TRAVEL REVIEW: Majesties of Ancient Carthage

EL Djem
EL Djem
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It’s half an hour before dawn in Kairouan and the hypnotic call to prayer from the Great Mosque has just broken a solid slumber that was induced by the busy day before.

The soothing chant of the muezzin will broadcast from the minarets for a while longer, before shafts of light pierce the louvre window shutters and sketch lines on whitewashed walls, in a final reminder it is time to get up.

A busy day awaits, not least visiting the source of the aural scriptures. The building is Africa’s most important Islamic location and sits only behind Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem in the faith’s pecking order of holiest sites.

From Kairouan, I head south-east to El Djem, along miles of straight road, flanked by palm trees and olive groves, with seemingly-endless scrubland beyond.

Destination is the town’s wondrous Roman amphitheatre, built on the low plains between Sousse and Sfax.

“What have the Romans ever done for us?” the Pythons once asked ironically. Well, there was this for a start, for it vies for the title of largest colosseum outside Italy’s capital.

Left alone with your imagination, you begin to contemplate what match days were like, when 30,000 home spectators bayed for blood over gladiatorial combat.

The opposition didn’t bring many dissenting voices in those days and most fixtures ended with a home win for Caesar’s lot.

No doubt the regulars still departed for a swift half and grumbles about what might have been, before reading a detailed transcript of their afternoon in an ancient-world equivalent of the Green Un. That really must have been the original tablet edition.

El Djem’s magnificence sort of typifies Tunisia, a little-talked-of treasure of great significance, in a country that perhaps hasn’t fully grasped selling itself. The result is slight tourism naivety, which also means many sites are pleasantly spacious.

The Romans did Tunisia big time and it is their influence that remains strongest. The Unesco World Heritage site at Dougga is one of the continent’s most impressive relics, its theatre and temples stunning examples of the empire’s opulent capabilities. I might have been unlucky with the weather but this sprawling mass takes on an eerie quality under brooding skies.

There are many other Roman ruins; the temples of Sufetula, the huge aqueduct near Uthina, the mighty capitole at Thuburbo Majus, the underground mosaics at Bulla Regia.

It’s impossible not to contemplate the rise and fall of the mighty empire, the legacy of which is probably felt more than any other. For as well as the obvious, there’s the little things. The typeface of the words you are reading is a direct descendant of one carved in stone by the Romans before Christ was a lad.

Maybe the most significant Roman history lesson comes in Carthage. Now a trendy suburb of the capital Tunis, in the sixth century BC it was a Phoenician trading centre that dominated the Mediterranean. Three Punic wars followed and Carthage was finally rebranded a Roman city by Julius Caesar in 44BC.

Bizarrely, the two sides only called it quits in 1985, when the mayors of Carthage and Rome finally signed a symbolic peace treaty, almost two millenia after fighting ceased.

Tunisia’s past can be a complex journey through the Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Berbers, Abbasids, Umayyads, Fatimids, Zirids, Almohads, Andalusians and the Ottomans. Phew! Then there was French rule, the battlefields of World War II and independence in 1956.

The result of all this conflict, invasion and dictatorship is that Tunisia remains a cultural mix of finely-blended inheritance. Add in the religious cocktail of Christianity, Judaism and Islam and the result is even more fascinating.

Nowhere are these factors more beguiling than the medinas, the vibrant mazes of sights, sounds and smells, where the top pastime is nothing more elaborate than a casual wander through the souq.

The Tunis medina is thick with the fruity smell of sheesha pipes and coffee so strong you could stand a spoon in it.

To avoid being wired by the caffeine hit, try mint tea. However, it’s best to ask for an unsweetened version, because the sugar rush from a regular glass could leave you bouncing off the ceiling for most of the afternoon.

Gabes spice market offers whiffs of cumin, paprika and saffron, where perfect accompaniment for aroma is the sound of malouf, Tunisia’s traditional music that harks back to 15th-century Andalusian refugees.

The medina in Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city, is a delight, where older men amble past wearing a chachia, a maroon hat similar to a fez.

Surrounded by warm Mediterranean waters, the island escape of Jerba offers meandering respite from the rigours of the mainland. Main town Houmt Souq is awash with cafes, carpet stalls and craft traders.

Driving west from Matmata, we clipped the northern edge of the Sahara, the one desert everyone knows and where the Berbers introduced camels to these lands in the fourth century. Herds of these animals can still be seen roaming about and one crossed our path. They’re a bizarre creature, a kind of horse designed by committee.

Renowned for its emptiness, the desert covers nine million sq km yet only 11 per cent is dusted by sand.

Close to Tozeur is the lunar-like salt lake of Chott El Jerid, an odd, desolate scene that spreads for 5,000 sq km. Stand still and you are struck by the eerie silence. Move and the only audible accompaniment is a crunching of sand beneath your feet.

The quiet belies the natural power of this place. Fail to respect the desert and it will be merciless in its consumption of your body, mind and soul.

So apart from the mosaics, the amphitheatres, the desert, the Mosques, the medinas, the culture, the history and the food, what have the Tunisians ever got for us?

It’s probably best to go find out for yourself... just be sure to rise early, because your days will be full ones.