topics: olives, economy, Carthage, HISTORY, Phoenicians, Punic Wars, architecture, hammams (baths); jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: October 23, 1997

Breakfast: Today we breakfasted on our usual pastries. We had a long day planned and did not want to run out of energy.

Lunch: Between visits of hugely important sites, we snacked on bread and cheese.

Dinner: After our heavy dose of history, Ethan, Padraic, and Anthony left andrEa and Corinne in downtown Tunis to search out vegetarian food. Back at their home away from home, the guys were invited to Mongi's next-door neighbor's house for dinner (Mongi's brother- and sister-in-law live there with their family), where they helped clean up the leftovers from the family's evening meal. They started with a pasta salad (made with conchigliette, or little shell-shaped pasta) served in a simple but spicy tomato sauce. But their appetites were unstoppable. Seeing that they were still hungry, Mongi's sister-in-law heated up some fried rice (leftovers from yet another meal). That seemed to hit the spot. For dessert, they enjoyed fresh pomegranates and mint tea. When the BikeAbout boys headed home, they were confidant that there were no leftovers remaining in the house.

Food of the Day: Olives

The Mighty Olive is our food of the day. Olives are an amazing fruit and have been adopted by the BikeAbout team as its official comfort food. In fact, as you have no doubt seen, an "olive count" has been instituted as part of our daily Fast Facts. As the team travels around the Mediterranean, everything will change — the scenery, the languages spoken, the foods eaten, the cultural customs. That is, everything but the olive. While olives originated farther to the east, Romans brought olive trees, olive cultivation, and oil extraction expertise to all the Mediterranean countries. The history of the olive then is bound up with that of the Mediterranean region.

Since olives arrived in Tunisia (with the Romans), they have played an important role in the economy. So important that the Romans even named El Jem (a city in southern Tunisia that we will visit) their "olive oil capital." Little has changed. Today, in Tunisia, there are over 2,000 olive presses, 55 million olive trees (planted in vast olive groves), and olive production represents over 3% of all of Tunisia's foreign sales. There is little chance that the BikeAbout team will be able to eat all the olives in Tunisia, though they have every intention of trying . . .

Word of the Day: Alhamdeleelah — "I hope that you have eaten well"

An equivalent phrase does not really exist in English. Alhamdeleelah click to hear an audio clip is uttered after a meal and means "I hope that you have eaten well." It is used as the counterpart to yesterday's Word of the Day, shuhia taiba, which means "Enjoy your meal."

Person of the Day: Phoenician Princess Elyssa Dido

Phoenician Princess Elyssa Dido has the honor of being the founder of Carthage. According to legend, in the 8th century BC, Elyssa Dido fled west from her brother Pygmalion, the king of Tyre (an area of land equivalent to today's Lebanon), when he killed her husband. She ended up settling in today's Tunisia and founded Carthage (see the Place of the Day) thanks to her sharp mind and an ingenious trick. When she landed on the site of what was to be Carthage, the local population agreed to give her a plot of land on the condition that its size be no greater than that of a cowhide. Dido agreed but then had the hide cut into a large number of extremely thin strips, which she then used to outline a huge area. This area then became Carthage.

Place of the Day: Carthage visit the World Heritage Site page click to view a photograph

Carthage is our focus today. To attempt to sum up over 3,000 years of history in one dispatch is a big job, but this is what happens in today's group dispatch.

Group Dispatch, October 23

picture of Anthony

Today was an action- and history-packed day, full of elephants crossing Alps, Punic and Roman ruins, and visits to museums. We started with the ancient city of Carthage, moved on to its museum, Punic port, Antonine Baths, and Tophet, and then carried on to the Center for Arab and Mediterranean Music in the nearby town of Sidi Bou Saïd. By the end of the day we had a better idea of what Carthage was and how it was significant in the context of our modern world. We also understood a little better what life was like during the many chapters of Carthage's history . . .

The day began at Carthage. visit the World Heritage Site pageclick to view a photograph Finding ourselves at the site of so many significant historical events was a little overwhelming for the BikeAbout team, but exploring the nearby museum click to view a photograph and walking around the ruins helped us begin to put everything into perspective (and justify taking time to goof around a bit click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph).

One of our first revelations was that there were many different Carthages. It almost seems that throughout history, Carthage has continually been built up only to be destroyed, again and again. In a sense this pattern has continued even into modern times.

Around 814 BC (more than 2,800 years ago!), the first Carthage was founded by our Person of the Day, the Phoenician Princess Elyssa Dido, on a peninsula that projects from the African continent into the Mediterranean Sea. So close to Europe — the tip of the peninsula, Cap Bon, located on the other side of the Gulf of Carthage, is only 100 km (62 mi) from Sicily! — and with colonies and trading partners throughout the Mediterranean, Carthage benefitted from a vast market for the goods it traded, and so it grew in importance. In fact, especially considering that the Phoenicians were famous traders and seamen who relied on the nearby sea for their livelihood, Carthage eventually became a huge maritime and trading empire, encompassing much of North Africa, Sicily, and Spain. 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 click to view a photograph, glassware, arms, and woodworks. Its Phoenician people became known as the Punic or Carthaginian civilization.

Just as goods were circulated through the Mediterranean via Carthage, so too were many ideas. The Punic civilization helped stimulate technical and industrial progress, and widened the scope of the Mediterranean world. One of the more famous Carthaginians, 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 both the Greeks and the Romans! Some of Carthage's most famous explorers, like Hamilcar and Hannon, eager to create new commercial markets for Carthage, explored the coast of Africa. Hannon eventually succeeded in sailing completely around the African continent, over 2,100 years before the European explorers did and Columbus sailed across the Atlantic!

But back to the city of Carthage. Other than the sometimes-confusing tangle of exposed stone foundations visible in what is called the Byrsa Quater, on the grounds of the National Museum, some of the most impressive remains of this once great civilization are the ruins of the two Punic ports. The first, a trading port, was rectangular click to view a photograph, while the second was a man-made circular military port. click to view a photograph Artists' renditions click to view a photograph of what the port looked like show how a large circular building was constructed in the middle of the interior, round, military port. In this building, boats were stored (as many as 220 of them at one time), loaded, and unloaded. Both ports were destroyed in the Third Punic war (see below), but proof of their immense scale and sophistication is still visible in the ruins.

By the third Century BC, Carthage's supremacy worried the rising Roman Republic. The subsequent rivalry between these two great powers resulted in the not one, not two, but 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. click to view a photograph

During the Second Punic War, which began in 218 BC, the famous Carthagian General Hannibal click to view a photograph used Carthage's expansion into Spain as the base for a bold invasion of Roman Italy. To the Romans's amazement, he marched his army, complete with elephants (it's hard to imagine a more unlikely place to take elephants) through the Alps to northern Italy. In two decisive battles, Hannibal soundly defeated the Romans. The Carthaginians seemed to have won! Unfortunately for Hannibal and Carthage, despite emerging victorious from practically every battle and spending years in Italy, Hannibal 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 click to view a photograph, and was forced to sign a humiliating treaty: Carthage had to make heavy payments 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. Carthage's renewed power began to worry the Romans who had already begun to envision the total and final destruction of the Carthaginian empire. Cato the Elder, a leading politican at the time in the Roman Republic, began incessantly call out, "Delenda est Cathago" ("Carthage must be destroyed").

By 149 BC, the last and shortest Third 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. click to view a photograph 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 Utique (also called Utica). They even tried to set up a new city on the site of the original Carthage, but this new settlement never took root.

However, by the first century AD, the Romans decided to reorganize their holdings in North Africa and develop colonies there for veterans of the Roman legions. As part of this reorganization, Augustus Caesar ordered the rebuilding of a new Roman town on the ruins of ancient Carthage. The new Roman city, which became the capital of the province, was known as Colonia Julia Concordia. The Romans literally built this "new" city on the remnants of the Punic city, using the debris as a foundation. click to view a photograph

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. And, because Rome relied so heavily on the grain and olive oil (see the Food of the Day) grown in the region, Carthage once again became one of the most important cities in the southern Mediterranean, if not the whole Roman Empire. Most of the ruins found in modern-day Carthage, particularly those of the Byrsa Quarter, date from this Roman period. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph Since they were great builders and engineers, the Romans constructed an impressive infrastructure of roads, aqueducts, and large public buildings.

The most notable vestiges of the Roman era in Carthage are the Antonine Baths click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, a huge complex of public baths built in the second century AD. One of the columns that held up the frigidarium (cold pool) still stands to give an idea of the overall grandeur. Rising to 15 meters, eight such columns were necessary to support the massive vaulted roof. In addition to the cold room, there was a warm room (tepidarium) and hot room (calidarium). And just in case the Romans who used this were not clean after all of this, there was a large outdoor swimming pool too!

But that is just the beginning of the story of Carthage. It would not be fair to say that Carthage's history encompasses only the Punic wars and Roman occupation. For a full century, Carthage was held by the Vandals, and then became Byzantine under Belisarius. The Arabs were the next to conquer Carthage. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, Carthage survived the French colonial period, World War II, and, finally, the independence of Tunisia.

But even as times have changed, practices have remained the same. Throughout the centuries, most of the ruins of Carthage were scavenged for building material for Tunis and other Mediterranean towns. More recently, the creation of the railway line from Tunis to Carthage has allowed the district to become more urbanized, thus modern Carthage has been built on the ruins of ancient Carthage yet again.

By far the spookiest place in Carthage (which reminded us of the burial grounds at Utica) is the Tophet — the ancient sanctuary to the goddess Tanit. The Tophet is located in a small square filled with wild grass. Hundreds of Carthaginian steles (headstones) click to view a photograph have been collected in the craters and in a vaulted cellar. 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 (Supposedly they refused to do their homework) before being thrown into the flames in front of their upset though willing parents. The reality is that this story was probably fabricated (inspired by a chapter of Gustave Flaubert's book Salammbõ) in order to attract tourists.

But enough about history.

After touring the Carthaginian ruins, the BikeAbout team biked passed the Presidential Palace (no pictures allowed!) on the way to Sidi Bou Saïd, a beautiful whitewashed town at the end of the peninsula. click to view a photograph There, we toured there the Center for Arab and Mediterranean Music, located in a beautiful house that faces the Bay of Tunis (once known as the Bay of Carthage). This house is considered one of the best-known examples of classic Arabian architecture. A certain Baron d'Erlanger, an artist and lover of culture, who also endowed his extensive music collection to the Center, designed and built the house, which took 11 years to construct!. Baron d'Erlanger was a huge fan of Arabian architecture, music, literature, and culture. He was such a fan of music that over a lifetime of study, he wrote a six-volume treatise on Arabic music. His love for the Arab world is also evident in his paintings. The Baron used his influence in Europe and North America to attempt to increase awareness of the Arab world.

The curator of the Center, Mr. Mounir Hentati, gave the BikeAbout team an excellent, informative tour. In addition to learning about the Center, the team discussed with him the uses of the Internet as a research tool. He is searching for information about privately owned paintings by Baron d'Erlanger. If you have one or know about the others, please write Mr. Hentati at:

Palais du Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger
8 rue due 2 Mars 1934
2026 Sidi Bou Saïd TUNSIA.

Mr. Hentati is looking forward to the day that he can get connected to the Internet and use its research capabilities. (Remember, only in the last few months has it been possible for individuals to get Internet access in Tunisia!)

After this long and grueling day of sightseeing, Ethan, Padraic, and Anthony decided to visit a hammam. A hammam is a public bathhouse that operates on a similar principle as the ancient Roman baths (like the Antonine Baths we visited today). The hammam we visited is one of the oldest in the historic Medina of Tunis. We stripped down to our swimsuits and moved through a series of rooms — all with high whitewashed vaulted ceilings and tiled walls — that progressively became warmer and warmer. In the last warm room (known as the tepidarium in Roman times), we paused and let our bodies get accustomed to the heat. Then we moved into the hot room (calidarium) where we filled buckets with very hot water. Traditionally there were huge wood fires under the calidarium that kept the water, floors, and benches hot. Now, however, modern gas furnaces do the work. We sat in this room for a while, our feet floating in buckets of water, letting our bodies sweat out all the dirt and road grime we had acquired over the previous month. We then moved back to the warm room, where we had a massage. Our massage was actually a brisk rubdown with a coarse hand towel. We basically lost an entire layer of skin, but we are pretty sure that it was mostly composed of dirt. (In Ethan's case, we discovered that almost all of what we thought was a tan was accumulated dirt!) Then we went into private rooms where we were able to wash off. The final step was to dump a bucket of cold water over our heads (this substituted for the frigidarium), after which we made our way back to the front room, where our clothes were waiting. Before getting dressed we rested on mats laid out on the floor for this purpose (a good thing too, since by this point we could hardly stand). After dressing and winding our way out of the Medina, we were ready for bed and little else. The hammam was the perfect end to a perfect day of sightseeing.

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