today, visitors can see the baths and amphitheatre, and, most interestingly, two Punic ports, which were built by the Carthaginians then reinvented by the Romans. The arrangement remained the same: the military port was accessible through the commercial so it remained doubly defended, and the port outlines, still lapped by the searing blue sea, are clearly visible.

From Carthage, the Romans gradually spread across the country: settling in, building grand villas, one-upping their neighbours in interior design, and constructing temples, theatres and enormous bathing complexes. Aqueducts drilled the landscape, monumental architecture filled the towns, and underfoot polychrome mosaics told tales of gods and heroes, satyrs and maenads, gladiators and race horses. The relics of this illustrious Roman outpost are dotted across the landscape: of the 600 plus Roman cities, some are yet to be excavated.

To the west of Tunis in the northern hills, the astonishingly well-preserved and extensively excavated hilltop settlement of Dougga reached its cultural apex in the 2nd century, and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s an easy leap of the imagination to see this as a living settlement: the town overlooks the rolling cornfields of a rich agricultural landscape that supported a thriving Roman population. The ruins include a 3,500-capacity theatre, more than 21 temples, a forum, and a fine set of Roman baths.

Another distinctly curious site is the nearby former Roman settlement of Bulla Regia, where you can see how Romans adapted themselves to the climate. In Matmata, in Tunisia’s deep south, the local Berbers burrowed underground, building themselves troglodyte houses to escape the summer heat. The same principle has been followed here, where the Romans built their houses at an underground level several degrees cooler than the surface rooms. Typically Roman, the villas are large and elegant, complete with colonnades – but partly submerged. This site supplies the unusual experience of walking into a completely intact Roman room, which brings ancient life astonishingly close. There are seven excavated villas, and as you descend into each, you’ll feel a distinct drop in temperature. One of the most lavish is the House of the Hunt, with mosaic-floored dining room, latrines, and a private hammam – all of which show the kind of lifestyle the Romans in Africa enjoyed, even in their burrows.

In central Tunisia, about two hours’ drive south of Tunis, lays one of North Africa’s most impressive Roman sites: the mighty stadium of El Djem towers over the surrounding town. Built between AD230 and 238, its 35-metre-high tiers would have held 30,000 spectators, which was considerably more than the population of the town. Like the Coliseum in Rome, the stage was set over underground passageways, which served as dank green rooms for the unlucky lions, gladiators and assorted unfortunates who made up the day’s entertainments.

Finish off your classical tour with a visit to the incredible Bardo Museum in Tunis, which puts everything into perspective. Housed in a beautiful palace, which dates from the 13th century but was rebuilt in the 17th, the museum contains many of the artistic treasures that were found on the myriad scattered Roman sites. It’s full of mosaics, so well preserved they look as if they were created a few months, rather than millennia ago. Some of the finest pieces include an expressive mosaic of Ulysses and the Sirens; the ‘Lord Julius mosaic’, showing life on an African-Roman country estate; and the only contemporary portrait of the Roman poet Virgil. There are also some magnificent statues from Carthage.

Looking closely at the ruins of ancient Tunisia – its archaeology, architecture and art – tells the entire story of the rise and fall of antiquity’s greatest empire. And even better, as Tunisia lies decidedly off the archaeology beaten track, you’ll have all this rich history and classical sites to yourself.

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