Ancient Phoenicia

Other North African Cities
By Ethan Gelber with the BikeAbout Team
Ruins at Kerkouane
Ruins at Kerkouane are the best"surviving" example of a Phoenician city (BikeAbout)
Phoenician Trade Skills
With the hindsight we have today, the Phoenician trade in knowledge was almost more important than any exchange of goods. Wood and ivory carving were Phoenician specialties and skills in these areas, as well as in gold- and metalsmithery, were shared widely. Knowledge of glassblowing, an invention believed to have originated in coastal Phoenicia, also spread far and wide. Of course, the marine and navigational tricks they protected couldn't be kept secret forever either. In fact, the Phoenicians should be thought of as the intuitive adventurers who first and finally put long-known barometric and astronomical theory into practice. They knew the winds, the currents and weather of the Mediterranean like no other. They are also believed to have"discovered" Polaris (the Pole Star) and used it as a navigational aid. Finally, one of their great scholars, Magnon, is considered to be one of the earliest agronomists in the world. His 28-volume treatise on agriculture was widely read and consulted by contemporaneous people of all cultures.

The dominance of Carthage in the latter centuries of the Phoenician influence in the Mediterranean result in the founding of several other cities in the nearby coastal areas.

Near the tip of the Cap Bon peninsula, not too far from Carthage, lie the ruins of the ancient Punic city of Kerkouane. Although little is known about the town itself, it is of great importance to historians and archaeologists as the only known Phoenicio-Punic city to have survived the destructive wrath of Rome at the end of the Punic Wars. Though it lacks any the impressive larger structures - none of the walls is over five feet high and the tallest thing standing is a solitary pillar - Kerkouane seems in some ways better preserved. It is as if someone has cut off all the roofs (and second stories) from the buildings, but left the walls and doorways intact. The exact floor plan of every house, and the exact rectilinear layout of the entire city, is otherwise intact.

Perhaps the best preserved part of the site, and that which gave the most insight into how the ancient Phoenicians lived, are the various bathing facilities. Some bathhouses still contain complete mosaics and full sized bathtubs.

The artifacts inside the Kerkouane museum provided another view of Punic life. The coins, lamps, vases, and jewelry - most crafted with intricate designs - gave some notion of the"things" that this ancient civilization valued. The artifacts were also impressive because they show just how interconnected the Mediterranean and its people have always been. The Phoenician inhabitants of Kerkouane had among their possessions items that showed the obvious influence of other great ancient civilizations, for example, pieces of jewelry with Egyptian motifs, and a striking Grecian style vase that depicts a scene from The Odyssey.

Further down today's Tunisian coast is the modern city of Sousse. Somewhere under this city are buried the ruins of the once prosperous Punic port of Hadrumet. Second only to Carthage in trade, Hadrumet grew quickly thanks to its excellent natural harbor. It was to Hadrumet that Hannibal retreated after his defeat by Rome in the Second Punic War. Although Rome initially spared Hadrumet from total destruction after the Third Punic War (the city had sided with Rome), most of the city was reduced to rubble. And whatever survived was pulled town in the 3rd century AD when the city rebelled.

Elsewhere in North Africa, there is evidence of western coastal Carthaginian settlements at Tipasa (east of Cherchell, Algeria), Lixus (near Larache, Morocco), and even as far as Mogador (Essaouira, Morocco). In the distant east were small coastal emporia (from the Greek describing seaside markets where native populations engaged in trade) like early Leptis Magna, Sabratha and Oea (later Tripoli) all on today's Libyan Gulf of Sidra. Along the Tunisian coast, many permanent settlements thrived including Tacape (Gabhs), Neapolis (Nabeul), and Hippo Diarrhytus (Bizerte). Nothing remains of the original settlements.

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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