Ancient Phoenicia

By Ethan Gelber with the BikeAbout team
Great Explorers
The Phoenicians are fabled for their role in the gathering, improvement, and dissemination of goods and ideas in the Mediterranean. It is a part that suited them well since their career calling in trade brought them in contact with so many people. Over the more than 3000 years of their tumultuous existence, they established vital communities all along the Levantine coast, in Cyprus, Malta, Sardinia, Sicily, along the North African coast, the Balearic Islands and the southern Spanish coast, and even as far away as the Atlantic Coast of Morocco. The Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II (610-595 BC) is recorded as having supported a Phoenician-led circumnavigation of Africa... 2100 years before Portugal's Bartolomeu Dias first rounded the Cape of Good Hope! Hannon, a Phoenician from the city of Carthage, repeated this feat in the mid-5th century BC. There is evidence today that these same Carthaginians may have pushed as far afield as the Azores and Britain.

According to legend made popular by Virgil's Aeneid, in the 9th century BC, Princess Elyssa-Dido fled from her brother, Pygmalion, king of Tyre, when he killed her husband. She ended up settling in Tunisia and, thanks to her sharp mind and an ingenious trick, founded Carthage (a modern deformation of the original Phoenician Kart Hadasht, meaning"the new town"). When she landed on the site of what was to be the city, the local population agreed to give her a plot of land on the condition that its area be no greater than that of a cowhide. Dido agreed but then had the hide cut into a large number of very thin strips, which she then used to demarcate a huge area. Thus Carthage was born.

Throughout its busy history, Carthage has been built and destroyed many times. Although little remains, one can still get a sense of what attracted Elyssa-Dido there in the first place. On a triangular peninsula of low rolling hills, the coastal knoll known as Byrsa rises above the Lake of Tunis, a protected harbor teeming with fish. To the south, the mainland's Cap Bon thrusts far into the Mediterranean, its furthest-most point just 62 miles from Sicily!

Considering that the Phoenicians were famous traders and seamen, it is no surprise that ancient Carthage relied on the sea for its livelihood. With its strategic position not far from Sicily and the Northern Mediterranean (the coast of southern Europe), Carthage eventually became a huge maritime and trading empire, encompassing much of North Africa, Sicily, and Spain. In fact, by the 5th century BC, Carthage was the largest of all existing Mediterranean ports and played a considerable part in the life of the Mediterranean world. Carthage minted its own coins and produced cloths, ceramics, glassware, arms and woodworks. And, just as goods were circulated through the Mediterranean via Carthage, so too were many ideas that stimulated technical and industrial progress.

By the 3rd Century BC, Carthage's supremacy worried the rising Roman Republic. The subsequent rivalry between these two great powers resulted in three wars, known to us as the Punic wars. The First Punic War, 264-241 BC saw Carthage lose some of its territory on the islands of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia. During the Second Punic War, which began in 218 BC, the famous Carthaginian General Hannibal used Carthage's expansion into Spain as the base for a bold invasion of Roman Italy. To the Roman's amazement, he marched his army, complete with elephants through the Alps to northern Italy. In two decisive battles, Hannibal soundly defeated the Romans. Unfortunately for Hannibal and Carthage, despite winning practically every battle, he never captured Rome itself, and the Romans were able to rally and win the war. When the Second Punic ended, in 201 BC, Carthage had lost all its territory in Italy, Sicily and Spain, and was forced to sign a humiliating treaty: Carthage had to pay heavy reparation to the Romans to cover the expenses of the war, as well as order the exile of Carthage's greatest general, Hannibal.

Defeated but not destroyed, Carthage soon bounced back. Despite its loss of territory, Carthage again began to flourish. Rome, however, had no intention of allowing Carthage to regain its past strength, and there were some who began to envision the total and final destruction of the Carthaginian Empire. Cato the Elder, a leading politician at the time in the Roman Republic, started the cry,"Delenda est Cathago" ("Carthage must be destroyed").

By 149 BC, the last and shortest Punic War had begun. It ended with the complete destruction of Carthage by a Roman army in 146 BC after ten days and ten nights of fierce fighting, fires, and carnage. Determined never to face a Punic threat again, the Romans burnt the entire city to the ground, buried the structural remains, and covered everything in salt so that not even plants would grow there again. The Romans even tried to obliterate the memory of Carthage by deporting any survivors and forbidding any references to the Punic capital. The Carthaginian civilization had been destroyed. Nevertheless, artists, writers, and musicians have done much to preserve the myths and legends of Carthage, incorporating its history into art, literature and song.

The Romans, however, did not leave North Africa. Instead they established the Roman province of Africa with its capital at Utica. They even tried to set up a new city on the site of the original Carthage, using the debris as a foundation. Although this new settlement never took root, others did. Over the next three centuries the area formerly known as the Punic Empire again rose to prominence, but this time under the control of the Romans. Carthage once again became one of the most important cities in the southern Mediterranean. The remains now found at Carthage are from this time period.

Although the most impressive ruins found in modern day Carthage date from this Roman period - like the theater, and the Antonine Baths, a huge complex of public baths built in the 2nd century AD - remains of the once great Carthaginian civilization can be found.

The remnants of the Punic port, or Cothon, are perhaps the best-preserved vestige of the Carthaginian period. Artists' renditions of what the port looked like show a large circular building constructed in the middle of a round, interior, man-made naval port. This basin still exists as a shallow pond with no trace of the central wooden boat shed. In this building, boats were stored, loaded and unloaded. Over 220 boats could be stored at one time! The outer port was a rectangular trade center for merchant ships. the buildings associated with both were destroyed in the 3rd Punic war, but proof of their immense scale and sophistication are suggested by the surviving bodies of water.

By far the spookiest place in Carthage is the Tophet - the ancient sanctuary to the goddess Tanit. Hundreds of Carthaginian steles (headstones) have been collected in the craters and in a vaulted cellar found in a small square filled with wild grass. Legend has it that this location was used for the ritual sacrifice of Carthaginian children to the god Baal Hammon. There are even"guillotine stones" where children are said to have been beheaded before being thrown into the flames in front of their upset though willing parents. This story is believed to have been created in order to attract tourists (and in fact it is inspired by a chapter of Flaubert's book Salammbt).

The remaining ruins collected from throughout Carthage's history are housed in a museum located at the top of Byrsa, the hill that was at the heart of the original city of Carthage. Room after room surprises the visitor with the scope and wealth of this Phoenician capital. Recent excavations between the summit of Byrsa and the port - corresponding to the heart of the city have uncovered foundations layered one on top of the other, the oldest dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC. The layout of the oldest, similar to the one at Kerkouane, is surprisingly rectilinear. Houses were decorated in with stuccoes and mosaics, and even had pipes for water drainage.

All of this and a population of between 400,000 and 700,000 people were contained within the city walls, which are believed to have been 22 miles long and sometimes as considerable as 40 feet high and 30 feet thick.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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