Tunis, ancient history in a cosmopolitan capital

Tunis may well be the ancient capital of Carthage, but it is also the cosmopolitan capital city of modern-day Tunisia. Overlooking the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, brilliant white buildings luminous under the intense sun, the city has many fascinating districts that provide endless opportunities for exploration. Picturesque Sidi Bou Said, upscale La Marsa, the site of ancient Carthage, and the astounding medieval medina in the heart of the city, combine to make this a place to spend several days.

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Medina, Tunis, Tunisia

Alas, I had little time to do them justice, spending only a morning in the medina and an afternoon on the coast in Carthage and Sidi Bou Said. The glories of the Bardo Museum were off limits, it was Monday and it was closed. I’ve seen the world’s largest collection of Roman mosaics before, but I’d have liked the chance to see its stunning collection of ancient artefacts again. It gives you a real sense of the history, from ancient Carthage onwards, that forged the modern city.

The birth place of Hannibal (famed for his elephant exploits), Carthage once controlled North Africa and the southern half of the Iberian Peninsular. Three Punic Wars against Rome (264 – 146 BC) would ultimately decide the fate of both the city and the region. Carthage was mercilessly put to the sword by Roman general Scipio in 149BC at the end of the third Punic War. While he burned the city to the ground, destroyed the walls and sold 50,000 Carthaginians into slavery, he almost certainly didn’t salt the land.

This corner of the Mediterranean was the epicentre of the ancient world, the centuries of battle for supremacy between Carthage and Rome one of the defining periods in the history of Western civilisation. It’s worth pondering upon what the world might look like today if Rome had lost the struggle for hegemony over the Mediterranean – we’d probably be eating less pasta and a lot more hummus and harissa. No bad thing to my mind.

In its medieval heyday between the 12th and 16th centuries, Tunis was one of the most important and wealthiest cities in the Mediterranean. During this time the 8th century medina thrived, its maze-like streets filled with palaces, mosques, shops and cafes. In its narrow, atmospheric alleyways, you can (literally and metaphorically) lose yourself. There are over seven hundred historic monuments within the medina, just one reason UNESCO has given it World Heritage status.

It’s impossible to not find yourself lost at some point when you’re weaving through the medina, but that is part of the joy of it. There’s an official walking tour and useful maps, which is fine if you manage to stay on the route. Otherwise, trust to luck and the help of strangers to find your way back to something recognisable. I spent most of the morning in the medina, afterwards I made my way back to the Place de la Victoire and the TGM metro, which takes you to the suburbs of Carthage and Sidi Bou Said – yes, Carthage is a suburb.

I jumped off to visit the eerie Salammbo Tophet, a cemetery where the Carthaginians are believed to have sacrificed children. Tombstones with human figures carved onto them litter the ground have. The claims of ritual child sacrifice were disputed as Greek or Roman propaganda until recently, when research (more or less) conclusively proved it to be true. It was a relief to leave and I set off for a walk through the streets to reach Cathédrale Saint Louis de Carthage, which sits at the heart of ancient Carthage.

Cathédrale Saint Louis de Carthage, Tunis, Tunisia

Cathédrale Saint Louis de Carthage, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

A visit here deserves more time, but I saw a number of Carthaginian and Roman ruins in the archeological park before hopping on the train to my final destination of the day, Sidi Bou Said. If you’ve ever seen a tourist brochure photo of Tunisia, this picturesque blue and white village overlooking the sea was likely featured, and with good reason. Home to an artistic community and several good restaurants and cafes, it makes for a restful place to watch the sunset and to contemplate the reasons why someone would return to Tunisia.

A Tunisian road trip remembered

It was early, still dark, as the taxi took me from my Tunis hotel to the airport close to what remains of the ancient city of Carthage. We drove in silence, as much because of language difficulties as the unsociable hour. There was no other traffic on the roads, and there was just a hint of sunlight on the horizon as a dark coloured van pulled out of a side street and slipped close behind us. The driver looked in his mirror and, with what can only be described as disdain in his voice, said, “Les flics”.

It was like being in a French film noir. The police followed us for a couple of kilometres before deciding we were of no interest to them, and I was deposited at the airport to catch my flight to the famed island of Djerba. After spending several days in Tunis at various meetings, I was escaping to explore the other-worldly landscapes and cultures of southern Tunisia. There’s a good reason that this is where the Star Wars films were shot, it’s an extraordinary place that really does feel like another planet.

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tatouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tatouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tunisia

Door in the Souk, Tunis, Tunisia

Door in the Souk, Tunis, Tunisia

Ksar Guermassa, Tunisia

Ksar Guermassa, Tunisia

Fish market, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Djerba, Tunisia

I had a vague plan involving picking up a hire car in Djerba and plotting a course south and inland towards Tataouine – Star Wars references are everywhere in this area. This is Berber country, their unique culture and history can been seen dotted throughout the region’s landscape. In particular, the fortified granaries and villages known as ksar, although often referred to as ‘Berber castles’. Their striking architecture makes them a ‘must see’, but since they merge seamlessly with the landscape that’s easier said than done.

The extremes of living amongst these beautiful and severe landscapes have meant the human population has had to adapt to survive. Here you’ll find underground cave dwellings and caves hacked from rugged hillsides. Homes designed to be cool in the ferocious heat of summer, yet warm in the bitter cold nighttime of the desert winter. Many of these traditional communities have now been abandoned for modern housing in ‘new’ villages a short distant from the original, but some still have inhabitants.

At both Douirette and Chenini, as well as plenty of other smaller places, I’d find myself exploring alone. It doesn’t take much of an active imagination to imagine yourself as a latter day Indiana Jones; it was a little spooky at times, the quiet desert landscape accentuating every single noise as I nosed through abandoned homes. Without people, many of these former villages have fallen into ruin, but some, like Chenini, are being renovated with the hope of a tourist influx.

If these old Berber settlements weren’t atmospheric enough, on a whim I decided to experience a couple of days in the ‘real’ desert of the Grand Erg Oriental. This vast sandy void of over 40,000kmin Tunisia alone is part of the Sahara Desert, and home to Berber communities and oases. It has to be seen to be believed, and was probably worth the freak accident that saw me crash my hire car in the desert about 60km from the town of Douz.

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Douirette, Tunisia

Douirette, Tunisia

Beni Barka, Tunisia

Beni Barka, Tunisia

Mosque on Djerba, Tunisia

Mosque on Djerba, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Happily, I was able to walk away from the accident with the help of three Tunisian men who had been camping in the desert. The same could not be said for the car, which was towed back to Djerba to be used for scrap metal and spare parts. Apart from the shock of the accident, it meant I was stuck in the desert without my own transport 500km from where I needed to be get my flight back to Tunis. I found a driver willing to take me to the oasis of Ksar Ghilane and then on to Djerba.

Rather than spend time on Djerba at the start of my trip, I planned to have a refreshing couple of days on the island on my return from the heat and dust of the desert. The car crash had put me behind schedule. In the end, I only had a day to explore this attractive place. It was a shame, but my flight back to Tunis was booked and time had run out. The beguiling landscapes and friendly people of southern Tunisia will remain with me for a long time though.